MDHA retaliated against whistleblower, according to federal investigation

By: - July 26, 2021 5:01 am
A federal agency found the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency fired employee Amanda Woods after she brought compliance issues to agency leaders, a violation of the federal Whistleblower Protection Act. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A federal agency found the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency fired employee Amanda Wood after she brought compliance issues to agency leaders, a violation of the federal Whistleblower Protection Act. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Metro Development and Housing Agency retaliated against a whistleblower who reported poor supervision of workers participating in a federal jobs program, suspending her without pay and effectively demoting her last year.

Two federal investigation reports detailed the findings that MDHA retaliated against Amanda Wood, a veteran of the agency with a track record of excellent performance reviews and pay raises. The whistleblower retaliation was also reported to Congress by AmeriCorps earlier this year, providing an embarrassing black mark on MDHA’s reputation.

Wood said she was retaliated against for trying to improve a situation where AmeriCorps workers housed in the Nashville mayor’s office were not being supervised or directed how to spend their time. But when she tried to bring the problem up, Wood faced retaliation, according to an investigation report by the AmeriCorps Office of Inspector General.

As a result of the investigation, MDHA was forced to repay Wood her lost wages, restore her to her former position and responsibilities and expunge her personnel file of any references to misconduct. It was a decisive victory for Wood, but the situation still sidetracked her career.

Wood, who worked for MDHA for seven years, said she was effectively forced to resign last month even after the federal investigations found she had been retaliated against. Wood also said MDHA violated the law when it failed to disclose its compliance issues on subsequent AmeriCorps applications.

“My raising the issue should have been the opportunity to get bigger, better, stronger, more transparent,” Wood said. “And it wasn’t. Instead, I got punished. And, yes, this happened to me. But it’s a bigger issue.”

In emailed responses to questions posed by the Tennessee Lookout, an MDHA spokeswoman said there were no findings of noncompliance with the federal contracts and denied that Wood was retaliated against.

How the VISTA program works

The MDHA contract in question was AmeriCorps’ volunteers in service to America (VISTA) jobs program. The federally funded VISTA program sends highly skilled and educated people to work on anti-poverty initiatives. In Nashville, the program was part of the Promise Zone initiative launched under former Mayor Megan Barry’s administration. At the time the issues arose, Wood served as MDHA’s program manager for the Promise Zone.

The AmeriCorps VISTA arrangement was complicated, because the partnership was overseen by MDHA, but the workers were housed in the mayor’s office. Metro Council approved a memorandum of understanding detailing the partnership between the mayor’s office and MDHA in 2018 when Barry was mayor.

Wood told the Tennessee Lookout that the problem arose when the VISTA workers complained that they were sitting around for hours on end without being told what to do. The issue spanned 2019 to 2020 under two mayors – David Briley and John Cooper.

The rapid turnover in the mayor’s office contributed to the lack of oversight. The program was a key initiative of the Barry administration, before being passed to Briley and then Cooper.

Lack of supervision raised as a problem

According to the AmeriCorps Office of Inspector General investigative report released on March 1, Wood emailed a high ranking MDHA official in July, 2019 an outline of how she intended to manage the VISTA program. According to the report, Wood explained “that she wanted to gain insight into the challenges, supervisory needs, and job needs affecting the VISTAs, as some VISTAs serving at the (mayor’s office) reported to her a lack of direction, not connecting with their supervisor, and not knowing what service to perform.”

Wood continued to flag compliance issues due to lack of supervision to supervisors, according to the inspector general report. The issue got so bad that the lead VISTA worker, instead of an official in the mayor’s office, was sending timesheets to be approved by Wood.

“Basically these workers were showing up and not being told what to do, given any direction. They were just sitting there,” Wood said.

A spokesperson for MDHA denied the agency retaliated against Wood but the Office of Inspector General’s findings were unambiguous that Wood was the victim of whistleblower retaliation. The whistleblower retaliation was also reported to Congress by AmeriCorps earlier this year, providing an embarrassing black mark on MDHA’s reputation.

