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Workers claim retaliation for harassment complaints in Hernando

BROOKSVILLE — Two of the people involved in reports of racial harassment in the county's Utilities Department earlier this year now allege they have faced retaliation for blowing the whistle.

One says they both face possible firing for an incident that grew out of the discrimination findings, and she has asked state Sen. Paula Dockery to intervene.

In a letter sent to Dockery several days ago, Martha Rodriguez detailed how her son Jason Booker, 21, has been continually harassed on the job as a utility worker for Hernando County. Since the public allegations surfaced early this year and were confirmed in an investigation, Rodriguez stated, "the discriminatory behavior has continued ever more fiercely.''

Booker met with new county human resources director Cheryl Marsden and another human resources employee on Tuesday. When he refused to answer their questions without having his lawyer present, they gave him 24 hours to have his lawyer contact the county. Booker says he is trying to reach his lawyers.

Marsden could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.

Rodriguez said after that meeting that she was frustrated. "I think we're both looking at pretty much being unemployed,'' she said.

Her letter to Dockery also details how Rodriguez believes she has also been retaliated against in her job as a nurse at the Health Department, including a demotion after the utility department problems came to light and recently several write-ups in her personnel file for what she described as minor problems.

She states that her willingness to help her son defend his civil rights is the reason for the retaliation.

Booker has had several absences from work due to what he said are bouts of high stress and depression since the harassment was revealed. He has been asked by supervisors to have a written note for each absence.

One note he brought to work recently was deemed unacceptable, he said, and both he and his mother may face discipline because of it. The note came from the Health Department, which is where Rodriguez works.

Further complicating the situation, the wives of Booker's supervisors, Don LeCompte and Jesse Goodwin, also work at the Health Department.

Rodriguez said she and another employee are on administrative leave while the Department of Health investigates an allegation that they provided Booker with a note that falsely stated he had been seen at the Health Department.

Rodriguez said her son went to the Health Department for information about hepatitis since he spends workdays in sewer water. A clerk gave him a card saying he had been there, but Booker's boss, Don LeCompte, would not accept it because it was not signed.

In her letter to Dockery, Rodriguez said the cards are not signed but rather stamped. She also stated that she was not at the Health Department the day her son visited, but after the problem arose over the card's authenticity, she asked the clerk who had seen him to sign the card.

Rodriguez left on vacation for 10 days and when she returned, she said, she learned that someone in utilities had given a copy of the card back to a Health Department employee. If so, she said, this would be a violation of federal health privacy laws. She has filed a complaint on that incident.

Both Rodriguez and the clerk met with Health Department officials and were placed on administrative leave until an investigation could be completed.

Elizabeth Callaghan, administrator of the Health Department, said Tuesday that she could not talk about the incident while it is under investigation.

Assistant county attorney Jon Jouben said Tuesday that the current human resources involvement with Booker is unrelated to the previous racial harassment investigation.

It was Rodriguez who earlier this year contacted County Administrator David Hamilton when she realized that her son's superiors were not going to do anything about the harassment he had endured for months. He had reportedly had a noose displayed to him and been told to get his "black a-- back to Africa,'' among other incidents.

A county investigation determined that Booker and another employee who had quit his county job had been the target of racial harassment. One supervisor quit over the situation. Others were suspended and reprimanded.

The poor handling of the original complaint by then-human resources director Barbara Dupre was one of the central reasons why Hamilton forced Dupre to resign.

The harassment incidents have been forwarded to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is in mediation with the county's insurance attorneys over the previous claims.

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

Workers claim retaliation for harassment complaints in Hernando 12/09/08 [Last modified: Sunday, December 14, 2008 1:45pm]

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