April 2nd, 2015

Firing of coworker who drove correctional officer to suicide upheld

WBI: Justice is about to be meted out in Madison Wisconsin three years after Philip Otto took his own life though he was close to retirement from the WI Department of Corrections. Otto had transferred from one facility to another. The climate at Oakhill represented by the actions of several coworkers and led by one supervisor was extremely toxic and unwelcoming. After his death, investigations were conducted leading to terminations of key coworkers. The supervisor was allowed to retire. One captain was reinstated. Other workers filed an appeal with the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission asking for reinstatement. The hearing examiner Stuart Levitan heard testimony during 16 days in 2013. I reviewed the record and testified on behalf of the State concluding that the fired employees (Rachel Koester, Matthew Seiler and Justyn Witscheber) had demeaned, harassed, bullied and disgraced their peer, Mr. Otto, who had transferred recently to their facility — new to the place, but a veteran corrections officer. Progress in the case reported below is that the hearing examiner ruled Rachel Koester was justly terminated, according to a pending decision released on March 4. … Gary Namie


Examiner: Firing of Oakhill Guard Following Suicide Was Proper
By Dee J. Hall, Wisconsin State Journal, March 31, 2015

A hearing examiner has determined that the state Department of Corrections properly fired a guard who allegedly shunned and belittled a fellow officer who later committed suicide.

Philip Otto, 52, killed himself in March 2012 after what his wife, daughter and co-workers described as a pattern of bullying by fellow employees at Oakhill Correctional Institution.

The 20-year DOC veteran’s death came just months before he planned to retire with full benefits, his wife, Peggy Otto, told the State Journal in 2012.

In the proposed decision dated March 4, Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission examiner Stuart Levitan found the firing of correctional officer Rachel Koester was justified. He cited an internal investigation launched after Otto’s death in which dozens of Oakhill staffers were interviewed.

But Levitan also found that officials at Oakhill failed to investigate or properly respond to several alleged instances of bullying and harassment among staff at the Fitchburg prison, including some reported by Koester herself after Otto’s death.

Levitan also faulted the DOC for “widespread errors” in the transcription of investigative interviews, and the fact that “several witnesses testified that statements attributed to them were inaccurate.”

Levitan found that officers including Otto who had transferred months earlier from the closed Ethan Allen School juvenile facility were targeted for harassment because their seniority made it easier for them to get desired shifts, overtime and vacation days at the minimum-security prison.

The proposed decision is pending before the two-member WERC board, which will make the final decision on whether the termination was proper. Koester’s attorney, Victor Arellano, wrote to WERC chairman James Scott formally objecting to the proposed decision on March 23.

“This entire case and the manner it has been handled has been bizarre from the onset of the investigation,” Koester told the State Journal. “I look forward to the entire record in this matter becoming public.”

According to the report, Koester repeatedly denied allegations that she demeaned or taunted Otto. Two sergeants, Matthew Seiler and Justyn Witscheber, also have appealed their firings, and a proposed decision in their cases should be issued in about a month, said Peter Davis, chief legal counsel for WERC.

Another sergeant, Sherri Mudd, took an early retirement after a DOC investigation found she had participated in the alleged bullying.

The proposed decision quotes Oakhill Sgt. Anthony Hakenson, who told investigators that Otto had told him “there were four employees on second shift – Mudd, another woman, and two men – who ‘every single day they called him a fag, worthless, a coward, a snitch, a big (expletive) sissy. Every day. He told me that there were four people doing it on a regular basis.’ ”

DOC spokeswoman Melissa Roberts said the agency handled the fallout from Otto’s death properly. “The department conducted a thorough investigation of the prior circumstances at Oakhill and took what we believe to be appropriate personnel actions,” she said.

In addition to detailing allegations against Koester and some of the others, Levitan’s 36-page proposed decision and order revealed that Otto’s death had wider implications than previously known.

Among them was the removal of Oakhill warden Deirdre Morgan. After Otto’s death, Morgan was promoted within DOC, but former secretary Gary Hamblin testified in a closed hearing that Morgan’s move to the Division of Juvenile Corrections was related in part to “concerns about the climate at Oakhill.”

As to Koester, Levitan found she “was an active participant in creating, and attempting to cover up, a toxic environment that profoundly impaired the operations at (Oakhill),” according to the proposed decision, which referred to Otto as Officer Z.

“A corrections officer who treats co-workers as Koester treated Z and other (Ethan Allen School) transferees, and then lies during an investigation into her conduct, forfeits her right to employment by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.”

The proposed decision comes two and a half years after the firings. Another Oakhill official, Capt. Michael Buettner, was terminated but was reinstated and “voluntarily demoted” to lieutenant and transferred to another institution. He received $75,577.03 in missed pay for the nearly 15 months he was out of work, Roberts said.

Davis said the delay in issuing the proposed decision was caused in part by “sensitivity of the underlying event” and the voluminous amount of information collected during 16 days of hearings in 2013. The testimony generated 3,000 pages of transcript, thousands of pages of exhibits and more than 500 pages of briefs.

Levitan noted that among Koester’s arguments is that her termination was “excessive in light of incidents in which other employees have received lesser, or no discipline, for similar infractions.”

The proposed decision quotes Koester as describing Oakhill as a workplace of “dysfunction and poor management” and “selective implementation” of disciplinary policies and practices.

Wrote Levitan: “There is evidence to support this caustic characterization.”

Among incidents he cited is one in which an Oakhill sergeant referred to an officer of African origin as “Midnight” and once allegedly followed the officer’s vehicle from the rural prison into Madison “engaging in threatening driving behavior, including making obscene gestures at him at a stoplight.”

Although Fitchburg police officers told prison officials they felt the sergeant was lying when he denied the “road rage” incident, Oakhill took no action against him, Levitan found.


Read Levitan’s decision about Rachel Koester’s termination.


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This entry was posted on Thursday, April 2nd, 2015 at 4:43 am and is filed under Tutorials. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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