Thursday, January 23, 2014
Huff ignored whistleblower's 10-page letter about Mike Johnson
Through all of those times, whether it be through actions taken by Assistant Superintendent Angie Besendorfer, Building, Grounds, and Transportation Director Mike Johnson (now in charge of the district's building projects), or other top-layer officials, C. J. Huff has come down hard on those who dare question his top aides.
Such was the case in 2011, when Luther Hunt, one of the district's two environmental control/utility workers at the time, wrote a 10-page letter to C. J. Huff detailing problems with Johnson, including explosive temperamental outbursts, purposeful ignoring of safety laws and regulations, telling a story about the death of a child that had never happened, and making references to "morons, idiots, retards, and savages."
According to Hunt, Johnson also routinely punished principals he did not like by delaying work orders.
After the letter, despite assurances from Huff and Human Resources Director Tina Smith nothing was done about Hunt's complaints, he began having problems at work, and he eventually quit.
"Claimant demonstrated good faith by sharing his concerns with his employer. He could not do so sooner because of the power that the director appeared to have in the administration. Claimant could see that if the complaint did not yield results that he would have to leave or be at risk for retaliation.
Claimant's decision to leave was reasonable and done in good faith. His were directly attributable to his work and to his employer. He has met his burden of proving good cause."
Hunt's letter is printed below:
It is with deep concern and humility that I feel compelled to report an ever-worsening situation regarding Building, Grounds, and Transportation Director John Michael (Mike) Johnson. This is done with an awareness of both physical and professional risk to me, and possibly to others.
I began employment with the Joplin R-8 School District as a bus driver in March of 2007. In July of 2007 I started my current position as one of two environmental control/utility workers. Mike Cory and I were hired at the same time by Mr. David (Dave) Pettit, then supervisor of craftsmen, to fill the two positions. The Environmental Control , or EC, component of my job deals primarily with the asbestos in our buildings. The utility aspect covers almost anything that might need done as well as substitute bus driving.
It is important that I mention Mr. Cory, in that he is the other EC worker, and that he is privy to much of the information that follows. He began work in the district as a custodian directly after graduating high school in 1997. He held this position until he was hired as EC. He is neither aware of this letter, nor should he be held accountable for any of my statements.
Mr. Johnson was hired as the Director of Building, Grounds, and Transportation, sometimes referred to as BGT, in June of 2007. Since this time he has exhibited erratic, threatening, and unprofessional conduct. I have experienced this both first hand and through coworkers. His mood swings fluctuate between giddy (almost childlike) and furious. Following are some examples of this behavior.
My first encounter with Mike Johnson was through his surrogate, Dave Pettit. Mike Cory and I completed two 40-hour asbestos training sessions within the first few months of our employment as EC workers. Shortly after training, Dave called me into his office and asked me what we needed in order to perform asbestos abatement (removal). Per our training, I told him that first we needed to have pulmonary evaluations (medicals) in order to be fit tested for our protective masks. This was standard procedure and had been done by the preceding EC workers prior to my employment. My demeanor was matter of fact.
Within days, my partner and I were called into Dave's office. He informed us that Mr. Johnson was angry, and that he had said "we should not make demands and that he would farm our jobs out to someone else" I was stunned as I had simply answered Dave's question (and mind you, I had just started this job). I had demanded nothing. Mr. Cory was dazed as he also did not understand this threat. Dave informed us that he too feared for his job and that he did not want to do anything to upset his new boss.
The tone was set in very clear terms that if we wished to stay employed at R-8, we were in no way to displease Mike Johnson. It was because of this that Mike Cory and I knowingly put ourselves at risk and performed asbestos removals without the requisite medical screening. Neither of us would have put others at risk. We also did not press any issue with Mr. Johnson concerning his decisions regarding the treatment of asbestos.
Within our first year as environmental control workers, the school district received a surprise visit from an inspector (Mr. Randal Whipple) with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the primary governing body enforcing adherence to the Asbestos Hazardous Emergency Response Act (AHERA). This act directs school districts to implement and maintain an Asbestos Management Plan (AMP)
Mike Johnson was visibly shaken, as he bemoaned that he was sure he was going to lose his job because he knew that our asbestos program was in shambles. With a red face and sweat pouring off his head, he stepped toward me and told me, "You should have written letters or done something to make me do my job." I responded, "I'm sorry, Mr. Johnson, but after you threatened us, I was a little gun shy."
During the three-day investigation, Mr. Johnson avoided the whole situation and told Dave Pettit that he was responsible for everything. We were told (in veiled threats) not to volunteer any information and yet to appear cooperative. We were instructed to answer Mr. Whipple's questions, but to do so in a way that did not reflect poorly on the district (i.e. Mike Johnson).
