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Former employee files lawsuit against county, treasurer

Illingworth alleges gender-based hostile work environment, wrongful termination, retaliation

Published: Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 12:12 p.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 12:15 p.m. CDT

A former employee of Jasper County Treasurer Doug Bishop is suing both her former boss and Jasper County for what she alleges were illegal work practices.

Wednesday, Jan. 23, Newton attorney Charlotte Sucik filed a lawsuit in Jasper County District Court on behalf of Donna K. Illingworth, 57, of Newton seeking damages and demanding a jury trial in the case. Bishop acknowledged he received notice of the suit Tuesday, but declined additional detailed comment.

“We will apparently have our say in court,” he said. “I am looking forward to that opportunity. Until then, under legal advisement, I will have no further comments.”

The three-part complaint alleges Bishop created a gender-based hostile work environment and wrongly terminated Illingworth’s employment based on her gender. It also alleges he retaliated against Illingworth for questioning what she perceived to be illegal activities by Jasper County elected officials.

Repeated efforts to contact Sucik for comment were unsuccessful. A representative of her law firm said is common practice not to comment on pending litigation.

According to filings with the Jasper County District Court, the county has not yet responded to Sucik’s filing. The county must respond by later this month; until then, no trial or hearing dates have been scheduled in the case.

Background of Case

Illingworth was hired as a clerk in the Jasper County Department of Motor Vehicles and the Driver’s License Division in November of 1998. In 2004, she was promoted to Second Deputy Treasurer.

In June of 2012, Bishop conducted a search of Illingworth’s work area while she was on vacation. According to testimony in a subsequent unemployment hearing, he said he found $2.32 hidden under the cash tray in her drawer.

As a result of that discovery, and subsequent discoveries made during an internal investigation conducted by Jasper County Human Resources Director Dennis Simon, Illingworth’s employment was terminated July 13, 2012. The county’s termination letter, a copy of which was obtained through a public records request, stated several reasons for her dismissal:

• insubordination — Illingworth was alleged to have kept a “long and short,” a separate petty cash fund that was used to balance her cash drawer, in violation of a July 2008 directive to discontinue the practice;

• falsifying records — Illingworth was alleged to have deliberately supplied false information by manually manipulating the Motor Vehicle system to balance cash drawers;

• violation of computer use procedures — Illingworth was alleged to have violated established procedures for computer usage by searching the Internet and sending and/or receiving personal emails on her workstation computer; and

• gross misconduct — Illingworth is alleged to have used a profane and derogatory term to describe Bishop to subordinate hourly employees, and was also alleged to have said, “if [Bishop] ever tried to do anything to me, I will get him and take him to the cleaners.”

The termination letter includes a notation that Illingworth refused to sign it.

The county’s reasons for her dismissal were the subject of an unemployment hearing Sept. 13, 2012, before Administrative Law Judge Beth Scheetz in Des Moines. The nearly two-and-a-half-hour hearing, and all evidence submitted during it, are a matter of public record.

According to documents supplied to the Daily News as the result of a public information request, Illingworth filed for unemployment benefits Aug. 8, 2012, and was denied. Most unemployment hearings are conducted over the telephone, but this hearing was held in person at Illingworth’s request.

Illingworth represented herself, while the county was represented by Bishop, Simon and Michael Galloway, an attorney who works for the law firm contracted with the county to handle employment and labor issues. Scheetz did most of the questioning, followed by questions of each witness by Illingworth and Galloway.

About an hour — nearly half — of the testimony involved Simon and the processes that led to Illingworth’s dismissal. Bishop and Illingworth both testified. At the conclusion of the sometimes-contentious hearing, Scheetz found Illingworth was properly discharged for misconduct.

Iowa Workforce Development documents obtained by the Daily News show Illingworth requested a review of her unemployment case by the Iowa Employment Appeal Board, which affirmed Scheetz’s decision. A subsequent request for a rehearing before the IEAB was denied Dec. 31.

“New evidence or argument sufficient to cause a reversal of our decision was not submitted,” the IEAB’s decision stated. “Our earlier decision was correct and supported by the record evidence. The request for hearing is denied.”

