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Tensions hover over 'KKK' painted on St. Petersburg worker's vest

The letters “KKK” in white paint on the work vest of Donald Pittman couldn’t be distinguished by some workers, but a labor relations officer said that didn’t matter.
Published Aug. 17, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — The long-sleeved shirt is orange, and stained with dirt and sweat and accusations.

It's been wrapped in a clear plastic bag, sitting in a city storage room for months.

Stretched across the shoulders on the back, "STORMWATER" is printed in big, black block letters.

The white letters are sprayed over that. If you look closely, you'll see the outline of what appears to be a "K," with a vertical line next to it, and then a third white smear. Similar white splotches are more pronounced on an accompanying safety vest.

Both pieces of clothing belong to Donald Pitt­man, 51, who has worked for the city of St. Petersburg for 15 years.

He went to his bosses nearly 10 months ago with an astonishing allegation that spawned two investigations, amplified racial tensions within one of the city's largest departments and led to lingering unease about the city's muted response.

Pittman, who is black, said there is no doubt what the markings on his work shirt and vest spell: KKK.

It was put there, last fall, by his white supervisor.

• • •

On Oct. 23, Pittman was on a construction crew patching a street just off Central Avenue on the city's west side.

He was relatively new to the team, headed by longtime foreman John Paquette, 51.

Pittman said he was sweeping water from the road when he heard a whoosh of air and felt an accompanying cold sensation on his back.

He looked back over his shoulder to Paquette, who was standing behind him with a can of spray paint.

"I asked him what had he done," Pittman told the Tampa Bay Times in a recent interview. "He said, 'I sprayed KKK on your back.' And then he laughed."

Pittman asked other workers if they saw anything.

They said no. He kept working.

But when he got home that night and stripped off his shirt, he saw the white paint. He showed his wife.

"She was shocked," Pittman said. "I was pissed."

The next morning, he took the shirt to work with him, and pulled aside other black colleagues.

Robin Wynn, an acting foreman, said she could tell Pittman was upset.

"He was standing over me, looking like he wanted to cry," Wynn said. "He told me Paquette had sprayed 'KKK' on his back."

Andre Allen, also an acting foreman, took pictures of the shirt.

Pittman told his bosses he'd like to be moved to another crew.

The city's Human Resources department said it would investigate.

• • •

Paquette, who celebrated his 30th year with the city in 2013 and is described in city records as a "prolific jokester," admitted that he sprayed Pittman's shirt that day and said, "It looks like someone sprayed KKK on your back."

But he said he didn't spray the actual letters, "merely lines."

Paquette told city investigators he didn't intend to be offensive. To make the case that he wasn't a racist, he said he'd recently watched To Kill a Mockingbird and "had to turn away because he was offended by the KKK's actions."

City officials, after examining the clothing and speaking to three other workers who said they could not discern the Klu Klux Klan's initials on the shirt, determined they could not be certain, either.

In the end, labor relations officer Charles Alexander decided it didn't matter.

"It is reasonable to assume that Mr. Paquette should have known that an African American man would take offense to spray painting something on his back and then telling the man that, 'It looks like someone sprayed KKK on your back,' " Alexander wrote.

Officials determined Paquette broke the city's discrimination and harassment rules, a Group III violation. City guidelines suggest the punishment for such a violation is termination.

But Paquette, who has gotten high marks on his evaluations, received 10 days off without pay and asked to attend sensitivity training.

The decision was made by Stormwater, Pavement and Traffic Operations director Jerry Fortney. Several workers told the Times that he and Paquette spend time with each other outside of work. Fortney did not respond to several messages left on his office phone last week.

"If anyone else did something like that, they would be fired," said Wynn, who has worked for the city for 17 years. "This man should have been demoted at least."

When reached Friday, Paquette said he had no comment beyond his statement to city investigators.

"You should be able to understand where I'm coming from," he said. "I got punished. I'm over it. I just want to move on."

• • •

The KKK incident, as it's often referred to by Pittman's co-workers, was never made public by the city. But it was hardly a secret.

Rick Smith, chief of staff for the union that bargains for the city's 1,200 blue- and white-collar workers, said he mentioned it to then-Mayor Bill Foster and talked to Rick Kriseman about it during a phone call after the election.

He and other union officials have pressed city staffers since October for more information about the investigation and the decision to stray from guidelines in deciding Paquette's discipline.

"It really doesn't make sense at all that he would be back in a supervisory position. If this is the standard the city sets for its supervisors, something is really wrong," Smith said. "We expressed concern, and we suggested it's a problem not just within Stormwater, that the racial tension is kind of endemic to the city. . . . These are things you just can't ignore."

Smith said he, Allen and Wynn met with Public Works administrator Mike Connors about it in December. Local union membership continued to raise concerns in meetings with city staff in January and May, Smith said.

Allen, who took Pittman onto his crew after the incident, said that in one meeting with Kriseman and City Administrator Gary Cornwell, workers produced pictures of the shirt. They wanted a commitment to a zero-tolerance policy on such issues and a culture climate study done across the workforce.

"We heard nothing else," Allen said.

• • •

Human Resources director Chris Guella told the Times that officials decided a broader investigation was needed after hearing about some workers' discontent during the KKK inquiry.

Investigators looked into allegations about nepotism, segregation, unfair discipline and promotion practices, and discriminatory training opportunities.

Black workers described racial tensions as high in the department; white employees disagreed. Black workers also complained that they didn't get hired or promoted at the same rate as their white counterparts, a claim the investigation found supported in statistics that showed African-Americans are underutilized in foreman positions. However, that wasn't found to be true for other positions.

Supervisors blamed any disparity in new equipment training on black workers, who they said had not requested it. But the investigation found no formal procedure in place to rotate such opportunities.

A second allegation against Paquette also arose. A retired black employee, who had worked for the city for decades, said Paquette once called her a "black b----."

Paquette vehemently denied the allegation, and city officials could find no complaint or discipline ever issued.

The investigation didn't find any evidence of nepotism or segregation.

These findings, and more, were detailed in a 17-page report completed in May.

The investigation was officially closed July 22. Guella sent a one-paragraph memo to the city's legal department. Fortney, Cornwell and Connors that said the Stormwater department would be making revisions to its training and promotions process to "more effectively promote equal opportunity for all employees."

The Times asked Kriseman for his opinion on the city's response on Wednesday.

The mayor said he wasn't familiar with the KKK incident but vaguely remembered being briefed on it months ago.

He said he was sure the investigation was thorough but even if he disagreed with Paquette's punishment, he couldn't change it because it didn't happen on his watch.

Though the deeper investigation into racial problems in the department did, Kriseman said he hadn't heard about it until the Times asked.

"The job of the department heads, if they've got things going on in the department, is to take care of them," Kriseman said. "That's the way it's supposed to work."

He said he would expect to be asked to step in only if there were significant widespread issues in a department.

"My impression is that's not the case," Kriseman said, noting that in contrast, he's heard from several people about racial issues in the police department.

• • •

Some workers are still unhappy with the way the city handled the KKK incident. They also said the fact that the mayor didn't know about the second investigation reveals the importance officials placed on their concerns.

Pittman, who was reluctant to speak with the Times because he didn't think it would change anything, said he feels betrayed by the whole ordeal but not surprised.

Smith, the union representative, said he still believes the city needs a citywide climate study.

On this point, Kriseman said he doesn't remember union officials specifically asking for one. However, he said his administration takes issues of racial discord seriously.

"Overall, we're trying to change the culture," he said. "Any issues found are going to be addressed."

Contact Kameel Stanley at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @cornandpotatoes.

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