Wood wasn’t the only person flagging the issue of inadequate supervision for the VISTA workers. One of the VISTA workers directly filed a complaint with AmeriCorps about the problem. That complaint caused a higher ranking AmeriCorps official to contact Wood about what was going on, according to emails reviewed by the Tennessee Lookout.

“(Wood) made several protected disclosures to her supervisors and to the AmeriCorps Portfolio Manager relating to MDHA’s alleged non‐compliance regarding VISTA site supervision between July 2019 and February 2020,” the AmeriCorps inspector general report states. “As described in detail above, (Wood) made disclosures to her supervisory chain on July 22 and 23, 2019, and on January 23, 2020. These were protected disclosures because they were properly directed to employees of the grantee who have the responsibility to ‘investigate, discover, or address misconduct.’”

At the same time the supervision issues were coming to the forefront, MDHA actually applied to renew the VISTA program and bring in more workers. Under the program, the federal government pays the workers’ wages, and the VISTA workers are trading low pay in exchange for the valuable experience of working on the front line of anti-poverty issues with top city officials.

During a disciplinary hearing later in 2020, Wood told MDHA Executive Director Jim Harbison that she believed it would be “unethical to continue recruiting for positions while supervision issues persisted.” 

Her solution was to pause having the VISTA workers supervised by the mayor’s office, bring the workers to MDHA under her supervision for 30 days to reset the programs and provide clear direction to the six workers.

MDHA responded by disciplining Wood

After months of raising the noncompliance issue, Wood said she began to face retaliation from MDHA officials. First, she was ordered to include her supervisors on all communications with the mayor’s office, AmeriCorps staffers or partners from the nonprofit community who worked on the anti-poverty initiatives.

Over the span of several weeks, supervision of the VISTA program was removed from Wood’s responsibilities. She was subsequently demoted to a lesser position, though her salary did not change, and suspended without pay for eight days for the allegation of disobeying the edict not to talk to outside partners without including supervisors. 

Wood appealed the discipline to Harbison, who eventually upheld the suspension, but not before offering her half a year’s salary and the promise of a good recommendation if she would resign from the agency and sign a nondisclosure agreement. Wood turned down that offer, served her suspension and then returned to work.

“Specifically, the disciplinary hearing was scheduled approximately one month after (Wood) sent written complaints to MDHA, the request for the disciplinary conference referred directly to her failure to follow the instruction to include MDHA’s management in her communications with community partners, including AmeriCorps, and the decision to suspend her without pay came within a month of receiving notification from AmeriCorps’ Portfolio Manager imposing corrective actions involving the VISTA program and praising (Wood) for her efforts,” the inspector general investigative report states.

MDHA director Jim Harbison eventually upheld Wood’s suspension, but not before offering her half a year’s salary and the promise of a good recommendation if she would resign from the agency and sign a nondisclosure agreement.

MDHA insisted throughout the process it had other reasons for disciplining and suspending Wood. Through a spokeswoman, MDHA denied to the Tennessee Lookout that any retaliation took place.

AmeriCorps investigation sided with Wood as a whistleblower

Wood did not take her punishment without a fight. She began documenting her exchanges with her supervisors, saving emails and other documents and secretly recording conversations with top MDHA officials.

The Office of Inspector General’s findings were unambiguous that Wood was the victim of whistleblower retaliation. 

Wood’s detailed documentation served as the foundation for the inspector general’s conclusion that “Our investigation found evidence, including taped statements by MDHA officials, that MDHA took certain personnel actions against (Wood) because of her protected disclosures. MDHA was unable to rebut the allegations or to show by clear and convincing evidence that it would have taken all of the same personnel actions absent (Wood’s) disclosures.”

The inspector general ordered MDHA to pay Wood for the eight days she missed, remove all references to disciplinary action related to the issues she raised and restore her position and responsibilities. 