Mr. Whipple asked me if I had engaged in any asbestos abatement. I answered, "Yes." He then asked if I wore a protective mask. Again, I answered, "Yes." Next, he asked if I had received the pulmonary screening. This time, I told him "No." He then asked if I was aware that such a screening was required. I responded, "Yes."
The investigation revealed that our program was indeed lacking, and this prompted Mr. Johnson to appoint Dave Pettit as the Designated Person (DP). This position is the primary point of contact for the EPA and is responsible for overseeing that the AMP is brought up and kept in compliance with federal regulations.
The criminal activities that Mr. Johnson feared being charged with never came to bear. As a token of his gratitude for our "protection," Mr. Johnson gave Mike Cory a card thanking us for "keeping him out of EPA handcuffs." I believe Mr. Cory still has this card in his desk.
The EPA inspector had given Mr. Johnson an order delineating the necessary steps to begin to bring our program into compliance. This order prompted Mr. Johnson to task Mr. Cory and me with the assignment of wading through stacks of unorganized paperwork and setting up a system that met the EPA guidelines for an Asbestos Management Plan.
My partner, Mike Cory, and I spent approximately four months cleaning up 20 years of paperwork concerning the R-8 Asbestos Program. This was in accordance with the requests of the EPA. We made sure that all documentation was in order. This meant that each campus had a copy of the AMP that covered the buildings at the particular location, with a master set of AMPs at BGT. These masters are exact duplicates of the AMPS at the individual campuses.
Also at BGT, we have all of the supporting documentation for the AMP. This includes, but is not limited to, a record of any response actions (e. g. removal or repair) and any testing (to positively identify the presence of asbestos) for all of the buildings in the district. These records are mandated by law, and are to be made available for public viewing.
In addition to keeping track of response actions and testing we are also required to perform a semi-annual Periodic Surveillance Report (PSR). This entails a visual inspection of all materials that have either been positively identified as Asbestos Containing Building Material (ACBM) or might be ACBM. This inspection is done to assess the condition of the material and then to determine what response action should be taken. It is also the responsibility of the inspector to identify any suspect materials that were either previously overlooked or that had been added.
It is important to note that any material that has been determined to possibly contain asbestos is to be treated as though it does contain asbestos. This is known as Presumed Asbestos Containing Material or PACM. This PACM is handled in the exact same way as known ACBM until such time as the material has been tested by a qualified laboratory and proven to be asbestos-free.
Also required as part of an ongoing AMP, a tri-annual inspection must be performed. This was done for Joplin Schools in 2009 by an outside company., Terracon. As Dave Pettit was still the Designated Person, he asked Mike Cory and me to provide him with a list of any response actions and testing that needed to be done. He also wanted feedback on the "three-year" inspection.
We provided Mr. Pettit with a comprehensive list of Needed Response Actions, Needed Testing, and a list of questions/concerns regarding Terracon's inspection. As part of this report, we also provided what we felt were the most urgent areas requiring attention regarding response or testing. These were prioritized based upon Mr. Cory's and my professional judgment. I gave this report to Dave Pettit 24 September 2009.
To date, I know of no action that has been taken with respect to this report. Since I first gave Mr. Pettit a copy of this report, I have personally given Dave at least one additional copy at a later time, and have also personally given Mike Johnson copies on more than one occasion. I would be pleased to provide you a copy of this reports, as well.
Shortly after the visit by the EPA, Mike Johnson decided that we would no longer do in-house abatement. The upside of this was a decreased personal risk to Mr. Cory and me. The downside was that we still needed to ensure that any actions taken by an outside company were done properly. More than once we have had to impress upon workers for an outside contractor that variations from legal abatement would not be tolerated, especially with children involved. (We have found that some asbestos workers will do substandard work when allowed to do so.)
One example of a lackluster commitment to abatement was when the attic at Memorial was abated. Mr. Pettit told me that they could not get clean air samples as required by law. He said that the attic was too full of debris to get it entirely clean. Once again, it was suggested that if I pushed any matter concerning compliance with federal regulations, that my employment and that of my co-worker would be terminated.
This and other abatements took place during the time that Mr. Pettit held the position of supervisor of skill craft. In the time following Mr. Whipple's inspection Mr. Johnson appeared to take the issue of asbestos in our school seriously. During that period, I believe that we were kept informed of any abatement and these activities were recorded in the books. However, we were continually reminded that even though Mr. Johnson had placed the responsibility for the program on the shoulders of Mr. Pettit, he retained absolute authority for any and all asbestos-related decisions.
