BROOKSVILLE — County Administrator David Hamilton announced Friday that the county had placed three Utilities Department employees on paid administrative leave amid a series of allegations of racial discrimination and a threat of legal action.
The county has also asked for a criminal investigation by the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.
Complaints range from an incident in which one employee wrestled another to the ground and placed a noose around his neck "as a joke,'' to another in which an employee told a co-worker to "take your black a-- back to Africa.''
"After our initial investigation, we have concluded that there may have been some serious violations of our personnel policy by employees of the Hernando Utilities Department,'' Hamilton said in a prepared statement.
The employees placed on paid leave are Darrell Rose, Michael Smith and Michael Welch.
The investigation is continuing, and Hamilton said more evidence could be gathered that would implicate additional employees.
"Due to the fact that the parties that have been suspended may be innocent, we will not be providing additional information until the investigation is complete and the facts have been conclusively ascertained,'' Hamilton said. "We're taking steps to protect all the people involved and their rights.''
According to memo dated April 1 and written by Jeanette Soto, a retiring executive secretary in the Department of Public Works, she first notified human resources director Barbara Dupre of the allegations March 26.
Soto had gotten a call from her daughter, Martha Rodriguez, "livid about what had been going on in the Utilities Department regarding racial slurs, hanging a noose in a tree, dumping dirt on employees that were working in a hole, hearing one say 'take your black a-- back to Africa,' etc., all of which her son (my grandson), Jason Booker, was having to endure while on the job,'' Soto wrote in a memo.
Soto said she went to Dupre hoping to get the harassment to stop and asked that Dupre not tell anyone at the department that she had called so she would not cause problems for her grandson or her son, Chris, who also works in the department.
The next day, Soto wrote, Booker's crew told him that his grandmother had called the human resources office, and they asked him, "What are you trying to do, play the race card?''
At the end of the workday, he found one of his tires had been slashed in two places.
Soto wrote that it was clear Dupre had told someone that she had complained, and she wrote, "There is no confidentiality when it comes to dealing with HR.'' Soto also noted that, whomever Dupre went to, it was not Utilities Department director Joseph Stapf, because he didn't know about the allegations at that time.
Rodriguez, Soto's daughter, followed up with a March 31 letter to Dupre, announcing her intent to file two racial discrimination and verbal harassment complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Tampa on behalf of Booker and another employee, Floyd Moore, who recently quit.
According to the letter, Moore is the employee who was tackled and had a noose put around his neck. He also endured discrimination in work assignments and daily verbal harassment until he finally decided to quit. "He is under the distinct impression that 'this is just the way it is for a black man from Twigg Street,' '' Rodriguez said in her letter.
She went on to explain that the employees had made "futile attempts'' to resolve the problems with their senior supervisor. And she asked for an immediate solution to the problem — for Booker to be moved to a different position and for Moore to be reinstated in the department without fear of harassment or retaliation.
On April 1, Dupre responded to the letter, telling Rodriguez that the county took the allegations very seriously.
"Although I have not been made aware of the allegations listed in your letter, rest assured I will begin a complete and thorough investigation into this matter immediately,'' she wrote in an e-mail.
Immediately after, she sent an e-mail to Hamilton, telling him that she was assembling the appropriate staff to begin an investigation.
Reached late Friday, Dupre said she has been told she cannot comment on the memo from Soto, the discrepancy in dates of when she was aware of the allegations, or the details of the investigation.
Rose, Smith and Welch, the employees on leave, could not be reached for comment late Friday.
Hamilton said he would release addition information to the public as it becomes available.
"This is a complex issue,'' he said. "We're going to take it one careful, thoughtful step at a time. And, be assured, it is of the highest priority.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.