Ex-lottery Employee Sues Texas Lottery (Jan 31, 2006)

Lottery's at-will firings keep employees on edge (Aug 2005)
Editorials by Lisa Falkenberg - Houston Chronicle

Posted: Monday, August 8, 2005
Revised: Tuesday, Jan 31, 2006 (10:30 AM)
Revised: Tuesday, Jan 31, 2006 (11:15AM)

Read the petition that was filed with the courts, click here (a pdf).

- Ex-Lottery Employee Sues TLC -
Ex-lottery employee claims bias complaint led to firing

Woman cited supervisor's 'track record' against Hispanic aides
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau

AUSTIN - (Jan 31, 2006) A former Texas Lottery employee who was fired in June shortly after receiving an excellent performance evaluation has sued the $3.5 billion agency, claiming she was fired because she complained about "national origin discrimination."

Former administrative assistant Cynthia Suarez, who is Hispanic, claimed in the lawsuit filed Thursday that the lottery's human resources director often "criticized, belittled and yelled" at her in a "hostile and belligerent manner." She also claimed she was denied a higher-level position.

When Suarez complained to administration director Mike Fernandez about her supervisor's alleged prejudice against her and "track record of mistreating Hispanic administrative assistants," the lawsuit states that Suarez was fired on her next day at work.

Suarez had received no prior warning that her job was in jeopardy and she was not told why she was fired, the lawsuit says.

Lottery spokesman Bobby Heith declined to comment, saying, "We won't discuss personnel issues or discuss pending litigation."

Lottery officials have argued in the past that state employees, with few exceptions, serve at the will of their employers and can be fired for any reason.

Suarez was one of more than a dozen former lottery employees who have complained about a pattern of abrupt, no-reason-given firings of at-will workers. The state auditor has agreed to investigate.

Suarez said Monday she hoped to set an example for other fired employees who have not come forward.

"It was wrong what they did to me," Suarez said. "I've lost money. It took me five months to find a job. It's been very difficult and I think they need to pay for it."

Suarez is seeking reinstatement and other injunctive relief, lost wages, compensatory damages and attorneys' fees.


Comments by Dawn Nettles - The Lotto Report

If you would like to read the petition that was filed with the courts, click here (a pdf). Be sure to notice that the date of Ms Suarez' last employee evaluation was May 15, 2005. Her performance review was excellent.

On Friday, May 27th, she met with Mike Fernandez, the Administrative Director, to complain about her treatment by her immediate boss. She was instructed to take her complaints to Mr. Fernandez by the TLC's Internal Auditors. The Internal Auditors would not help her.

Ms. Suarez goes on vacation after work that day - May 27th.

She returns to work from vacation on Tuesday, June 7th and is fired.

Interestingly, she was NOT fired by her immediate boss nor was she fired by Mr. Fernandez - her big boss. When she arrived for the meeting that she was called to so they could fire her, Mr. Fernandez greeted her but left immediately telling the other staff member, Jami Dudley - the Benefits Coordinator, to do her thing. Ms. Dudley gave Ms. Suarez the termination letter that was signed by Mr. Fernandez.

Gee - I wonder what she did that was so awful that caused her to be fired?! :))

Read more about this below.

Lottery's at-will firings keep employees on edge - Aug 2005
Lawmaker and workers decry an atmosphere of fear, mistrust at the commission
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN - She took her photos first, the ones of her parents, her college graduation from night school, the two sons she raised alone.

Then her coffee mug. A calendar. Microwave oatmeal from the desk drawer. She erased a picture on her screensaver of her son carrying a torch in the Special Olympics.

Piece by piece, Cindi Suarez stripped everything of hers from the cubicle on the first floor of the Texas Lottery Commission, determined to leave, if they forced her to leave, with dignity intact.

"I wasn't going to make a fool of myself," said Suarez, 51. "I said 'I'm not going to be humiliated and they're not going to try to touch my personal stuff and pack it.' "

Suarez, an administrative assistant in human resources, was bracing for a fate that had met many of her colleagues: frequent, no-reason-given firings imposed by administrators, often without warning or regard to performance evaluations.

She was fired in June, one day back from vacation and a day before she planned to interview for a promotion. She traveled light, carrying only a small box that contained a CD player and a box of tissues.

When potential employers ask why she was fired, she can only offer her last performance evaluation, in which she met or exceeded all requirements.

The firings are one of the most glaring issues in a swirl of factors that seem to have bred a culture of fear and mistrust at the $3.5 billion state agency.

According to documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle and interviews with more than a dozen former lottery employees and a current employee, the 325-employee Texas Lottery is plagued by deflated morale that has sent personnel fleeing to other agencies.

"If I were a lottery employee, I'd be scared to death," state Rep. Kino Flores, D-Palmview, told lottery officials last month in a hearing of the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee, which oversees the agency.

Flores, chairman of the committee, learned of the agency's personnel problems in June while he was investigating inflated Texas Lotto jackpots. The agency's executive director, Reagan Greer, resigned a month ago after acknowledging he approved overstated jackpot estimates on staff recommendations.

More employees leaving

He was temporarily replaced by his former deputy, Gary Grief, who was warned sales wouldn't support the estimate on the June 8 jackpot but chose not to act.

Flores began investigating the agency's firing practices after learning that former financial director Lee Deviney was terminated a week and a half after warning Grief and others that Lotto sales couldn't cover the advertised June 8 jackpot.

Just eight months earlier, Deviney had received a positive evaluation and a raise.

Lottery officials insist Deviney's firing was bad timing and had nothing to do with jackpots. They gave no other explanation.