No allegations of wrongdoing by county officials were discussed during the unemployment hearing.

‘Long and Short’ Funds

The county’s termination letter outlines the chain of events that led to Illingworth’s termination. It states Bishop met with her June 22, 2012, to discuss both changes in her job responsibilities and the discovery of the $2.32 in her drawer.

During the unemployment hearing with Scheetz, Simon testified the First Deputy Treasurer discovered a discrepancy in the June 15 daily balance, which was brought to Bishop’s attention. In the course of asking the auto clerks about it, Bishop was told Illingworth routinely used a “long and short” fund to balance her cash drawer.

“[June 22, Bishop] met with each employee … to give them their evaluation and when he sat down to talk with [Illingworth], there was two things to discuss,” Simon testified. “One was going to be on changes to assigned responsibility. We used to have two deputies, and we went to three. Part of the Second Deputy’s responsibilities would go to the Third … So, the Treasurer was going to take away five percent of her salary … The conversation was to also find out what happened and how the $2.32 came to be.”

Additional payroll documents supplied as result of the Daily News’ public information request show Illingworth was being paid 85 percent of Bishop’s salary and was set to be reduced to 80 percent. The Third Deputy Treasurer, a position created effective Jan. 1, 2012, was set to receive a 2.5-percentage-point increase from 65 to 67.5 percent of Bishop’s salary.

The Third Deputy Treasurer is a man, a point Illingworth’s lawsuit points to as evidence of a gender-based hostile working environment. Payroll records supplied at the Daily News’ request show the Third Deputy Treasurer, who was formerly an automotive clerk, did not receive a pay increase associated with the Jan. 1, 2012, promotion and his new duties.

The termination letter states the change in Illingworth’s pay was “due to changes in department responsibilities.” A notation on the county’s payroll records states that, like the termination letter, Illingworth refused to sign the pay-change form acknowledging the change in pay, which was set to go into effect July 1.

In the unemployment hearing, Bishop testified he believed the money was used as a “long and short” fund to balance her drawer each day. This is in violation of stated department regulations, which were amended in 2008 following changes in Iowa law.

Overpayment Log

The county entered into evidence at the unemployment hearing a copy of the overpayment log used in the Treasurer’s Office. The Daily News obtained a copy of the document, which showed 90 overpayments the department received from Aug. 5, 2008, through Sept. 17, 2012, ranging from as little as 8 cents to as much as $4.50.

The log was initiated in August of 2008 after a staff meeting held July 16, 2008, at which new workplace policies were put in place to address “several instances of not balancing.” The Daily News also requested and obtained a copy of the policy, which outlined 14 new rules, several of which dealt with the daily balances of cash drawers.

State law requires reimbursement of overpayments of $5 or more. Overpayments of less than $5 are rebated into the county’s General Fund on a monthly basis.

“The requirement to do a refund changed,” Simon stated during his testimony to Scheetz. “The process of having … a ‘long and short’ changed. And if they were over, there was an overage account where that was noted. Once a month, that money would be transferred to the county’s general fund.”

Illingworth denied Bishop’s claim of keeping a “long and short” fund, or that she had any knowledge of the money under the cash tray. She said in her own testimony during the unemployment hearing that it was possible anyone in the department could have placed the money there.

She additionally claimed to have no knowledge of the overpayment log during the hearing with Scheetz.

During cross examination, Simon confirmed Illingworth stated she did not know where the extra money under her cash tray had come from. He also confirmed the drawer had been previously used by other employees, and that in the course of emptying the contents of the desk and returning them to her, Illingworth was given items that were not her possessions, but had been from a previous employee.

Previous Reprimand

This was not the first instance in which Illingworth was found to be keeping a “long and short” fund in violation of the policy. She was previously reprimanded and had her pay reduced in October of 2009.

Illingworth told Scheetz her pay was docked in 2009 because of changes in her job duties, and that she expressed concern that her pay had not been increased when her job duties were increased and she didn’t understand why they were being subsequently decreased for returning to the original job duties.

She further testified Bishop told her she “wasn’t management material.” She said she then addressed past concerns she had brought to Bishop, who she said “hadn’t done anything” about them.

