20th Dec 2012
By Marty Toohey, American-Statesman Staff
A former manager at the Texas Water Development Board is suing the agency, alleging she was fired for voicing support for a liberal Austin City Council candidate even as at least a dozen other employees used state computers to swap conservativeand sometimes racist messages without repercussions.
The lawsuit, filed this week in U.S. District Court, states at least a dozen development board staff members were regularly sending and receiving emails on their work accounts about political matters unrelated to state water policy. Among 15 pages of emails included in the lawsuit are messages critical of President Barack Obama and disparaging of African-Americans.
One email, from Water Development Board employee Mark Michon to fellow employee Sanjeev Kalaswad, among others, reads: “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Give the man a welfare check, a forty ounce malt liquor, a crack pipe and some Air Jordans and he votes Democrat for a lifetime.”
The lawsuit states the emails were obtained through an open-records request to the Water Development Board for emails sent to and from the agency’s computers. Agency rules prohibit “any political activity on state time or using state resources for any political activity.”
Water Development Board spokeswoman Merry Klonower said the agency had no comment on any portion of the lawsuit, including emails to and from employees, per the board’s standard policy during litigation.
“We haven’t even seen the suit, and it will go straight to our legal department” and the state attorney general’s office, Klonower said.
Calls this week to Michon and Kalaswad were not returned.
The lawsuit claims that Diane Hyatt, the fired manager, was dismissed on political grounds. In May, just before her firing, she was quoted in an American-Statesman article as supporting then-mayoral candidate Brigid Shea, whose campaign listed Hyatt as a bundler of about $7,000 in campaign contributions. (Shea lost to Mayor Lee Leffingwell.)
Hyatt had hosted a fundraising party for Shea, and her work email was used in the planning of that event, Hyatt and Shea said. Hyatt told the Statesman the campaign mistakenly sent emails to her work account; she said she immediately forwarded those messages to her personal account to read at home and asked the Shea campaign to instead use the personal address. Shea said that recollection is correct.
Hyatt’s lawyer, Derek Howard, claims the forwarded emails and agency policy were used as cover when Water Development Board managers wanted to fire Hyatt for expressing political views that could be construed as different from those of the agency’s board of directors, who were appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican. Howard points to the emails of other employees as evidence of selective enforcement of the political activity prohibition.
City Council elections are nonpartisan, but both Shea and Leffingwell consider themselves liberals.
“It’s our contention that a rule that isn’t enforced isn’t a rule at all,” Howard said. “It should not be used as a silver bullet to fire employees who hold political views you disagree with. The only conclusion is that the email was a pretextual excuse for firing her.”
Citing an open-records request, Howard said it has been 16 years since the Water Development Board has disciplined an employee for political activity using state resources.
“I don’t think this is a Democrat-Republican thing. I know plenty of folks who vote Republican who would be appalled by what’s happened here,” Howard said. “We know these emails we’ve uncovered are now known to the Water Development Board, and it’s our understanding they haven’t done anything about them.”
The article that Hyatt said sparked her firing appeared on Statesman digital platforms on May 9 and ran in the May 10 print edition. That morning, Water Development Board managers emailed one another noting that Hyatt was mentioned in a Statesman article, which also identified Hyatt’s role with the Water Development Board.
Hyatt was fired May 11. The lawsuit states that when Hyatt was called into the office of her superior she asked if the meeting was about the article, and that Lisa Glenn, the Water Development Board’s deputy executive administrator, replied yes.
This isn’t the first time Hyatt has been in the news. In 2005, as the city was carrying out a $400 million sewer-replacement project, several large engineering firms were lodging numerous allegations against the program’s director, Bill Moriarty — including that he was improperly directing consulting work to Hyatt, with whom he had become romantically involved.
Moriarty and Hyatt disputed the claim. City management ultimately fired Moriarty on the grounds that Hyatt’s work constituted a conflict of interest. Hyatt said none of the work she received had been awarded by Moriarty. The city auditor’s office later concluded that the allegations against Moriarty were unsubstantiated, and the city and engineering firms settled lawsuits that Moriarty filed over the matter.
According the lawsuit filed this week, Hyatt went to work for the Water Development Board in November 2006 as an environmental reviewer and was promoted in 2008 to coordinator of the State Revolving Fund. The lawsuit states she hadn’t been disciplined prior to her firing.
“I wasn’t trying to find anyone doing anything wrong,” Hyatt said. “I just wanted to find out if anyone else was doing the things I was fired for.”
One message she uncovered, from Michon, takes note of reports that General Electric plans to move the headquarters of its X-ray business from Waukesha, Wis., to Beijing, a move the company said involved a few top managers. The email notes that the company’s CEO and board chairman, Jeffrey Immelt, was also picked to lead Obama’s job-creation commission.
The email concludes: “If this doesn’t show you the total lack of leadership of this president, I don’t know what does. Please pass this information to others and think about it before you buy a GE product.”