A human resources manager at the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs has filed a discrimination complaint with both state and federal agencies after she was denied a promotion.
Laura Tetting, the former interim director of human resources and a current HR manager at the agency, believes she was potentially discriminated against because of her Native American race, her gender, her age and her efforts to oppose alleged discrimination at the agency against others.
The complaint, filed with the state Department of Workforce Development and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, includes allegations that are unproven at this point. It comes as one of the agency's veterans' homes is being audited by the Legislature and its chief official, Secretary John Scocos, announced his resignation earlier this month. Scocos said he will step down on Jan. 7.
The veterans agency, represented by the state Department of Justice, disputes Tetting’s claims and said in a written response to her complaint that she made dozens of errors on the job and never alerted management at WDVA to cases of discrimination against other employees.
Tetting filed the complaint, which was obtained by the Cap Times through an open records request, in September, cataloging what she said were instances of potential discrimination throughout 2016. In July, she was denied a promotion to human resources director — a position she had been serving in temporarily for a year. The job was given to a white male veteran instead. Tetting, a 45-year-old Native American woman, said she was passed up for the job because of her race, sex and age and because she is not a veteran, according to the complaint. Being a veteran was not a requirement for the job.
In her complaint, Tetting said the person ultimately awarded the job was chosen by a panel that did not include a human resources professional or subject matter expert. She said she was told by a manager that the candidate who got the job “did not have my qualifications, but that the interview panel chose him because he was a veteran and expressed in the job interview that he had a ‘passion for veterans.’" She noted in the complaint that she had received a work review in April saying she “exceeds expectations” in both the HR director and manager roles.
The state contests her account. In a Nov. 22 letter to the state Department of Workforce Development asking the agency to dismiss Tetting’s complaint, Assistant Attorney General Katherine Spitz said Tetting made “over 30 documented errors” which showed she was not qualified to be the HR director at WDVA on a permanent basis.
Spitz said the selection panel for the HR director position was made up of three people from outside the agency who followed a standardized process. She said they were not aware that Tetting was Native American and did not consider race in their decision-making.
“There is nothing to suggest that the Department made its decision based on age or race,” Spitz wrote.
In her complaint, Tetting said she also witnessed discrimination against other WDVA employees.
The state said she never raised concerns.
In one instance, Tetting said an employee told her during an exit interview that he witnessed a manager yell derogatory comments in Spanish about another employee’s sexual orientation and about homosexuals.
Tetting recommended that an investigation from outside the agency be done. The target of the comments was then told by WDVA to counsel the manager about the comments, rather than open an external HR investigation.
“To date, no formal documentation or confirmation of this counseling has been provided to Human Resources as has been done by past practice,” she wrote.
Tetting said she also saw employees treated unfairly by management at WDVA.
Tetting said she spoke up about a letter the agency gave to the commandant of one of the state veterans homes, instructing the person to improve the quality ratings of the nursing home.
"While this could be considered a job request, the instruction and goals were inaccurate and unattainable,” Tetting wrote in the complaint. Tetting said she thought the letter was retaliatory and brought her concerns to the agency’s legal counsel and WDVA deputy secretary. Tetting said both disregarded her concerns.
In the third example Tetting cited, a female WDVA employee was demoted at the agency and later faced what Tetting described as unprofessional behavior and retaliation. The employee was an administrator at the agency and was reassigned with no justification, according to the complaint. When the employee asked why she was being reassigned, Deputy Secretary Kathy Marschman “would not provide any specific information. She simply stated that questionable decisions had been made,” according to the complaint.
Tetting, who said she sat in on HR meetings between the employee and agency management, said the employee stated she had never received any negative feedback on her management style.
Assistant Attorney General Spitz denied Tetting’s accounts and said she never raised concerns about discrimination at WDVA.
Spitz wrote that Tetting “failed to fulfill her daily responsibilities when she elected not to pursue internal investigations into discrimination claims — focusing instead on issues not bearing on discrimination, such as the Department’s efforts to rectify declining quality of care standards in one of the Department’s veterans homes.”
Under the Wisconsin Fair Employment Law, a state equal rights officer will now investigate to determine if WDVA violated the law.
If the equal rights officer finds no probable cause, the employee can appeal and the case will go to an administrative law judge, who will hear the case in a court-like proceeding and hear testimony and evidence.
If the judge finds no probable cause, the employee can again appeal and the case will go before the Labor Industry Review Commission. Any further appeal would then go to the circuit court.
The Cap Times has also learned that a WDVA employee who oversees the state’s veterans homes was found to have harassed one employee and Sec. Scocos last year.
In a convoluted tale, laid out in emails and a report from the state Department of Administration obtained by the Cap Times, Randy Nitschke, the current administrator for the Division of Veterans Homes, violated agency work rules and harassed and intimidated a veterans employee and Scocos.
Nitschke made what were determined to be false allegations that an employee at WDVA in Madison had sexually harassed another employee based at the King veterans home, a move that investigators said was "an effort to save himself from being terminated." Both the alleged harasser and his alleged victim denied the allegations, according to the report.
“Mr. Nitschke admitted to calling Secretary Scocos and leaving him a voicemail stating that he would not be thrown under the bus … and that he had a lot of ammunition to use against the department,” according to the investigation.
The investigation was conducted by the state Department of Administration. Nitschke received a letter of reprimand with the weight of a three-day suspension, said WDVA spokeswoman Carla Vigue.