According to documents entered into evidence at the unemployment hearing and obtained by the Daily News, Illingworth signed a memo that addressed the punitive nature of her change in pay. The document also outlined the conditions upon which her continued employment would be based:

• attend management training provided at the county’s expense;

• establishing a Saturday work schedule to improve incoming revenue and to better utilize current employees;

• maintain “harmonious interoffice relations”; and

• focus management responsibilities on driver’s license department, unless otherwise requested by Bishop.

According to payroll records obtained by the Daily News, Illingworth maintained her status as Second Deputy Treasurer, but her salary was reduced to 65 percent of Bishop’s salary on Oct. 26, 2009. Pending successful 60- and 120-day evaluations, her pay was increased to 70 percent Dec. 28, 2009, and 75 percent Feb. 1, 2010.

Subsequent increases occurred July 1, 2010, when her pay increased to 77 percent of Bishop’s salary, and Jan. 3, 2011, when it increased to 85 percent. Bishop testified her pay remained at that percentage of his salary up to the termination of her employment.

Handling Money

During the unemployment hearing, Scheetz directly questioned Illingworth about transactions and how extra money was handled. Illingworth testified there wasn’t an overpayment log, but when showed one existed, said she had no knowledge of it.

Also, when asked by Scheetz, Illingworth testified that after a certain point in 2008, there weren’t any problems with unbalanced drawers in the Motor Vehicle Department.

“Are you saying that every single customer paid you exactly the right amount from 2008 until 2012?” Scheetz asked. After a six-second pause, she added, “Just a yes or no.”

Illingworth paused another four seconds before saying, “Yes.”

During additional direct questioning from the administrative law judge, Illingworth confirmed money had been found in her drawer in the spring of 2012, as well. She said the money was “$3 for postage.”

Illingworth further testified she apologized and acknowledged she was not to have cash in her drawer. A short time later, Scheetz asked, “OK. And according to your testimony, none of the discrepancies had been recorded, because there had been no discrepancies at all since 2008.”

After a seven-second pause, Illingworth said, “We always seemed to manage to find the error, if there was an error. On most occasions, we found…”

“I’m not talking about accounting errors,” Scheetz interrupted. “I’m asking about when a customer actually gives you the wrong amount. You get the wrong amount.”

After a four-second pause without a response, Scheetz continued, “That never happens, you were saying. They always give you the perfect amount.”

Illingworth replied, “99 percent of the time, yes. But…”

Scheetz interrupted again, “So, the rest of the time, what did you do with it?”

Illingworth then testified she could not remember an instance of that happening in the Motor Vehicle Department during the time she was in charge of it.

During cross examination by Galloway, Illingworth acknowledged she had been in charge of both the Motor Vehicle Department and the Driver’s License Division until January of 2012, when the Third Deputy was hired to oversee the Driver’s License Division. Galloway also asked Bishop to explain the overpayment log for Scheetz.

“We used to send a check for refunds for any amount — 50 cents, a dollar — but the Legislature changed it so that anything $5 or less would be transferred to the county’s General Fund,” he said. “As you can see in the beginning, all different departments started to have things put in there, but then it tapered off … This log was created to keep track of what is being put into the General Fund instead of back to the customer.”

Bishop added that anyone working in the Treasurer’s Office, if asked, could produce the log for review immediately. He testified he did not believe it was possible for Illingworth to not know about the overpayment log.

Internal Investigation

During the hearing with Scheetz, Simon further testified that Illingworth became upset during the June 22, 2012, meeting with Bishop and walked out of the conversation, retreating to the break room. Bishop followed her there, where he told her to go home and come back to work June 26, at which point he notified Simon of the situation.

According to the termination letter, the paid time off was considered administrative leave of a punitive nature. When they met June 26, Simon testified, Illingworth presented a doctor’s note taking her off work until July 5.

That day, she met twice with Simon. During one of those meetings, Illingworth presented him with a letter alleging harassment, retaliation and discrimination. She was again placed on paid administrative leave to allow Simon to investigate.

