Compassionate Louisville? Metro Parks whistle-blower still reeling over termination
Joey Sears is not a complicated guy. But Sears has gotten caught up in a complex, pull no punches retaliation for acting as a metro government whistle-blower – made to pay a painful price for reporting a potentially deadly situation.
He doesn’t want your sympathy for his plight.
A product of Louisville’s South End, Joey is married with children.
He likes golf and BMX racing – both lifelong hobbies.
He has no taste for politics and says with regard to his political views, “I stopped caring years ago”.
A golf lover, Sears was naturally excited to have been hired by Louisville Metro Parks as a full time park worker in 2009 after a stint as a seasonal employee with the city department.
Metro Parks management thought so much of Joey they not only hired him on permanently, they also promoted him to the classification of Park Worker II.
Sears was a model employee with no disciplinary problems or negative reviews in his file.
Last year, Sears had the bad luck to witness Metro Parks Director Mike Heitz drinking and driving away from a Louisville bar. Heitz was behind the wheel of his tax-funded city vehicle, a Ford Escape.
Sears called Mayor Greg Fischer’s office and told them what was going on. He asked what he should do. The person who answered the phone said Sears should call Metro Call 311 or contact his Human Resources department. Seeking a quick resolution, Sears called 311 and reported Heitz’s actions.
Then, nothing. But little did Sears know, the games had begun.
A few weeks after reporting the incident to Metro Call, Sears was on the job at Shawnee golf course when he was visited by Assistant Parks Director Marty Storch, Employee Relations representative Nancy Ray, turf manager J.T. Conroy and assistant turf manager Kirk Dolan. They informed Joey he was being suspended without pay over an allegation Sears had been using his phone while operating equipment.
A hearing was held and Sears was suspended for six days.
Sears says the suspension was pure retaliation for reporting Director Heitz to Metro Call. In May 2011, Sears filed a written complaint against Mike Heitz and Marty Storch, alleging retaliation. His complaint was never investigated.
What happened next is a textbook example of how making a workplace complaint can make one’s life miserable. In his quest to “do the right thing”, Joey was unknowingly fiddling around with the wrong people. Under the illusion that he would be protected by rules, laws and his union, he continued to speak openly about Heitz’s drinking and driving the city-funded SUV until it became clear nothing was being done to address the allegation.
Then, he dropped the bomb.
October rolled around and Sears, frustrated by inaction, called WAVE 3 “Troubleshooter” Eric Flack.
That call led to a stunning report by Flack that revealed Mike Heitz routinely drove his city vehicle to a bar where he would have several drinks before driving home at high speed on the expressway. Heitz admitted drinking, then driving the city vehicle, exactly as Sears had alleged. The fiasco ended with Metro Mayor Greg Fischer finally suspending Heitz 30 days without pay and permanently revoking his city owned vehicle.
But, Heitz was kept on despite the seriousness of the offense.
In a nut, Sears claims he faced trumped-up and fabricated charges that ultimately led to his firing only because he exposed Heitz’s reckless behavior. And in addition to being fired as retaliation for filing a true and accurate complaint against his superior, city government went to court to appeal a state order to pay Sears unemployment.
The city won in civil court, and Sears had to repay thousands in unemployment benefits.
I believe Joey Sears’s story because of the overwhelming evidence he gave me. I also have experience.
I faced a similar predicament at a former employer, and that company reacted exactly the same way. I wasn’t fired, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to hang around and find out if they were going to try and terminate my employment.
Like Joey Sears, I had stepped upon the slippery slope and ended up facing many false accusations in an effort by my employer to taint my work record. It happens with a degree of regularity that would shock even the most devoted company man.
More often than not, employee reports of wrongdoing by their superiors often leads to illegal retaliation that may include the firing of the person who made the complaint. There are several examples of this happening in the public sector of many Kentucky counties over the last year.
Perhaps the most famous (infamous) case was right here in Louisville, courtesy of the Public Works department:
Eric Garrett reported waste, fraud and abuse of public monies at Public Works and ended up suspended indefinitely without pay. Insiders say the only reason Garrett wasn’t fired was because he called then-Metro Councilman Hal Heiner to tell his story.
Public Works conducted an investigation, but then attempted to force Garrett into an unprecedented “psychiatric evaluation” before returning to work. Garrett filed a lawsuit and eventually won his job back, as well as a handsome settlement from the city.
We contacted metro government about the Sears firing, and we were given a copy of a mediator’s report who upheld the firing and denied the grievance filed on Sears’ behalf by his union.
Asked for comment Chris Poynter, Fischer’s spokesman wrote in an email, “I think this document speaks for itself, especially the last three paragraphs.” Those paragraphs include the comment that employees “shall conduct themselves off the job in a manner that would not cause discredit to the the department.” (Apparently not realizing the irony of pointing out precisely the core issue – Heitz remains on the job after drinking and driving in a city vehicle, while Sears was fired for being righteously angry.)
In the mediator’s report, metro government falsely claims Sears never told them anything about Heitz and instead blames the firing on a shouting match at a golf course between Sears and Assistant Director Marty Storch’s 16 year old nephew who was working at the course. Sears’ response is that those employees at the course were NOT city employees. But city/parks employees had leaked his suspension as retribution even to non-city employees. And the kicker – Storch’s nephew played golf with Sears AFTER the outburst.
We find Poynter’s explanation hard to believe given the evidence we’ve seen.
Eric Garrett from Public Works was made whole.
Mike Heitz kept his job as Director of Metro Parks.
Joey Sears was fired for telling the truth.
Now is the time to show what a real “compassionate city” looks like.
Are you listening, Mayor Fischer?
More information on your rights as a government worker:
Metro Louisville Ethics Tip Line: