Racial harassment at Vero Beach power plant being investigated

VERO BEACH — The City of Vero Beach has hired a Miami law firm to investigate a power utility employee’s complaint that he was subjected to repeated racial harassment and, most recently, told to falsify inventory records by his superiors.

Employment and labor law firm Ford & Harrison is collecting documents and interviewing employees about allegations of racial and ethnic harassment, after an Indian employee filed a complaint with the city claiming repeated incidents over three years.

“We engaged outside Counsel in order to ensure that we have the investigation conducted by an independent party,” Vero Beach Human Resources Director Robert Anderson said in a memo seeking public records. “Also, an attorney specializing in labor law will be able to provide us with an opinion if there were any violations of law and make recommendations for corrective actions if necessary.”

The employee’s complaint, filed in October and obtained by our sister publication, Vero Beach 32963, alleges that the harassment began on the day he arrived.

“My first day at the power plant, the Director, Mr. Jim Stevens told me that ‘there were a lot of redneck employees at the facility and I should not take offense to anything they may say or do that would be offensive.’ He also reiterated to me, that ‘whatever happens at the power plant, stays at the power plant’.”

Interim City Manager Monte Falls confirmed the probe.

“I take discrimination very seriously,” Falls said.

As of Wednesday evening, the Vero Beach City Council had not been briefed on the matter.

The specific events spelled out in the complaint occurred in 2010, and provide a look inside the plant’s culture, where employees routinely use racial slurs, derogatory language and, in this specific case, allegedly made references to the complainant’s ethic background.

Many of the statements relayed in the complaint are personal, vulgar in nature and laced with profanity. Some refer to the size of the employee’s wife and to the ethnicity and appearance of his children in a derogatory way.

The employee claims that he has been paged on the power plant intercom system as “Bin Laden” and as “Saddam Hussein.”

“Mr. (name withheld) will constantly refer to me as “mother (expletive) Hindu” or if we were talking about something and he did not agree with me, he said “you mother (expletive) Hindu, let me go get my gun from my locker,” the employee wrote.

The employee said that although he was unhappy and uncomfortable with the racial and ethnic comments over the years, he only decided to file his complaint this fall when he was asked, he says in the complaint, to falsify records.

The employee claims his supervisor repeatedly demanded that he falsify inventory records for which he was responsible. He claims that he was told to move expensive plant components from inventory to “in service,” meaning they were installed, but that when he checked with the mechanics, they could not account for when or where the parts had been used.

“Due to this inventory issue, I have received harassment from (name withheld). He wants me to give in and allocate parts that don’t exist to work orders,” the complaint states.

Earlier in the year, the employee claims he was asked to provide documentation to back up a falsified fuel inventory after the Orlando Utilities Commission delivered more fuel oil to the power plant than was invoiced, then OUC caught the mistake later.

“There was an instance, where OUC did not charge us the correct amount for the fuel use; I informed Jim Stevens about it, he said: ‘Don’t worry about it, don’t tell them about it.’ All of this is documented and there is proof of all this,” the complaint states.

City emails between Stevens and OUC show that the city squabbled for weeks with the Orlando provider over oil deliveries. According to the employee, he attempted to work things out with his supervisors and co-workers and filed the complaint only when those attempts did not result in improved work conditions.

The complaint concludes by expressing the wishes of the employee to work things out.

Since filing his complaint, the employee has been put on paid administrative leave pending the investigation.

Days before the employee sent his complaint to Anderson, the power plant staff gathered for a meeting billed as “harassment training.” It was recorded on audio by the city.

In that recording, plant employees are heard asking Stevens whether calling each other “Jews and Wops” was off limits.

When another employee couldn’t hear the question, Stevens repeats it, “(name inaudible) asked if ‘Jews and Wops were off limits,” Stevens says.

He never answered the question.

The roomful of workers is heard laughing.

According to Vero Beach records, offiicials expect to have the investigation wrapped up in two weeks.

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