The government official who blew the whistle on Department of Children and Families Commissioner Joette Katz for leaving her sports car in a state parking garage during the winter says that her superiors now are retaliating against her.
Antoinette Alphonse, the human resources director of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said in an interview this past week that she filed "whistleblower retaliation complaints" iin mid-May with the state's Commission on Human Rights and Opportunties against DECD Commissioner Catherine Smith and two other officials.
The state's "Whistleblower Law" protects state employees who report irregularities and improprieties against reprisals; CHRO handles complaints by whistle blowers of retaliation.
Alphonse's complaint is based on an April 25 memo from Smith that said in part: "As I have instructed you before, if you have any issue with regard to this agency or another agency, you are again directed to discuss the same with me or [DECD Deputy Commissioner] Ron Angelo, and resist taking matters into your own hands. Failure to abide by this direct order will subject you to serious disciplinary action up to and including discharge."
Alphonse said the memo amounted to a written reprimand and warning, which she said is a disciplinary action in itself – and Alphonse said she knows a disciplinary letter when she sees one because 26 of her 32 years as a state employee have been spent as an HR officer.
The April 25 memo was presented to Alphonse at a meetingon that date, attended by Smith, Angelo, and an HR officer from the state Department of Administrative Services. Alphonse has filed separate complaints of retaliation against Smith, Angelo, and DAS Commissioner Martin Anderson. CHRO confirmed receiving the complaints but said the law prohibits their public release.
A DECD spokesman, Jim Watson, had this response to Alphonse's complaints: "The department disagrees with Ms. Alphonse's assertions and declines further comment as this is a pending personnel matter."
A spokesman for Anderson, Jeffrey Beckham, said Friday that DAS had sent an HR officer to the April 25 meeting at DECD's request. Normally, a meeting involving a personnel matter would be handled by DECD's own HR director – Alphonse – but because this matter involved her, DECD wanted someone from outside, Beckham said.
The April 25 meeting was at 505 Hudson St. in Hartford – a state office building that's shared by DECD and DCF, the agency headed by Katz.
Alphonse said she believes it isn't an accident that the April 25 meeting and memo came soon after an April 7 Courant column by Kevin Rennie that told how Alphonse had reported Katz's use of two spots inside the state garage at 505 Hudson St. – one for the state vehicle that's issued to her, and the other for her BMW sports car.
Katz has acknowledged parking the BMW convertible in the state garage from December until March, when she removed it after a complaint by Alphonse – whose responsibilities included apportioning parking spaces that were in short supply. Katz has said she doesn't know exactly when she first left the BMW there. Alphonse said she's sure that she saw it beginning in September.
Katz apologized for parking the BMW there in an interview with The Courant for an April 14 Government Watch column – but she also lashed out at Alphonse, although not using her name: "I would not be not a happy camper if my HR director went outside" normal channels, Katz said, adding that her own human-resources people at DCF "don't just go run amok."
The 2¼-page Smith memo was headed "EXPECTATIONS" and went beyond the admonition that Alphonse was to "resist taking matters in your own hands." It also told her when she was expected to arrive at work and leave – 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. – and covered a range of other issues. They included: telling Alphonse that she needed to contact Smith or Angelo directly if she calls in sick, and that "you are expected to complete your assignments accurately and timely."
Alphonse said the memo came out of the blue. She said that she told Smith and the others at the April 25 meeting that she would not sit through a disciplinary session without having a Connecticut State Employees Association representative present.
Smith insisted it wasn't a disciplinary meeting, Alphonse said, but it was adjourned until May 13, when a CSEA representative asked what policies or regulations she had violated. Alphonse said the response was that she hadn't committed any violations.
A day later, on May 14, Alphonse sent an email to Smith, Angelo, Anderson and the DAS representative, telling them that:
t She believes "the fact that I sent a memo [in March] to the DCF Parking Coordinator that an appointed official was storing her sports car in a State owned garage created the reason for the issuance of the [April 25 memo]."
t She believes "the rush to prevent me from 'running amok' did not allow for research and investigation of facts."
t She had sent a memo March 11 about Katz's parking to the state Auditors of Public Accounts and the Office of State Ethics, and had requested protection under the Whistleblower Law.
t She planned to file a complaint with CRHO later "since it is my belief that I am being harassed and retaliated against."
t She wished to stick to her existing 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. work schedule.
t She had called in sick only rarely – for two days this past January and one in August 2012, for example – even though "this issue keeps coming up as if this is a chronic problem."
After Alphonse sent that email, she received a revised "EXPECTATIONS" memo from Smith, dated May 16. One revision was that that Alphonse's work schedule would be 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., as Alphonse wants it.
Perhaps the biggest revision was the absence of the sentence in the April 25 about the possibility of "serious disciplinary action up to and including discharge."
The revised memo still told Alphonse to "resist taking matters into your own hands," but two sentences were inserted where the warning about "serious disciplinary action" had been: "It is important that we be informed of items that might require our decision be they operational or personnel matters. Of course, nothing in this memo should be construed to mean that you are prohibited from exercising any rights afforded by state or federal statutes or constitutional provisions."
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.