Matters took a turn for the worse when Dave Pettit was made transportation secretary and given the title assistant director. (He retains the position of Designated Person.) Since that time, we have not been informed of any abatement, officially. We have been told by other skill craft that abatements were being done. We cannot record these if we are not informed.More disturbingly, we have received numerous unofficial reports from skill craft that they were ordered by Mr. Johnson to disturb ACBM and were told not to inform us or they would be fired.
One instance of which I am personally aware is the removal and covering of acoustic tiles in the music rooms at Memorial Education Center. These tiles were on the aforementioned request for testing lists given to Mr. Johnson and Dave. The carpenters were ordered to remove these with hammers. While we do not know if these tile were ACBM or not, they are presumed to be so until ruled out. There are many more instances where, in the name of expediency, Mr. Johnson has ordered unsafe practices.
In the summer of 2010, Mr. Johnson and I had a discussion at the practice football field at JHS. He asked me what was going on with the AMP. I told him that I had given the above-mentioned report, detailing the requested response actions and testing, to Dave Pettit, the DP. He then informed me that he would like a copy and that Dave was not adequate for the job of Designated Person.
Mr. Johnson then said that he was considering taking the position himself. He explained to me that he knew more about asbestos than anyone and that he did not require classes; quite the contrary, he should be teaching the classes.
My knowledge was limited to the training and annual licensing as an asbestos worker, supervisor, management planner, and inspector. My infrequent but ongoing conversations with Mr. Johnson led me to believe that he did not even possess a rudimentary understanding of asbestors and had very little regard for its potential hazard. A month or so later he asked me for another copy of the Requested Response Actions and Testing Report.
Mike Johnson's contempt for rules, regulations, and law are not limited to the district's legal obligations regarding the treatment of asbestos. He has also shown a disregard for the State of Missouri's Dig Rite requirements, the Department of Transportation's school bus pre-trip, the Joplin City Fire Department, and the Missouri Insurance Commission.
Mr. Johnson has repeatedly directed us to dig with a backhoe and/or other equipment without calling Dig Rite. This has been done both through Dave Pettit and then Pete Coleman. I have reminded both Mr. Pettit and Mr. Coleman that it is the law, and further, that it is a wise policy. One recent example of why we are required to notify Dig Rite happened just prior to school this year when he unearthed and came close to hitting a buried gas line at Washington. This is one of many examples. Once more, if anyone pushes the issue, they are reminded that Mr. Johnson has exercised his power of termination and will readily do so again.
On one occasion, which I will relate in more detail in the following paragraphs, Mr. Johnson ordered utility workers not to perform the pre-trip required by DOT. It has been determined that these daily inspections of commercial vehicles are necessary to ensure the safety of both passengers and that of other motorists. Mike Johnson decided that his reasoning trumped that of lawmakers, as I will explain later.
In another incident within this last year, I was asked to accompany Joplin city firemen to Junge Stadium and to the building formerly known as Refunction Junction near BGT. The issues at Junge Stadium were electrical in nature and the electrician, Steve Campbell, was able to rectify the problems.
It was a different situation at Refunction Junction. We were cited for storing bales of straw and gasoline containers in a room with electric heaters. I gave Mr. Johnson a copy of the citation and asked him if he wanted to know what was on it. He stated that he did not care what the Fire Marshal had to say. I informed Utility Lead-man Pete Coleman of the situation. He reminded me that were to take no action without Mr. Johnson's express approval.
Upon expiration of the citation, the firemen came back. By chance,I was once again sent to accompany them. They asked me why we were reluctant to comply. I told them what Mr. Johnson had said. They said that he would have to deal with the Fire Marshal. I apologized and said okay. I do not know what became of the citations, but the last time I checked, the straw and gasoline containers were still there.
In another instance, Mr. Johnson informed a utility worker and me that he was overstating our hours with regard to work we had done to fix a fence at Royal Heights that had been damaged by fallen trees. Mr. Johnson told us that he was doing so in an effort to garner more money from the insurance company with whom we had filed a claim. He said that he would use his "accounting prowess" to "pay for the whole thing." In my accounting training, we were taught a different term: insurance fraud.
In another example of Mr. Johnson's disrespect for the EPA, Mike Cory and I were asked to spray herbicide (exclusively) throughout the district. Mr. Johnson told us that what we were doing required a license, but that we would be "spraying under his license." Shortly after, part time bus drivers were also spraying herbicide throughout the district.
As part of our spraying assignment, we were asked to gather "Misty" spray from the building engineers. I reported to Mr. Johnson that many were hesitant to give up their supply; he became agitated and told me that "they will do what the hell they were told and no one around here outranks me!" I was taken aback as the response was neither ine line with my tone or intent. It was at this point that I realized that I needed to be particularly aware of his mindset as that of a threatened ruler.
