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Ugly racial divide cuts through Hernando

The harassment Jason Booker endured and the county’s initial response prompted his mother, Martha Rodriguez, to speak up.

LANCE ARAM ROTHSTEIN | Times

The harassment Jason Booker endured and the county’s initial response prompted his mother, Martha Rodriguez, to speak up.

BROOKSVILLE — Suddenly, silence was no longer a suitable response.

Jason Booker was finally fed up with the race-baiting jokes, boorish horseplay and bad assignments during his year with the Hernando County Utilities Department.

One afternoon in mid March, Booker was urging co-worker Will Wilson to finish a repair in a hole they had dug. Wilson climbed out and told Booker, "You get in the f------ hole and do it then if you want to move so fast.''

Booker retorted that he had been in the first two holes the crew dug that day.

"Will's like, 'Just shut your mouth and take your black a-- back to Africa,' '' and then he jumped back in the hole. Booker kicked some dirt onto him, saying, "Don't ever come with another racist remark like that to me again.''

Most days, in holes full of sewage and sludge, this banter might pass for crude humor among blue-collar workers. There might be a sharp response, or a chuckle, and the guys would return to their shovels.

But not this time.

Booker, 20, had had enough of the racial comments, and stormed away from the work site. His mother, Martha Rodriguez, upset that the county did not seem interested in looking into what she believed was racial harassment, fired off an e-mail to County Administrator David Hamilton. It set in motion a chain of events that has rippled through local government.

Booker's immediate supervisor, Mike Smith, was suspended, and then he resigned. Two other co-workers were suspended and reprimanded. The entire department was investigated, with the incident involving Booker and Wilson just one of many detailed in a lengthy report.

Ultimately, the county's human resources director, Barbara Dupre, was forced to resign because of the way she handled the complaints and other issues, a step that has affected virtually every department in Hernando County government.

Hundreds of pages of interviews with county workers paint a picture of a government workplace, and in many respects the community at large, that remains deeply divided on the subject of race.

The interviews show that co-workers, even men who have known each other since childhood, in fact know so little about each other that they cannot see where workplace horseplay ends and racial harassment begins.

• • •

The bulletin board at the Utilities Department carried this cynical advice: "The back you stab today could be the a-- you kiss tomorrow.''

"We laugh, we work, we cut up and we get our job done,'' team leader Mike Welch told investigators from a Tampa law firm hired to look into Booker's complaints.

"Like I say, we work in sewerage, so hey, we're a little different than everybody else,'' he said. "We cut up a lot. We joke a lot. We try to make the day fun.''

But in a place where the county seat, Brooksville, was renamed to honor an aggressively proslavery South Carolina congressman, the jokes sometimes fell flat.

The claims of racial epithets and jokes about nooses in the workplace from Booker and former utilities worker Floyd Moore date back at least to Moore's first days on the job in 2002.

Moore told investigators that he and another employee were heading to U.S. 41 to deliver pipe on the second week he worked with utilities. The other worker told Moore to "jump up in the back of the truck and grab that stick of pipe off the rack. I told him, 'I work with you, not for you.' ''

"Then he goes, "No, you hop there. You got monkey blood in you.''

Moore said he was called the "black lab'' or "black Shar-Pei.'' Workers would kid him about his family, referring to footage of apes on television. The n-word was bandied about.

Booker told of an incident when his crew chief, Smith, and other co-workers taunted him with a noose in a tree.

"Get him,'' Smith said, referring to Booker. Booker said he responded, "You guys would have to kill me to get me up there.''

Insults like this, family members of Booker and Moore told the St. Petersburg Times, point to the larger struggles minorities face in Hernando. Without much political sway or economic influence in an overwhelmingly white county (92.8 percent of residents in Hernando are white, according to the most recent census), minorities have mostly kept their frustrations to themselves over the years.

It is precisely here where Moore and Booker differed in their approach to the on-the-job insults.

"Everyone is scared to say something," Booker told investigators. "That's what everyone's been doing for years. Just keeping their mouths shut. For years."

Moore's father, Floyd T. Moore, a native of south Brooksville and a onetime sheriff's deputy, said he has discouraged his son from pressing the matter since the county would likely be unresponsive, especially to a black man.

"I know how the system goes,'' he said. "They can make it hard for you to live here in Hernando County. If he gets hired back, he'd be forced on them. He don't need to be there."

Trying to push back against that sentiment, Booker told the county's attorneys that he tried to persuade the younger Moore, who eventually got fed up and quit his job, to resist the harassment.

"Floyd's been listening to his dad all these years and … put up with it at work all these years that he's just accustomed to it," Booker said. "He thinks that nothing will happen, nothing's going to change."