“I take those allegations very seriously — I wanted to conduct a full investigation,” he told Scheetz. “So, I placed [Illingworth] on administrative leave until July 12 to allow me to investigate and interview each individual that works in the Treasurer’s Office.”

Iowa law makes such investigative notes protected from public scrutiny, unless illegal activities have taken place, or they are admitted into evidence in a judicial or administrative law proceeding. Simon told the Daily News those records have not yet been admitted as evidence, and are part of Illingworth’s confidential personnel record that is not available for public scrutiny.

When Illingworth returned to work July 12, she was confronted by Simon with the new information he had discovered. She was again placed on administrative leave until the following day — the day she was fired — to consider a response.

During the unemployment compensation hearing, Illingworth testified she felt Simon did not adequately investigate her allegations. Scheetz, however, pointed out those allegations were made after the disciplinary action that eventually led to the termination of her employment.

Altering Documents

During the hearing with Scheetz, Simon said his investigation found no evidence to support Illingworth’s allegations. But among the additional issues with her job performance was one situation that resulting in what the county alleges was falsification of official documents.

He said three different clerks confirmed there had been a problem with a transaction that resulted in manually changing a daily balance sheet.

“[Illingworth] knew the individual,” Simon testified. “The customer actually called and talked with [her] about being refunded $10 too much. [Illingworth] made arrangements to go pick up the $10 at the end of shift.

“The next day [she] brought it in and gave that $10 to the clerk that made the error, or had refunded too much money. There was an issue about balancing — the clerk was concerned about it — and [Illingworth] told her not to worry about it and went and made a manual, a handwritten, adjustment to one of our [balance sheets] and told the clerk to go ahead and keep the $10, that Treasurer didn’t know what happened. She balanced.”

Simon testified the issue wasn’t discovered until June 15, when the monthly bank balance was being performed by the First Deputy Treasurer. The monthly balance was in error by $10, and Bishop was notified.

“The Treasurer got involved and when he talked with the clerks, the clerk in question said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got the $10. It’s in my drawer,’” Simon testified. “That’s how we came to be aware of the issue with the $10.”

“That was a huge issue to me; even more so than the not balancing,” Bishop later told Scheetz. “[Illingworth] allowed one of her subordinates to hold onto a $10 bill knowing full well we either should have corrected the transaction that day, or we should have went and put it into the overage, or returned it to the customer.”

Illingworth told Scheetz during her testimony that the customer was charged $10 too much for a transaction, which was done incorrectly. He returned and the original transaction was voided and the full amount — including the $10 — was refunded back to the customer. A new transaction was completed and the customer left.

When the customer got home, he soon realized he still had the original $10 change from the first transaction, and called Illingworth. She testified she told Bishop she would be going to get the money from the customer and was authorized to do so, but was not compensated in any way, nor did she use a county car.

Illingworth testified that when she returned to the office, she gave the money to the clerk who performed the transaction, but that clerk’s drawer still did not balance at the end of the day. Illingworth said the incorrect amount for the transaction may have been entered, creating the discrepancy, but she contacted the finance officers with the Iowa Department of Transportation for instruction.

Illingworth testified the IDOT official told her to manually adjust the daily account by $10. She said she informed the First Deputy Treasurer about the instructions from IDOT, and that the first deputy concurred with the instructions.

The next day, the clerk had $10 too much in her drawer at the end of the day, which Illingworth said she attributed to the previous day’s transaction. They attached a note to the daily account sheet indicating the situation, but that by June, when the bank balance was conducted, the $10 from the customer had probably been forgotten.

Bishop told Scheetz it was not typical to make a “house call” to collect money that was refunded incorrectly. Pressed by Scheetz, he said did find it odd that Illingworth had done so in that situation.

The county entered the daily balance sheet for April 4, 2012, which listed all transactions for one of the auto clerks in the Motor Vehicle Department. The balance sheet was processed April 5, 2012, showing a $10 discrepancy, which Illingworth had attempted to manually change, noting instruction from IDOT to do so.

Bishop additionally testified he found Illingworth’s handwritten notation referencing instruction from IDOT to not make sense. He said the IDOT official referenced in the notation has no working knowledge of the computerized system into which the transaction was entered.

