Whis­tle-blower paid $280,000 in set­tle­ment

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Kirk Mitchell

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.

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