• • •

The morning after Booker stormed off the job, he and his crew leaders met to talk about the incident at the Wiscon Road utilities office. They decided that if Wilson would apologize and Booker would accept, neither would face a notation in their personnel file. A handshake sealed the deal.

Dupre, the human resources director, agreed to the solution. But that decision came back to bite her.

Days later, Hamilton, the new county administrator, first heard of the incident, not from Dupre but from Rodriguez's e-mail threatening a complaint to the federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.

Recognizing the serious nature of the issue, Hamilton immediately placed Welch, Smith and Darrell Rose on leave with pay. Later, Welch was put back on the job, and Wilson and Booker were put on leave with pay while county staffers investigated.

Dupre would have been the logical choice to help, but employees said they did not want to be interviewed if she was present. Complaints that went to the Human Resources Department came back onto the heads of employees, they said. That's why so many had been quiet for so long.

The later legal review showed that Dupre had failed even to create the basic policies and procedures needed to legally protect employees and the county. Hamilton forced Dupre's resignation and is rebuilding the county's human resources functions from the ground up.

Booker returned to his job after the review recommended the county find a way to "cleanse Booker's work environment of racial hostility'' and move Booker to a different crew. The new crew should be told that retaliation of any kind violates county policy, according to the recommendations.

"It's a good place to work besides everything that went on," Booker said not long after the incidents became public knowledge. "Everything has been working its way back to normal. I think I ought to let this blow over before I comment."

After Moore quit his job because of the harassment, he was arrested April 21 on a charge of cocaine possession. Though the attorney's report recommended making Moore an offer of re-employment with a different crew, it's unclear whether his recent arrest would affect his status as a rehire.

Moore has not responded to a number of messages left at his father's home and with friends.

"I want him to get himself together, get squared away and move on," Floyd T. Moore said of his son. "Leave town and start all over again."

• • •

Call it a byproduct of living in a small town, but the key players in the Utilities Department drama have known each other most of their lives.

Smith and Floyd Moore, for instance, played together as children in Hernando County Youth Football. Later, they played opposite each other when Moore went to Central High School and Smith attended Hernando High.

"I've known Floyd all my life,'' Smith told investigators.

Moore, in fact, got his job with the county thanks to Welch, who recognized his name in a stack of applicants. While he hadn't seen Moore since he was about 13, Welch said he remembered coaching him in Little League. "Floyd was a real good kid,'' Welch told investigators.

As co-workers, the group, both black and white, would also socialize.

"I have been friends with Floyd for a long time, a very long time,'' Smith said. "Will's been friends with him. Me, Will and Floyd have partied together. We went places with each other, drank beers. I mean, as far as I'm concerned, I had a friend whether he was black, white, whatever, he was one of probably my best friends.''

Smith resigned his job rather than take a 10-day unpaid suspension after the investigators found he had violated county rules by participating in and allowing racially charged horseplay on job sites.

When asked by investigators if he believed that the Wiscon Road office was a hostile work environment for people of color, Smith responded, "I think it's a crock of crap.''

• • •

The photographs are scattered all over the table and show a happy, handsome, healthy and accomplished band of five brothers. They have skin the color of sand, and one of the teenagers, Jason, has his hair knotted in braids that hang below his shoulders.

"I was married to a black man when it wasn't cool to be married to a black man," said Martha Rodriguez, who is the mother of these brothers and a self-proclaimed proud Puerto Rican. "When I was younger and married to their dad, I experienced the racism. We were denied housing. We wouldn't get served in restaurants."

Hoping to raise her children in a more diverse locale and escape the disapproving glances in central Indiana, Rodriguez followed her parents to Florida in the late 1980s. They eventually settled in Hernando County.

Rodriguez found work as a registered nurse. Later, she followed the lead of her mother, retired executive secretary for public works Jeanette Soto, and went to work for the government, as a minority health liaison for the Hernando County Health Department.

All the while, her sons became popular students and youth wrestling stars, proud of their heritage and seemingly accepted among their peers.

"They never really did encounter racism," Rodriguez said. "I've tried to shelter them from this sort of thing."

When that was no longer possible, Rodriguez responded like any mother would: She spoke up for her child; she filed the formal complaint.

"This is totally about a mother fighting for her son," Rodriguez said. "I didn't make it this far as a single mom to let my child get trampled."

Joel Anderson can be reached at joelanderson@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6120. Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

>>Fast Facts

Complaints rise

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, racial harassment filings at the agency have more than doubled since 1991. The EEOC set a record with 6,977 racial harassment cases in 2007.

Ugly racial divide cuts through Hernando 05/17/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 20, 2008 7:13pm]
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