Computer Use

The county’s termination letter states other “performance and/or behavior issues” were discovered during Simon’s internal investigation. Among these was Illingworth’s use of a county-owned workstation for personal purposes during times she was to be working.

“The Treasurer has a liberal Internet usage policy,” Simon testified to Scheetz. “He provides a computer in a separate room, away from the customers, and allows the employees to check personal emails and to look at the Internet during break times or on their lunch period.”

He told Scheetz that during his investigation process, he learned Illingworth was surfing the Internet, sending personal emails and printing materials out using her county-owned workstation and the office printers. Documented computer logs and more than 50 pages of material unrelated to her duties as a county employee that had been printed out from her workstation on Treasurer’s Office printers were submitted as evidence.

“Initially she denied it and claimed other employees were using it,” Simon testified. “It wasn’t until confronted with information that confirmed it was her that she admitted to it.”

One particular issue of misuse of county-owned computers was detailed for Scheetz during the hearing. June 20, 2012, Illingworth asked the First Deputy Treasurer to observe one of her subordinate clerks using the Internet, yet computer logs show she, too, had been violating the office’s computer-use policies.

“On June 20, there was an incident … with another clerk in the office who had returned from medical, had some slow time, and got on the Internet at her work station and was checking her bank account balance,” Simon testified. “[Illingworth] was concerned enough about it to get the First Deputy to have her look so there was a witness … and here we have multiple incidents where [Illingworth] was doing the exact same thing on the same day.”

Illingworth testified she wasn’t using her workstation June 20, 2012, because she was working in the Driver’s License Division due to other employees being off work that day. But the computer use log supplied by the county shows Illingworth’s login was in use at the time of the unauthorized use at her workstation.

She explained to Scheetz that on another day, when the data entry system was down, and before the office was closed, “everyone in the office” passed the time on the Internet. She also stated Bishop was aware she would be printing off her son’s tax documents, which she had prepared at home and then brought to the office to print out.

Illingworth then testified she didn’t conduct personal use of her workstation computer when customers were in the room. That prompted Scheetz to first ask if Illingworth recalled being instructed to only use the approved computer for personal purposes.

When Illingworth confirmed those instructions, but added that “everyone in the office” violated the policy from time to time, Scheetz asked pointedly: “Were you in charge of that area?”

Illingworth answered affirmatively.

Claims of Insubordination

The county’s claims of gross insubordination also were based on information gathered during Simon’s July 5-12 internal investigation. He testified to Scheetz that he learned of more than one instance in which Illingworth spoke disparagingly –using words that cannot be reprinted to describe Bishop – in front of subordinates.

Simon also said his investigation showed one instance in which Illingworth was “talking with multiple employees, informing them that, ‘If he ever tried to do anything,’ that she would ‘get him.’”

“All three [clerks] made reference to [Illingworth] making statements that if the Treasurer ever did anything to her, she would get him,” he told Scheetz. “The senior clerk, who works in a separate office on the tax side, was very adamant about that last statement to the point where she stated [Illingworth] had said, if [Bishop] ever does anything, she will cash in her IPERS, pay off her bills, she will hire an attorney, and she will get him.”

Bishop also testified to the insubordination claims, stating Illingworth engaged in a “concerted effort” to create problems in the work environment.

“The two subordinates over in the Motor Vehicle Department dealt with it on a regular basis,” he testified. “[I]n the meantime, she’s making lists every day of who was doing what, who was not up to her standards, and instead of there working, she was either making her disciplinary lists or flipping around on the Internet all day long. They all knew it, they all knew what she was doing, but they were terrified they were going to make the list.”

Illingworth initially blamed Bishop for the problems in the work environment, but then testified later to Scheetz that she did talk negatively about Bishop to subordinates. Scheetz asked if she felt it was appropriate; Illingworth said, after the fact, she did not.

During cross examination, Bishop denied Illingworth’s assertion that her dismissal was a “vendetta” against her in retaliation for an incident that occurred in which he was unable to help a customer, and she pointed out a need for him to re-familiarize himself with the Motor Vehicle system.

Daily News Editor Bob Eschliman may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 423, or at beschliman@newtondailynews.com.

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