Whistle-blower paid $280,000 in settlement
A former top statistician who filed a whistle-blower complaint accusing Colorado prison officials of skewing figures about mentally ill and violent convicts will be paid more than $280,000 in a settlement.
Maureen O’Keefe, the former director of the Colorado Department of Corrections’ Office of Planning and Analysis, filed a complaint that said the state sought to punish and silence her, including twice placing her on administrative leave.
In State Personnel Board documents reviewed by The Denver Post, O’Keefe accused prisons director Rick Raemisch and his department of exaggerating the results of reforms he implemented after the 2013 murder of his predecessor, Tom Clements.
The reforms were aimed at what Raemisch has said were systemic flaws revealed in the wake of the attack on Clements by a parolee. Raemisch had launched a national publicity campaign that cited the dangers of isolating prisoners in administrative segregation.
Under a settlement, O’Keefe resigned as of Dec. 31. She was to get $262,468 plus accrued leave time, or about $20,000. She also was paid $124,000 over the 14 months she was on administrative leave.
O’Keefe declined to comment about the agreement, which includes a disclaimer that prison officials denied any wrongdoing.
Raemisch signed the agreement Dec. 14, two months after Administrative Law Judge Keith Shandalow wrote that O’Keefe “met her burden” to have a formal hearing on her whistle-blower complaint.
Raemisch, through spokeswoman Adrienne Jacobson, declined to comment about the settlement. But in filings with the Colorado Personnel Board, prison officials claimed O’Keefe was suspended because of “dismal” management skills that led to office resignations.
Shandalow found corroborating evidence that O’Keefe first expressed concerns to her boss Wayne Peel about bad statistics in early 2014.
O’Keefe accused prison officials of understating the number of seriously mentally ill people in solitary confinement, the number of inmates released directly from solitary confinement to the streets and how much time inmates spend outside their cells and other issues.
She claimed the false statistics related directly to Raemisch’s reforms after the murder of Clements by parolee Evan Ebel on March 19, 2013. Ebel spent most of his eight years in prison in solitary and was released from solitary to the streets less than two months before the murder.
On Jan. 23, 2014, roughly the same time O’Keefe was reporting problems with the statistics, Raemisch had himself locked inside a solitary confinement cell at Colorado State Penitentiary for 20 hours and wrote a guest column for The New York Times.
“When I was appointed, Gov. John Hickenlooper charged me with three goals: limiting or eliminating the use of solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates; addressing the needs of those who have been in solitary for long periods; and reducing the number of offenders released directly from solitary back into their communities,” Raemisch wrote.
Raemisch consistently has claimed he has made huge gains in achieving all of these goals.
But O’Keefe claimed that the numbers Raemisch cited were partly based on new names for the same thing: solitary confinement. Mentally ill patients were still being held in solitary, but under a program named the Residential Treatment Program. Also inmates were transferred from solitary to other prisons shortly before their release, disguising the actual number of solitary inmates directly released to the streets, she claimed.
On Sept. 11, 2014, O’Keefe was told she would no longer supervise prison employees gathering data and would only conduct research. Three weeks later, employee Ryan Hollamby reported that O’Keefe had yelled at him.
O’Keefe was placed on administrative leave a month later without receiving any negative performance report, she said in her complaint. Her prior job performance evaluations had graded her work mostly as exemplary.
O’Keefe appealed her suspension on the basis of the state’s whistle-blower act on Oct. 31, 2014, and wrote a letter to Raemisch on Dec. 4, 2014.
“I feel it is vitally important to share accurate information with the Colorado legislature, the U.S. Congress and the public. However, it is my belief that inaccurate information has been given out,” the letter said.
Nearly two weeks later, O’Keefe received a report from an inspector general’s office personnel investigation that said employees she supervised were afraid of her and some had resigned.
“Most employees said that O’Keefe bullies, yells at, and belittles employees; is intimidating and nasty; calls employees stupid; and creates a toxic, hostile, and abusive work environment,” the CDOC reported.
O’Keefe said the probe was slanted. She cited a statement by one of her employees who said he was questioned until he said what the investigator wanted him to say.
O’Keefe was placed on administrative leave Jan. 27, a day after she was accused of providing confidential medical records to a state senator — an accusation she denied.
Shandalow wrote that the timing of the state’s disciplinary actions against O’Keefe, including her second placement on administrative leave a day after taking corrective action, “creates an inference of a causal link” between whistle-blowing and adverse actions against her.