Mike Johnson's unprofessional attitude is also exhibited in his personal conduct and interactions with others.
Not long after Mr. Johnson started in his current position he showed me that he had little concern for he wsa perceived by subordinates. When the mechanics were housed in the bus barn down on Wall Avenue, his adolescent side emerged when he did a power stall, spinning his back tires while remaining stationary in his service vehicle. He looked at me and grinned as the rear of his truck bounced on the driveway.
In a similar incident, I was westbound, stopped at the stoplight at the intersection of 15th Street and Connecticut Avenues in Joplin. The service vehicle I was driving was struck in the rear. I realized that it was a very low impact bumper collision and assumed that the driver behind me had brake failure. When I looked in my side mirror, Mr. Johnson was the driver behind me and he was laughing. I assumed that he was laughing because it was unintentional, but then he bumped me a second time and continued laughing.
Although I realized that his behavior was potentially dangerous and that he routinely drives without a seatbelt in direct violation of district policy and state law, I knew that to mention this was to incur his wrath. These were yet further evidence that, for whatever reason, he had no fear of being caught and/or disciplined for his actions.
Part of the job description of a utility worker is to be serve as a substitute school bus driver. Driving a bus is a challenge in and of itself. Under the best of circumstances, it requires a unique set of skills. A driver must safely pilot a very large piece of equipment while simultaneously maintaining order in a large mobile room of up to 60 unrestrained children.
These challenges are profoundly compounded on a route in which the sub driver must rely on the turn-by-turn directions of a route sheet. It is a rare occasion when one of these route sheets is correct. Reading a route sheet in the dark, with poorly marked addresses (such as in Greenwood) is extremely difficult and dangerous. The lack of knowledge of the route and the "wrong turns" resulting from inaccurate directions significantly increase the duration of the route.
It is also the norm that a sub driver receives a route assignment 20 to 30 minutes after the bus was schedule to start. This routinely occurs because the transportation staff does not know that a substitute is needed until the last minute. This often results in angry children and sometimes angry parents. It is also not uncommon for children to go home as they have given up on waiting for the bus. Further, it is also typical for children to test the substitute with unruly behavior.
This stressful and potentially hazardous condition becomes even more tenuous as a full-time employee, who has driven in the morning, worked all day, and then drives in the afternoon, begins to exhibit fatigue after this has gone on for weeks and then months.
The year before last, this situation was anonymously reported tot he school board (allegedly by Utility Worker Craig Roberts to his friend Randy Steele, a school board member at the time). All utility workers as a group were called into a meeting and given a letter, once again by Mike Johnson's surrogate, Dave Pettit, which stated Mr. Johnson/Management, was at fault and that the situation would be fixed. We were also informed (off the record) that Mr. Johnson was incensed that the school board was brought into it and that if it happened again "heads would roll."
We all knew that Mr. Johnson was vindictive and that he would exact his revenge at a later time.
Perhaps the most egregious incident was in the school year of 2010-2011, when in the morning Mr. Johnson called the utility crew into a meeting. His entire head was beet red and he was obviously distressed. He informed us that that morning a child was struck and killed by a car while awaiting a bus. He said the bus was late; the child became listless and began playing in the street. He then immediately followed that comment with the announcement that he would no longer be our director as he was being fired due to the situation.
My heart was in my throat and I was on the verge of vomiting, as I choked back my tears. I was still trying to catch my breath as he then announced that this is the situation that "could have happened" if we did not man our last-minute substitute routes in a timely manner; that is to say, that if this had actually occurred, it would have been the fault of the substitute driver. During the meeting I did not utter a word as I was in shock.
Later, I reflected on the situation and some things occurred to me. Mr. Johnson told us that in an effort to save time we were no longer to perform a DOT-required pre-trip inspection. He had unilaterally declared that timeliness was more important than an inspection. His argument mad sense in that the sooner the bus arrived on the scene the less likelihood of the above scenario happening.
However, there are a few other things to consider. First, having a good reason to break the law might be an acceptable reason for doing so. Given that this policy was not a one-time response to an unusual situation, management would have been wise to have acquired a variance, not simply to ignore the law, especially when one is directing a subordinate to do so, and the risk being to that of the subordinate's own state-issued license. Mike Johnson does not even have a school bus license.
