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Hernando utilities review expands beyond harassment

BROOKSVILLE — Transcripts released Tuesday of interviews with county Utilities Department workers describe a work atmosphere of joking that crossed the line into racial harassment, supervisors playing favorites in job assignments and a fear of retaliation if anyone complained.

But the interview with Jason Booker, who originally reported the racial harassment, hints at other health and safety concerns that are now also under scrutiny by the county.

Booker, who had been with the county more than a year, told officials for instance that in recent months, instead of properly dumping liquids from sewage into a sewer or a treatment plant, county crews have been directed to dump the liquid onto the ground at the old Hernando Beach sewer plant.

He also told investigators that workers were mocked if they donned protective suits and gloves when working in areas where they would come into contact with human waste.

The revelations are contained in lengthy transcripts of interviews with eight of 11 utilities workers.

County Administrator David Hamilton is expected to announce today how he will deal with the racial harassment allegations. Three utilities workers remain on paid leave.

Hamilton also is expected to comment on a report from the independent counsel hired by the county to review the investigative interviews and other paperwork related to the allegations. He said he would meet with the county attorney and speak further today about his next steps.

Booker met with assistant county attorney Jon Jouben, utilities director Joseph Stapf and Beth Howley of Human Resources. He elaborated on allegations that Booker's grandmother, recently retired county secretary Jeanette Soto, made recently including the display of a noose in a tree and an incident where another employee told Booker to go back to Africa.

In the transcript of Mike Smith, one crew leader accused by Booker of mistreatment, Smith details how he had heard Booker make racial remarks about "honkys'' and Southerners to white members of the crew and that all the remarks were said in a joking way.

Smith, along with Darrell Rose and Will Wilson are on paid administrative leave.

Booker was on leave briefly and then returned to work. The other former utilities worker who has alleged racial harassment is Floyd Moore.

In an unrelated matter, Moore was arrested on cocaine possession charges Monday. He was a passenger in a car stopped by deputies on Mondon Hill Road. Deputies found a substance in his pocket that tested positively for cocaine, according to a police report.

In addition to investigating the utilities department, Hamilton is also looking into the procedures and management of the Human Resources Department, which got the first complaint about harassment a week before Hamilton and county commissioners learned of the allegations.

On Tuesday, the county conducted mandatory training for all supervisors in how to avoid harassment in the workplace. Mandatory classes for all employees are planned for next month.

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

Hernando utilities review expands beyond harassment 04/22/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 24, 2008 6:25pm]
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