MDHA disputed the findings of the investigation, which under the law meant the matter was sent up the chain to the AmeriCorps CEO to either uphold the inspector general’s findings or side with MDHA. In a detailed response written by an attorney, MDHA said its punishment of Wood was due to interpersonal conflict, not because of her protected disclosures. Her communications outside the chain of command threatened MDHA’s relationships, the agency argued.

On March 31, acting CEO of AmeriCorps Malcolm Coles was emphatic in siding with Wood.

“Again, an election by the MDHA supervisory chain to dismiss its employee’s communications or to selectively interpret them as involving mere personnel matters (interpersonal conflict) does not shield them from the statutory requirement that they refrain from retaliating against whistleblowing employees,” Coles said in his March 31 memorandum and order, concluding with his findings that MDHA was wrong to say it had other reasons for disciplining Wood.

“Finally, (MDHA) asserts that there were other explanations for the disciplinary actions taken against (Wood). These post hoc rationalizations are neither persuasive nor relevant. The (law) forbids retaliation against a whistleblower unless the employer can prove by clear and convincing evidence that the protected disclosure was not a contributing factor to the personnel action. (MDHA) has failed to do so.”

In a legally required semi-annual report to Congress, AmeriCorps disclosed the whistleblower retaliation against Wood by MDHA.

An MDHA spokeswoman said the inspector general report did not find that the agency was in noncompliance. MDHA has continued to participate in the VISTA program, the spokeswoman said.

However, email records show that AmeriCorps officials chastised MDHA for lack of supervision and provided a corrective action plan to fix the issue.

Wood: I was forced to leave

Wood returned to work with her missed pay restored, but she said she continued to be treated differently by MDHA management. Wood told the Tennessee Lookout that she considers what happened to her a symptom of a broader problem.

Wood said that after the inspector general’s orders, MDHA conducted her annual performance review as the demoted position, instead of her original role to which she’d been reinstated. The performance review was six months late, Wood said.

The agency threatened to sever her tele-work agreement while she waited for a daycare spot to open up for her daughter. Wood said those actions, even after the investigations took her side, forced her to resign in June.

“MDHA viewed me as disloyal,” she said.

Wood said the most frustrating part of the ordeal in recent weeks has been the inability to bring the issue to the attention of the MDHA board of directors, which is appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Metro Council.

Following an email from Wood attempting to shine a light on the whistleblower investigation, MDHA board member Paulette Coleman dismissed the issue saying the board does not get involved in “personnel matters” that don’t result in termination.

“Consequently, I have never seen any of the documentation regarding your case,” Coleman told Wood in a May 13 email. “Your case was never brought before the MDHA commission, nor should it have been brought to the commission as it did not involve termination.”

However, Metro Councilman Bob Mendes expressed concerns to the Tennessee Lookout about how Wood was treated by MDHA for raising simple compliance issues.

Earlier this month, the MDHA board voted to hire a new executive director to replace Harbison. Mayor John Cooper’s administration severed the memorandum of understanding with MDHA related to the VISTA program in April, 2020, placing the AmeriCorps workers directly under the department’s supervision once again.

“When an employee reports program failures through proper federal channels, they shouldn’t be punished,” Mendes said. “With MDHA administering so many local, state, and federal dollars, its employees need to be able to report back to funding agencies when there is a problem without fear of reprisals. As MDHA transitions to a new Executive Director (Troy White), I hope a “chain of command” culture becomes more and more a thing of the past.”

 

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Nate Rau
Nate Rau

Nate Rau has a granular knowledge of Nashville’s government and power brokers, having spent more than a decade with the Tennessean, navigating the ins and outs of government deals as an investigative reporter. During his career at The Tennessean and The City Paper, he covered the music industry and Metro government and won praise for hard-hitting series on concussions in youth sports and deaths at a Tennessee drug rehabilitation center. In a state of Titans and Vols fans, Nate is an unabashed Green Bay Packers and Chicago Cubs fan.

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