FOX 25 Investigates: What wrongful terminations are costing taxpayers
OKLAHOMA CITY (KOKH) —
It is the agency that wants tells the world to "Travel OK," but the leaders at the Department of Tourism and Recreation have already admitted the agency made mistakes in handling taxpayer money. What they’ve not talked about are other instances of the questionable spending of taxpayer dollars.
FOX 25 has already shared the story of the state park ranger who's case was won when the state employment court ruled had been wrongfully terminated by the department of tourism after he had tried to take his earned sick time for additional recovery from an on-the-job injury.
The ruling against the Department of Tourism is not an isolated incident.
Like any business, at the Department of Tourism, there is a need to fire employees from time to time. One person that knows that better than most is Sterling Zearley, now the executive director for the Oklahoma Public Employees Association (OPEA), who spent more than two decades at Tourism managing state parks.
“I was in management 10 years before I came to OPEA,” Zearley told FOX 25, “And I understand that we have to discharge employees.”
“Never lost a case,” Zearley said of his time as a Tourism manager who had to fire employees, “Only had one case that went to Merit Protection and won that one because we did it the right way.”
However, Zearley now represents public employee interests with the OPEA says in the last five years courts have told the Department of Tourism they’ve acted contrary to the law in how they’ve handled a dozen different employees.
“I can name you four or five cases,” Zearley said. “Here's my fear is, I don't know how many people are out there that they've done it and employees have not said a word.”
In a 2015 decision, the Merit Protection Commission found Tourism leaders failed to notify an employee it was holding a hearing to terminate her. It was a course of action that began while she was on protected medical leave.
In another case, OPEA represented a state employee who was fighting her termination. Court records show agency leaders at the Department of Tourism attempted put that woman in the same room as the man she had a protection order against, which would have violated the court order.
“She was horrified, she broke down,” Zearley said of the scene when the woman walked off the elevator to see the man standing with Tourism leaders. “Luckily our attorney got that stopped and then we scheduled the hearing and had that gentleman removed so he could not be in the same building with her.”
That incident occurred even though the agency's Human Resourced Director would eventually testify that his internal investigation failed to support the reasons for the woman’s firing to begin with.
In a review of records and cases, FOX 25 has confirmed the Tourism Department has paid out nearly $200,000 dollars in settlements and judgements in the last two years alone.
“I don't know how much money they've spent they have outside counsel on some of this stuff they've spent thousands and thousands of dollars in outside counsel thousands and thousands of dollars on manpower for this when they were wrong,” Zearley said. “They were wrong when they started and everybody has told them they were wrong all the way up through district court so far.”
It isn't just internal time being used.
According to records obtained by FOX 25 through the Attorney General's office, which has to sign off on the hiring of outside attorneys, the 2016 report shows tourism spent $22,884.50 on outside attorneys. The contract to fight one of the termination cases is ongoing and authorizes expenses up to $50,000.
This money is being spent to continue to fight a case in which the district court ruled Tourism was out of line when it tried to force employees to move jobs, sometimes up to 100-miles away, instead of paying them the required severance pay when a park job ended.
“Why don't they use that money to renovate cabins lodges like they've done down at Lake Murray so they generate money back into the appropriations for those issues like mental health,” Zearley said.
It isn't just the fact Tourism is losing cases, but they've also fought orders to pay employees back pay for the time they were without work due to the wrongful terminations.
The Department of Tourism said the agency does not comment on employee personnel actions.