Flores says he thinks Deviney's firing and the inflated jackpot are symptoms of systemic problems.

"It's a direct link between the morale of the lottery and the product they're producing," Flores said. "It's affecting their day-to-day operations and their day-to-day decisions.''

So far this fiscal year, about 60 employees — 18 percent of the lottery's work force — have left the agency, documents show. Nine were at-will, about three times the lottery's yearly average during the past decade, a review of records shows.

Sixteen transferred to other agencies, more than any other year in the agency's history and nearly twice the 10-year average.

At-will firings aren't illegal or uncommon. State employees, with a few exceptions, serve at the will of their employer and can be fired for any reason. At least 244 state employees at 34 agencies have been terminated at-will this fiscal year, according to comptroller records.

Different kind of tumult

But some say the lottery is abusing the spirit of the law, firing good employees for no apparent reason, without the disciplinary procedures and appeal opportunities some other agencies offer.

Grief and general counsel Kim Kiplin, whom Flores and former employees blame for many of the lottery's woes, declined to be interviewed.

A month ago, Grief told his staff in a recorded speech that dismissals without warning, documentation or progressive disciplinary action were the exception, "not the rule."

Spokesman Bobby Heith couldn't address specific cases but said, "I don't get the sense that there's a culture of fear, or whatever, of being terminated for no reason."

Heith said the agency intends to cooperate fully with a planned state auditor investigation into personnel policies. And Grief has started requiring all employment actions that could lead to firing to be submitted for his approval.

"I think we're trying to address all of these problems and to assure not only the staff but the public that we're trying to do the right thing here," Heith said.

Since its creation in 1993, the Texas Lottery has not been a tranquil place to work. All four executive directors have left amid controversy.

But employees say the tumult was tolerable because it was generally political and rarely affected them directly.

Employees speak fondly of the camaraderie and morale-boosting events like the kind supported by former Executive Director Linda Cloud: Cinco de Mayo and Black History Month celebrations, a turkey at Thanksgiving.

Cloud said in a recent interview that at-will terminations were beneficial "when you had employees that did something that was very wrong."

But those employees, 10 during her four-year tenure, were rarely shocked by their firings, Cloud said, because most had gone through a disciplinary process.

A change for the worse?

Cloud resigned in 2002 after she acknowledged lying to reporters about an investigation involving one of the three commissioners appointed to oversee the agency.

Greer's hiring in early 2003 didn't help, workers said. He talked at staff meetings about improving communication and morale, but some employees say he served more as a political ambassador than an administrator.

It was widely accepted that Grief was still running the agency, with help from a tight circle of confidants, including Kiplin and Administration Director Mike Fernandez. Grief, a career lottery employee respected for his work ethic and institutional knowledge, seemed to turn cold and harshly demanding, employees say.

At staff meetings — amid discussions of teamwork and lottery business — employees said managers regularly reminded them that they could be fired at any time.

"They never let you forget you're at-will," said Lori Markham, former administrative assistant who worked there about seven years. "When they say that to your face so many times, you're like a beaten dog."

Things worsened late last year, during a reorganization that Grief supported to gut the security division and terminate most of its officers. Employees say they were jumping when the phone rang for fear it was a summons to be fired.

A former security supervisor who resigned last fall said nearly every time a security badge malfunctioned, employees assumed they had lost their jobs.

"Every day I went to work, I didn't know if it would be my last day," said Markham, who was fired in June. The Texas Workforce Commission awarded her unemployment, determining she wasn't fired for cause related to her job.

Employees say they feared retaliation for reporting wrongdoing at the agency, disagreeing with managers or even offering constructive criticism.

In one case, a lottery budget analyst confessed in December 2002 to lying during a Legislative Appropriations Request hearing for fear of losing his job.

Leaders criticized
According to an internal lottery investigation, Daniel Benjamin said his supervisor pressured him to pad the agency's budget up to $4 million by including fringe payroll benefits so the agency could ask the Legislature for more money.

When a legislative budget analyst asked if the fringe benefits had been removed from the budget, Benjamin lied and said yes.

"He did not feel that he was allowed to give honest feedback regarding situations he did not agree with," an internal investigator wrote in 2003.

An early 2004 human resources probe at the lottery documented employee complaints of verbal abuse, neglect and fear of retaliation that sent some employees weeping in the bathroom, others avoiding the department, and still others accepting demotions to escape.

The human resources director at the time, Jim Richardson, was also cited in the report for long delays in investigations, ignoring employee complaints and perpetuating a stressful atmosphere.

In September, Grief recommended a 4 percent merit raise for Richardson. Two months later, Richardson resigned in lieu of termination.

His replacement, Diane Morris, has drawn criticism as well, most recently before Flores' committee.

Morris defended her right to fire employees without warning or reason, saying due process was unnecessary. She acknowledged that the agency doesn't document employee problems in some cases.

That shocked Rep. Corbin Van Arsdale, R-Tomball, who asked how the agency might defend itself against a discrimination lawsuit.

Sworn testimony, Morris replied.

"So," Van Arsdale continued, "he-said, she-said and you just hope the jury sides with you?"

Morris paused, then nodded.

"Wow," Van Arsdale said.

Flores said he's working on change, even though reform legislation he filed didn't get much support this special session. He plans on refiling in January 2007.

Without change, he said, the lottery's chances are slim:

"It has a 26-to-1 million chance of being run right," Flores said. "Kind of like winning the lottery."


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The Lotto Report
Dawn Nettles
P. O. Box 495033
Garland, Texas 75049-5033
(972) 686-0660
(972) 681-1048 Fax

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