By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
The Broward County office that investigates whistleblower, discrimination, sexual harassment, and other complaints of alleged wrongdoing is a mess, the county’s independent auditor has found.
The audit of the Professional Standards/Human Rights section “is not effective” in handling complaints or conducting investigations, and the investigations it does are not completed in a timely manner, the audit says.
“The Human Rights functional area takes an average of 256 days to complete an investigation with a range of 18 to 2,261 days,” or more than six years, the audit report says. “Approximately 76% of cases are not closed within 100 days as required by County Ordinance.”
Human Rights investigates allegations of housing discrimination as well as violations of the county’s Human Rights Act regarding unlawful discrimination, harassment, intimidation and retaliation.
The Professional Standards side of the office – whose duties include investigating alleged employment and disabilities discrimination, monitoring the county’s compliance with the federal Health Insurance and Portability Accountability Act (HIPAA) and investigating ethical or other violations of county policies – takes an average of 140 days to complete an investigation, with some lasting as long as 1,134 days – or more than three years, the audit report says. Sixty-six percent of cases are not closed within county-required time limits.
NO CONFLICT OF INTEREST POLICY
Further, the audit concluded that because Professional Standards/Human Rights is under County Administration, and its manager is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the County Administrator, the section “does not have adequate procedures to ensure its independence and address potential conflicts of interest.” It recommended creating a conflict-of-interest policy that would, when an appearance of a conflict arises, refer cases to an independent entity such as the county attorney or auditor’s office.
Other problems range from inadequate tracking and periodic reporting and certification to the Department of Justice regarding the county’s Equal Employment Opportunity Program – which “may jeopardize Broward County’s access to current and future DOJ funding – and the failure to perform annual HIPAA privacy audits at county agencies – meaning that privacy concerns or problems may remain unaddressed “increasing the risk of fines for noncompliance” to the observation that the section’s “physical case files are not adequately stored and protected.”
“We have a lot of problems here,” said Broward Commissioner Nan Rich, after County Auditor Bob Melton presented his report to the full commission at last week’s regular meeting. Rich had requested the audit, Melton said.
With little discussion, commissioners voted 9-0 to accept the report. Melton told them he would follow up on the audit in six months to a year.
The audit states that part of the problem is that commissioners have failed to provide “adequate resources and processes to address all responsibilities” that have been placed on the section. For example, the average caseload per section investigator was 33 cases “which appears excessive,” the audit says.
PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS ‘CULTURE-LIKE’ PROBLEMS
But Melton stressed to the commission that the section’s issues are much deeper. “There are systemic, culture-like problems rather than just the resources problem,” he said.
Michael Rajner, chair of the Broward County Human Rights Board, said budget cuts, reorganization and “constantly revolving leadership” have plagued the human rights side. “And most importantly, where things came to a head in terms of staffing was the administration’s failure to fill vacancies promptly.”
Rita Lipof, a former county librarian who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the commission in 2020, called County Administrator Monica Cepero’s written response to the audit “horrible and inadequate.” Cepero took over the county’s top administrative post last month after the departure of longtime administrator Bertha Henry.
In her response, Cepero acknowledged “past” problems, and blamed them on “staffing challenges.” She said the hiring of former Sunrise Assistant City Attorney Averill Dorsett in February 2020 to run the section had led to an increase in staff and resources that has resulted in more timely investigations and a significant reduction in case backlogs. Dorsett’s starting salary was $120,000 plus full county benefits.
“The section is now led by a seasoned local government professional with significant legal, human resources, and government operations experience who is a hands-on manager,” Cepero wrote.
But Lipof, who has said her own complaint to Professional Standards was botched, challenged Cepero’s assessment, arguing problems have worsened under Dorsett, contending she is “regularly out of the office and not available and is definitely not hands on by any definition I have heard.”
Former county employee Aretha Wimberly made an emotional appeal to the commission about Professional Standards, citing her experience after she accused former Assistant County Administrator Alphonso Jefferson Jr. of sexual assault and pressuring her for sexual favors.
“In 2017, a year after I started, I submitted a complaint to Professional Standards. They did nothing. I pleaded with them, email after email, phone call after phone call. In the meantime, I put up with what I thought I had to,” she said. Things got so bad, Wimberly said she considered suicide before resigning “for my mental health.”
“Once I sat on the parking garage for three hours contemplating whether I should just jump off the roof,” she said.
Wimberly quit her job as community liaison for Broward’s municipal services district in April 2019, but before she did she filed another complaint. She also sent an email to commissioners about the matter.
Jefferson, questioned during a subsequent Professional Standards investigation, denied any wrongdoing. “He does not recall or has no record of asking the complainant for sex via text message,” the report says. Jefferson now works for St. Lucie County.
The investigation concluded that allegation, and others by Wimberly that Jefferson once touched her thigh under a table in his office and on another work occasion unzipped his fly, took out his penis and asked her to “touch it” and “kiss it,” were all “unsupported.”
“The complainant failed to provide evidence necessary to support a finding that the respondent (Jefferson) subjected her to sexual harassment as defined by Broward County’s Sexual Harassment Policy,” says an October 2019 report.
Yet the report made no mention of the shocking contents of text messages that Wimberly provided to a Professional Standards investigator which purport to show that on the night of March 9, 2018 Jefferson interrupted a conversation to ask:
“Do you want to fuck?”
…“Stop bullying me after you just called for me and just left.”
“I guess that is a no.”
The next morning at 7:31 a.m. Wimberly replied:
“No, no I don’t.”
“Why not? You said whatever I want.”
“I did say that, didn’t I?”
“I need to eat some pussy. You down?”
There is more that also does not amount to a violation of the county’s sexual harassment policy, as interpreted by Professional Standards. That includes Wimberly’s request that Jefferson “stop playing with me. I see you. Not interested in being a workplace side chick who is expected to give you a blow job in your office,” she wrote.