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updated: 8/3/2011 3:27 PM

State workers not fired for fireable offenses

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  • Ricardo Meza

      Ricardo Meza

 
 

John Grana lost nearly a year's worth of pay but is happy to have his job back.

That's because the state's chief ethics officer suggested it could be taken away, but was trumped, as sometimes happens with ethics recommendations, by a union contract.

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An investigation by the Illinois executive inspector general's office determined that Grana, a 16-year Illinois Department of Transportation veteran from Roselle, solicited gifts from underlings at the agency's Schaumburg service yard in exchange for better work assignments. It also found he misused his state email account by sending personal missives laced with sexually inappropriate and racially insensitive material. In the report, Grana denies many of the accusations.

Based on the report's conclusions, Executive Inspector General Ricardo Meza suggested Grana could be fired from his $75,264-a-year highway maintenance supervisor job. And IDOT managers did suspend Grana without pay for 192 work days -- nearly three-quarters of a work year -- and ordered him to undergo ethics retraining. But a collective bargaining agreement protected him from losing his job.

"I was punished," he said. "I'm fine with the way it is. I have my job back."

Grana isn't alone. In other cases, disciplinary recommendations by Meza's office were either ignored or reduced as well, allowing rule-breaking employees to serve suspensions, resign with benefits or simply move to another department without repercussion.

"What a waste of time and energy to go through an investigation and render a recommendation that isn't even possible," complained Downers Grove Republican state Sen. Ron Sandack. "A conclusion that is reachable, that ought to be attainable, is necessary, otherwise the inspector general is spinning his wheels."

Sandack said Gov. Pat Quinn should mandate that statewide department heads address the situation in order to "put some teeth in the inspector general's reports."

Department heads, not Meza, are responsible for doling out punishment. Transportation officials said Grana's punishment had to be negotiated.

"This is a collective bargaining position, and the agency followed the process in place to deal with disciplinary actions," said Josh Kauffman, an IDOT spokesman.

Union officials defend the collective bargaining rules. They argue the process protects more good employees than it does bad ones. Meza isn't holding a grudge against transportation department hierarchy who allowed Grana back despite the contents of his office's scathing report.

"Frankly, as far as I'm concerned, once we've made a recommendation, that's all it is, and I'm fine with that," Meza, an Arlington Heights resident, said. "If we make a recommendation of termination and you don't terminate, I'm not going to be upset. But if (that employee's) name comes up again, we're going to be sure to mention that we recommended that the employee be discharged."

Meza's office published 27 disciplinary reports in the past fiscal year, which ended in June. That's three times the number published last year. While two-thirds of the state employees investigated were either fired, quit or retired, Grana was one of nine who kept their jobs. He isn't pleased that the report is accessible to anyone online, but understands why it is.

"Being a public employee, it's public record," he said.

Meza's office has jurisdiction over 175,000 state employees. Over the past year, his 24-person investigation team handled more than 2,100 allegations.

When Meza took office in September 2010, there was a backlog of 256 open cases. By the end of June this year, that number was down to 102, he said. Only investigative reports that result in a state worker receiving at least a three-day suspension from work are published, officials said.

Meza doesn't believe his office should take over punitive responsibilities, nor does he believe in a unified punishment system.

"There are no two cases that are exactly the same," he said. "Every factual scenario is different and unique."

But that's not to say Meza doesn't take issue with the way some departments handle the punishment process. One of his office's most recently released investigative reports details the improprieties of Scott Flood, a longtime downstate Department of Natural Resources worker who investigators determined slept on the job, misused his state vehicle for personal trips and often showed up late to work while leaving the job early.

Meza's office recommended terminating Flood. Initially, DNR officials stated they planned to fire him, but later allowed him to resign after being put on administrative leave -- with pay -- and becoming vested in the state retirement system. Meza said he was confused by the department's about-face. Department officials told downstate media outlets that allowing Flood to resign potentially saved the state millions of dollars in litigation costs since Flood intended to fight the allegations.

Sandack said examples like that show why state department policies need to be re-examined.

"We're hurting the state and helping bad workers," he said.

To view all of the executive inspector general's disciplinary investigation reports visit, www2.illinois.gov/oeig/Pages/PublishedOEIGCases.aspx.

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