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Scales of Justice

A former state Department of Children and Families civil service employee claims she was unlawfully terminated for political reasons — including speaking out against sexual harassment and declining to provide false data — according to a lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. District Court.

Deanna Alexander, a conservative Milwaukee County Board supervisor, claims her ouster in June after less than two years as a section chief in DCF’s Division of Milwaukee Child Protective Services was retaliation for statements against a political ally of Republican Gov. Scott Walker and for her refusal to report false data relating to the state’s compliance with a court order.

The lawsuit also alleges Walker’s administration has a history of removing civil service employees for unlawful political reasons. It cites an October 2010 email from former Walker aide Cindy Archer to his campaign treasurer John Hiller in which she wrote that career executive civil servants — who aren’t political appointees and must be hired based on merit — “could pose the biggest obstacle to (Walker’s) goals.”

“There are ways to move them to positions where they would pose less of a risk for (Walker),” Archer wrote. “The transition team needs to identify who are in these positions and where the problematic ones could (be) put asap. They are the real powerhouse of state government and they are civil service but there are ways to minimize their role in a Walker administration.”

Alexander’s former supervisor, Robin Joseph, said in a statement included with the lawsuit that Alexander had been unfairly targeted and had been an “excellent hire and the best person for that position.” Joseph was forced to resign earlier this year because, she claims, she had encouraged Alexander to hire an attorney and was preventing the agency from firing Alexander.

The department’s Deputy Secretary Lisa Marks, legal counsel Mary Burke (who is not the Madison School Board member) and Steve Taylor, a former Milwaukee County Board member and Walker supporter, are defendants in the lawsuit for allegations they conspired to unlawfully remove Alexander from her position. DCF and Walker are also listed as defendants.

DCF spokeswoman Gina Paige declined to comment, citing department policy regarding pending litigation. Taylor and Walker didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit comes just days before Walker stands for re-election against Democratic challenger state Superintendent Tony Evers. During the campaign, four of Walker’s former secretaries have criticized Walker for mismanaging various agencies.

Jeff Scott Olson, who has made financial contributions to Democratic candidates and whose Madison-based law firm is representing Alexander, said “our client directed us to proceed with all dispatch and we did the best we could.”

Directed to lie about data

According to the lawsuit, Alexander said she had been directed to lie about data in a court-mandated report to Children’s Rights, a nonprofit advocate for abused and neglected children.

DCF is required to provide quarterly reports to Children’s Rights and semiannual reports to the public on topics relating to case management and abuse and neglect in Milwaukee’s child welfare system.

Alexander said on April 12 she found inaccurate information in the report, but when she alerted the report’s author and later Burke, she was told the data were final and the department would have to tell Children’s Rights the numbers were correct, which Alexander believed to be fraud. Joseph corroborated the account.

The lawsuit says when a Children’s Rights lawyer in a meeting asked Alexander about the inaccurate figures, she deferred the question to Burke, who told the lawyer there was an oversight and that the numbers were incorrect.

Olson said the fraud allegation relates to an isolated incident and he is not aware of other examples.

Claims of political payback

Just weeks before that episode, Alexander won re-election to the Milwaukee County Board, while also helping defeat Taylor by endorsing his Democratic opponent in an open letter that also accused Taylor of continual sexual harassment during county business.

Alexander is considered a conservative member of the board and has donated only to Republicans, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. The lawsuit says she also had a strong working relationship with County Executive Chris Abele, a Democrat who served in the position after Walker and had removed Marks from her county position.

When Alexander was fired in June, Taylor told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he notified Alexander’s supervisor that she was doing county work on state time.

In the lawsuit, Alexander said she took the DCF position on the condition that she be allowed to keep her position on the County Board and was told the agency had agreed to allow Alexander to work a flexible schedule.

Joseph, Alexander’s former supervisor, said Alexander had consistently logged her hours correctly, and an internal disciplinary review found that Alexander had not violated any rules.

On April 19, Marks, the deputy secretary, told Joseph to inform Alexander that she would have to report directly to the secretary’s office, which then denied some of her requests to work flexible hours.

Alexander filed a complaint against Marks for sex discrimination, as she was the only section chief who was subject to these directives and also the only woman in that role.

Joseph had encouraged Alexander to file the complaint and retain a lawyer. Because of this, Joseph said she was asked to resign or she would be fired. Joseph resigned June 1.

The disciplinary investigation into Alexander began the same day Joseph was interviewed for the complaint. That investigation found no violations.

Alexander’s probationary employment was terminated June 15 “based on determination that (her) performance does not meet the standards expected.” Alexander said she refused to sign a resignation letter and was instead fired.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages and a court injunction that could reinstate her to the position and prevent future politically motivated employment decisions, Olson said.

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Shelley K. Mesch is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She earned a degree in journalism from DePaul University.