Outside law firm investigates complaints against county manager

When St Johns County Commissioner Jeb Smith was contacted separately by two individuals seeking to report complaints that County Administrator Michael Wanchick made inappropriate gender specific comments towards women and derogatory comments offensive to persons in the workplace who might be overweight, he took the information to County Attorney Patrick McCormack.

Attorney Michael J. Roper, partner in Bell & Roper, P.A., conducted the independent employment investigation on behalf of St. Johns County regarding allegations brought forward by a current county employee and a former county employee of workplace harassment and discrimination by Wanchick.

“In essence, the complaints are that certain actions by Wanchick created a hostile work environment for the affected persons working within the Executive Suite at the County Administration Building,” Roper wrote in a June 16th report obtained by Historic City News.

Unlike what we’ve seen from St Johns County Sheriff David Shoar over the past ten-years, McCormack showed the good judgment by immediately forwarding the material to an independent law firm in Orlando to determine the merits of the allegations.

Roper explained that McCormack determined that it would be most appropriate to have the investigation conducted by an outside entity, as opposed to an internal investigation conducted by the County’s Personnel Services Department, in order to avoid any appearance of impropriety or undue influence over the investigation.

Shoar believes that he is capable of investigating himself, and, when outside agencies like the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Federal Bureau of Investigation, and even a local county court judge become involved, Shoar attempts to influence the outcome of the investigation — even against the advice of his highly paid “executive staff”.

Roper reported that each witness was advised as to the nature of the investigation and the role of the investigator; was asked to be candid and forthright in their interview; was asked not to discuss the substance of their interview with anyone else during the pendency of the investigation; advised as to their protection from retaliation for their participation in the process; and was encouraged to contact me should any new or different pertinent information come to light which had not been discussed in our interview.

“Given the passage of time, inability of witnesses to recall important details, lack of supporting documentation and the stark conflicts in key testimony, it was also difficult for me to resolve many of the key disputed issues of fact,” Roper explained.  “It is certainly understandable that witnesses had difficulty recalling or describing events since some of the incidents are alleged to have occurred more than four years ago, but this does present a challenge to the investigation.”

Roper went on to clarify the law and point out the reasons his investigation was so difficult.

“The law contemplates that employees will promptly report alleged harassment or discrimination to their employer. Early reporting facilitates a more timely and thorough investigation, while a witnesses’ memories are still fresh and also serves to discourage or avoid further harassment,” Roper told McCormack in his report.  “In this case, many witnesses simply had no recollection whatsoever of the alleged events, even after I tried to refresh their memories with the limited detail available to me.”

All told, there are a total of five (5) separate incidents, over a period of more than four years, wherein Wanchick is alleged to have made comments which are characterized by complainants as disparaging, gender specific comments, evidencing Wanchick’s animus towards or intent to discriminate against women. There is one (1) additional incident where Wanchick is alleged to have been present when a comment of that nature was made by a fellow employee, where Wanchick failed to correct or reprimand the employee.

“Ultimately, I determined that it was unnecessary for me to resolve many of the factual disputes in order to reach a reasoned conclusion as to whether there had been a violation of County policy or applicable law,” Roper concluded.  “That is the case because, even if one were to accept the complaints at face value, giving them every benefit of doubt, it is clear that Wanchick’s alleged conduct was not sufficiently egregious or pervasive to amount to a violation of either the law or county policy.”


At the end of his investigation and 24-page report, Roper told McCormack that he was unable to independently substantiate whether Wanchick ever made the disparaging, gender specific workplace comments which both complainants and other witnesses attributed to him.  Therefore, he did offer some recommended future employment actions.

“There are a couple of suggested changes in procedure which the County may wish to consider in addressing certain issues which came to my attention during the investigation,” Roper said.

  1. I believe that additional efforts should have been made by HR to follow up on the “gender” comments during the complainant’s exit interview, in order to gain a better understanding as to the nature and extent of any employment issues to which she was referring, and when she expressed those sentiments. Those follow up efforts and any information revealed by that review should have been specifically documented in order to either rule out an existing employment issue or to facilitate any necessary corrective action. In this instance, HR simply documented that the exiting employee had expressed concern regarding gender issues, but there was no indication that an effort had been made to delve further into that expressed concern or any confirmation that the issue had been investigated further and either confirmed or eliminated as a potential employment issue to be addressed by the County.

 

  1. The County may wish to consider formally adding an additional avenue by which employees can report harassment under its personnel policies. During my interviews, various witnesses expressed concern that County employees did not have a reasonable avenue to report harassment, if the complaint related to the misconduct of the chief executive or other senior level executive. As noted above, I saw no evidence that any harassment reports involving the chief executive were ignored by the County, but to the extent employees have articulated this perception, it might be worthwhile for the County to consider adoption of another reporting option.

 

  1. During interviews of certain senior staff members, it was suggested to me that employees had the ability to report workplace harassment through the “Fraud, Waste and Abuse Hotline” administered by the St Johns County, Clerk of the Circuit Court. However, the County’s formal reporting procedure for employees set forth in the above-referenced harassment policy does not describe that avenue of reporting. If the County does intend for this hotline to be a potential avenue of reporting harassment and discrimination, it should be added to the formal personnel procedure.

 

  1. The County may wish to review its training program to reinforce with employees the importance of promptly addressing or reporting incidents of perceived harassment or inappropriate conduct at the time said conduct occurs, in order to allow for prompt resolution, investigation and , if necessary, remedial action by the County. I have not reviewed nor considered the extent of the County’s training in this regard, and this should not be construed as a criticism of that existing program. Instead, given the amount of time which expired between the alleged misconduct here and any report of same to the County, it is merely a suggestion for a potential point of emphasis in the future.

 

Share your thoughts with our readers >>