State employee under investigation for threatening welfare recipients

By Lawrence Smith | Dec 29, 2006

CHARLESTON – A state employee who sued her employer for failing to halt a co-worker's harassment is now under investigation for her alleged role in harassing welfare recipients receiving counseling from a Westside domestic violence clinic.

Elizabeth Crawford, director of the Domestic Violence Counseling Center, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office for Civil Rights against the state Department of Health and Human Services. Filed Nov. 17, Crawford alleges that DHHR through one of its employees, Vonda L. Spencer, threatened two of her clients "with the loss of ... welfare benefits…if [they] continued to seek counseling at the Domestic Violence Counseling Center."

In her complaint, Crawford alleges that Spencer, "made the threat to each client when they attended their scheduled meetings with her." The threat to one client, Crawford says she learned about in November 2005, with the other coming in January.

The threats, Crawford alleges in her complaint, were done in conjunction with the YWCA's Resolve Family Abuse program. Both clients told Crawford that Spencer, without their knowledge or consent, allowed a woman from Resolve to be present in their meetings with Spencer in which the unidentified woman "made disparaging comments to my clients about the Domestic Violence Counseling Center's programs."

Four years of harassment

Spencer, 50, a caseworker in DHHR's West Washington Street location, is no stranger to complaints of harassment.

In 2000, she was successful in getting a Kanawha Circuit judge to order an administrative law judge be specific on the amount of back pay and benefits she was to receive in a grievance she won against her former employer, the Bureau of Employment Programs.

According to court records, Spencer was terminated from BEP by then-Commissioner William Vieweg on March 20, 1997, for her failure to show for work. Since June 1996, Spencer took all the leaves of absence she could take to avoid conflict with one of her co-workers, Kizzie Nunley.

Court records show that since coming to work for BEP as a claims manager in 1992 she was in constant conflict with Nunley. Among the more mild accusations leveled against Nunley was that she "did not like Grievant [Spencer] to give her work to complete, did not like to answer Grievant's phone, and did not like Grievant to correct her or disagree with her in any way."

After Spencer documented multiple acts of harassment on Nunley's part, BEP conducted an investigation into her accusations. Court records show that then-Commissioner Andrew Richardson agreed that Nunley's behavior was an issue, and was something noticed not only by Spencer, but also from "supervisors, claimants, providers, and the Department of Labor."

According to court records, Nunley was placed on suspension for 30 days to end on June 24, 1996. It was at this time, Spencer began to use any leave of absence at her disposal so as to avoid Nunley.

During her leave and prior to her dismissal, Spencer sought the medical attention from several physicians. Court records show that one, Dr. Elma Bernardo, a psychiatrist, on July 23, 1996, diagnosed Spencer with "acute distress disorder brought on by the problems of the job."

After her dismissal, Spencer filed a grievance against BEP for wrongful termination. Over two years later, Janis I. Reynolds, an administrative law judge sided with Spencer and ordered BEP to restore her to a "comparable position with same pay grade. Back pay with interest is ordered from same time of grievant's termination ..."

Despite winning her grievance, Spencer appealed it to Kanawha Circuit Court. In his motion filed June 24, 1999, Spencer's attorney Roger Forman said "Because relief granted is clearly not defined or completely equitable, Ms. Spencer prays that this court reverse the decision as to relief and remand to the administrative law judge to properly determine the relief which would make her whole ..."

On July 14, 2000, Judge Andrew MacQueen granted Forman's motion and ordered the case remanded back to Reynolds for a specific remedy.

In addition to back pay and benefits that should be awarded, Forman asked he be awarded $4,850.36 in attorney's fees and costs.

No records in the court file show the exact remedy awarded to Spencer, or if Forman was granted his request for attorney's fees. However, court records show that Nunley was later terminated from BEP for reasons unrelated to her harassment of Spencer.

First complaint lodged over a year ago

Crawford's complaint is the second one she has lodged in the matter.

The first came on Nov. 8, 2005, with Gov. Joe Manchin, shortly after the first client informed her she was threatened with loss of her welfare benefits.

In a letter dated the next day, Manchin replied to Crawford's complaint saying he referred the matter to DHHR Secretary Martha Yeager Walker. Later that month on Nov. 22, DHHR general counsel Rocco S. Fucillo sent a letter to Crawford saying the matter was being taken seriously.

"It is never acceptable for an employee to use the threat of benefit closure to get a recipient to take an action not specified in policy," Fucillo wrote. "If it is discovered that his happened, I can assure you that the appropriate action will be taken."

After a year of not hearing from Fucillo or any other DHHR representative, Crawford filed her complaint with OCR.

Apparently, the original complaint is still under investigation as when Fucillo was contacted for a comment, his secretary referred all questions to DHHR spokesman John Law. When contacted, Law said he couldn't discuss the particulars of any investigation.

However, Law did say that if it were discovered that any welfare recipient was threatened with a loss of benefits, "we would put a stop to it." Also, Law said a recipient receiving domestic violence counseling would not preclude him or her from receiving assistance.

"No. Never," he said.

Also, P.K. Khoury, director of marketing, said she was unaware of any problems. Any remarks someone made about Crawford's program, Khoury said, would be their own opinion and not that of the YWCA's."

"I can ensure you the YWCA's programs are all inclusive," Khoury said. "We would not concern ourselves with anyone else's protocols. We would not refer out or denigrate anyone else's program."

More News

The Record Network