At a Black History Month Luncheon in February, Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch spoke to a largely black audience, describing — according to one listener — how he fought and distrusted black people growing up, and noting that Americans should celebrate “Scottish Heritage Month” in addition to black history.
Tiffany Gray, a former FDC human resources employee who was at the luncheon, filed an internal complaint about Inch’s remarks. Just over a month later, she was fired.
The state’s Commission on Human Relations, which enforces the Florida Civil Rights Act and hears complaints about discrimination and retaliation, recently said she deserves whistle-blower status and urged the state to rehire her. The government has asked the commission to reconsider.
In a termination letter dated March 27, the department said she was being discharged on the basis of a “substandard quality of work” and “conduct unbecoming of a public employee.” She said she learned of the firing on April 2.
According to Gray, Inch’s winding speech included many anecdotes from his past, including a story about being beat up by the only black student in his class in elementary school. He recalled how his family once welcomed a man from Nigeria into their home and how Inch’s grandfather remarked on how “clean” he was. Inch talked about visiting Nigeria and how the trip was a “culture shock,” she said. He said it would be like if those in the room visited Norway, she added.
Gray, who is black, said the majority of the employees who attended the luncheon were black as well.
At the conclusion of his Feb. 26 speech, Inch told the crowd that he wants Americans “to celebrate Scottish heritage month the same way we’re celebrating Black History month,” according to Gray.
The scheduled speaker, Gadsden County Sheriff Morris Young, who is black, canceled at the last minute due to a scheduling conflict and Inch took the stage instead.
On the day of the talk, Gray brought her concerns to her supervisor, calling the comments “discriminatory, inflammatory, racist, hostile, degrading, offensive, divisive and humiliating.” She did not file a formal complaint at the time, according to a memo from the department’s head of human resources.
She eventually filed a complaint on March 5, where she detailed her experience at the luncheon. Gray said there were probably 25 black employees and around seven or eight white employees in attendance.
“Secretary Inch made it clear with his remarks that he views us as an inferior and collective people,” wrote Gray, 46, who had worked for the department since December 2016 and had a salary of $41,472.
The department did not confirm or deny the comments to a Miami Herald reporter, and said the speech was not pre-written nor recorded. A spokeswoman said the secretary has delivered many similar “values-based talks” throughout his career.
Inch is a retired two-star general who briefly ran the federal Bureau of Prisons. He was appointed by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in August 2017 and left in May 2018.
Inch retired from the Army in May 2017 after more than three decades in the military, mostly as a police officer.
The Department of Corrections is the largest state agency in Florida. When the most recent annual report was published June 2018, the agency had 24,225 full-time employees.
The department referred a Miami Herald reporter to the Office of Chief Inspector General, to whom the incident was reported. Helen Aguirre Ferré, a spokeswoman for the executive office of the governor, declined to comment, citing an active investigation. The chief inspector general reports directly to the governor.
In a statement to the Miami Herald, Inch said: “Our agency strives for ethical conduct in all our actions and we treat people as they should be treated, without demeaning, degrading, or devaluing any individual or group.”
Gray referred the Herald to two other employees who were present during the talk and are listed in her complaint. They could not be reached.
The department has not fulfilled the Herald’s request for Gray’s personnel file.
Gwendolyn Jamerson, who serves on a department leadership team subcommittee, wrote in an affidavit on April 20 that she was at the luncheon and did not perceive Inch’s comments to be racist. Jamerson, who is black, said she felt Inch had a “good story” and that he is “a positive role model.”
In a complaint challenging her termination to the Commission on Human Relations, Gray cites racism and retaliation against her for being a whistle-blower.
According to a March 25 memo, Amy Bryant, one of Gray’s supervisors, requested discipline or dismissal of Gray for unprofessional conduct, including discussing her litigation on the job. The memo cited eight employees who have complained to Bryant about Gray’s behavior.
Gray’s ongoing litigation involves a 2018 discrimination complaint against the department. She alleged that the department “consistently promoted less-qualified white applicants over equally or more-qualified black employees,” according to the complaint. Gray said she applied for multiple positions in 2017 and 2018 and was never granted an interview.