Second, Mr. Johnson made it perfectly clear that the fictitious child died because of the utility staff. He made no mention of the actual driver who did not show up the management that routinely understaffed drivers, and the fact that a sub route was given to us on average 20 to 30 minutes after it was supposed to leave, the secretaries who used to be licensed, or he himself, who if he had been that concerned could have either obtained his own license, or in the spirit of selecting which laws to obey, could have rushed out and driven the fatally late route without the proper license.
A third thing that later occurred to me, was how he equated the death of a child with the loss of his job. There is not a job in the district that is as important as the life of a child.
Finally, he lectured us saying that if we did not drive a bus, he had no use for us, and that there were 400 poeple waiting to take our jobs (he basically stated that we were worthless aside from bus driving). He then insinuated that we were not here for the children and did not care about them "in our hearts" the way he did. I took, and still take, offense to this. I have always cared about children, including my four who are curently students in the district. This was yet another example of his "holier than thou" outlook.
Mr. Johnson's behavior with regard to the "dead child" meeting was reprehensible and unconscionable. Unfortunately, it was yet another illustration of his megalomania.
Another alarming episode occurred several weeks after the May 22 tornado. Mr. Johnson ordered Mr. Cory and me to place "ASBESTOS' signs at the entrances to the damaged buildings. These signs are black and red on a white background, and read:
ASBESTOS CANCER & LUNG DISEASE HAZARD
AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY
RESPIRATORY & PROTECTIVE
REQUIRED IN THIS AREA
Emerson Elementary was one of the schools in which these signs were placed at the entrances. When utility worker Marty Immekus asked Mr. Johnson why volunteer workers were going past these signs in order to remove furniture from inside the building, he was told, "Just tell them it has already been tested; that ought to hold them for a while."
Besides my own personal experiences with Mr. Johnson, the last four plus years are replete with examples of unacceptable behavior toward and in the presence of my fellow BGT employees. On more than one occasion, Mike Johnson has thrown one of his infamous tantrums in the office of Buildings, Grounds, and Transportation.
In addition to screaming and berating his employees, Mike Johnson has been seen throwing chairs and other objects in the office. I saw a student desk which he had smashed in a fit of anger. He has also ripped his telephone out of the wall, more than once, during one of his fits. In addition to his constant profanity, I have heard him use derogatory terms toward females, minorities, the mentally-challenged, and homosexuals. He has used disparaging remarks to and about his subordinates, including but not limited to "idiots, retards, faggots, and useless morons."
Mr. Johnson has also exhibited aggressive and disrespectful behavior toward those outside of BGT. He has gloated about using his position to punish principals whom he does not like, by denying or delaying work order requests. He has also frequently embarrassed his subordinates by his contentious relations with other departments, such as food service.
Further, Mr. Johnson has been seen to have been aggressive toward outside agencies and vendors. Most recently, he has been aggressive toward members of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers and representatives of International Buses. When the International representatives presented him with paperwork and asked him for a needed number he reportedly became annoyed and then began throwing the papers at them demanding. "What am I supposed to do with this?" Once more, BGT employees were embarrassed by his unprofessional behavior.
The above examples are neither exhaustive nor fully illustrative of the ongoing and increasingly volatile behavior of Mr. Johnson. What Mr. Johnson lacks in management skills and understanding of the building trades is overshadowed by his considerable talent as a sycophant. He has used this talent coupled with an ongoing budget crisis to mask his tyrannical rule.
Many district employees, as well as those outside the district, are perplexed by his ability to either evade detection or to act with impunity. The first instance would be attributed to his ability to deceive his superiors. The other situation would involve complicity. Neither I, nor anyone I know, is certain if either one or both is the case.
As for the above examples in which I am personally involved, I do hereby state that they are factual and accurate to the best of my recollection. I am prepared to offer these as a sworn affidavit, under oath, and/or to submjit the above statements to a polygraph.
As for those situations that were relayed to me by others, I am prepared to offer their names under the condition that their testimonies do not subject them to retaliation by Mike Johnson or the District. Please understand that most of these people really need their jobs; and that while they have suffered significantly under his control, they might be reluctant to reveal the truth about his behavior if they fear reprisals.
The last four years hold many examples of people who have incurred Mike Johnson's wrath. Some have had their positions eliminated, some have been fired, some have left because they just couldn't take it any longer and then there are those that either cower to his will or quietly endure, hoping that something will happen to ensure his departure.
I implore you to investigate this man's actions. No one should have to tolerate a hostile work environment. I do not take this situation lightly and I truly wish that I did not have to be the one to bring this unseemly situation to your attention. However, this state of affairs has festered far too long and it appears only to be worsening.
Thank you for your time and attention in this matter.
Luther Lee Hunt Jr.
(More to come, including how C. J. Huff and Tina Smith dealt with Luther Hunt's complaint.)
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