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Fourth Hernando utilities worker put on paid leave

BROOKSVILLE — A fourth county Utilities Department worker has been placed on paid administrative leave in connection with allegations of racial discrimination, but in this case the worker is not suspected of discriminating behavior.

He is one of the victims.

Employee Jason Booker came to work Monday morning concerned about stepping into his work environment after media reports of the discrimination complaint broke over the weekend. He met with utilities director Joseph Stapf to talk about his situation, and Stapf spoke with County Administrator David Hamilton.

"He has been placed on paid administrative leave as of the start of the day,'' Hamilton said. "We felt it was in the best interests of Mr. Booker and the organization. It is not to be construed as to be punitive.''

Booker could not be reached for comment Monday. His grandmother, Jeanette Soto, who first raised the alarm about discriminatory treatment of utilities crew members in late March, said her family was not going to say anything to hurt the ongoing investigation.

On Friday, Utilities Department workers Michael Smith, Michael Welch and Darrell Rose were placed on paid administrative leave after the county's initial investigation revealed possible breaches of county policies — breaches that concerned accusations of racial discrimination.

The incidents described included episodes in which a noose was displayed to utility crew members, in which dirt was poured onto workers in a hole and in which a worker was quoted as saying "take your black a-- back to Africa.'' A former utilities worker, Floyd Moore, was reportedly knocked down by another member of his crew and had a noose put around his neck as a "joke.''

After Soto asked county human resources director Barbara Dupre to investigate discrimination in the Utilities Department but not to pull Soto into it, Booker went to work the next day and had his crew rib him about his grandmother's complaint. Later that day, Booker found a tire on his car parked at the utilities compound on Wiscon Road had been slashed.

Those incidents are under investigation by the county and the Hernando County Sheriff's Office. Sheriff's spokeswoman Donna Black confirmed Monday that the criminal investigation is ongoing.

Soto, who just last week retired from her job as an executive secretary in the county Public Works Department, said she believes the situation will be handled properly now that Hamilton is aware of the complaint.

"Our family is very confident in the administration, the utilities director and the county attorney," she said. "We believe they will resolve this."

A memo written by Soto indicates that she was disappointed that her complaint to Dupre wasn't handled with more confidentiality. When the situation continued after Soto's initial complaint, Soto's daughter, Martha Rodriguez, who is Booker's mother, filed a letter with Dupre threatening to take the issue to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That is when Hamilton got involved.

Dupre has said that she has been told she cannot comment on the situation.

Moore, the employee who quit because of the harassment, did not want to talk Monday about the details of the alleged discrimination. He said he wanted to learn more about his legal situation. He said he had worked for the county for more than six years and that the first discriminatory behavior against him came within two months of being hired.

He quit his job in mid March.

The missing workers do not appear to be hindering ongoing county utility projects. Even with four workers gone temporarily from utility crews, Hamilton said Stapf assured him "the Utilities Department is fully functional.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Fourth Hernando utilities worker put on paid leave 04/07/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 14, 2008 3:56pm]
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