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Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2006 08:07 am

Hostile environment

Ray Coleman and other black ex-employees accuse the Department of Natural Resources of discrimination

Former state employee Ray Coleman: “I was loyal to DNR . . . . DNR was not loyal to Ray Coleman.”
Ray Coleman makes sense as a park ranger. Tall and bewhiskered, with a powerful yet easygoing demeanor that commands respect, the former conservation worker bears a strong resemblance to Smokey Bear. The likeness doesn’t stop there; like Smokey, Coleman has spent a good part of his life fighting fires, albeit of a different kind. A Democrat and longtime participant in St. Clair County politics, Coleman has had his share of conflicts, and many of those conflicts stem from his seemingly dogged determination to sabotage southeastern Illinois’ political machine, both as a candidate and as a state employee with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Coleman appears to possess all the necessary qualities for leadership. At the very least, he’s somebody who could win elections, which is what makes his refusal to make nice with the local regime — even if it is, as he says, run by good ol’ boys — so perplexing. However, his allegiance, he says, belongs to the black community more so than the Democratic Party, which he believes isn’t always the best choice for African-Americans. Right now he’s pushing hard downstate, and among blacks, for a pair of annoyances to the Democratic Party establishment. Before she officially announced her candidacy, Coleman pledged support to Republican state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka in a likely November showdown against Gov. Rod Blagojevich in the Illinois gubernatorial race. He’s also backing Alexi Giannoulias, the Chicago banking heir who’s looking to beat state-party-endorsed Paul Mangieri, now Knox County state’s attorney, for state treasurer. Meanwhile, he is in the midst of his own campaign for Democratic central committeeman for the 12th District. It’s an ambitious quest, considering that he’s up against a powerful congressman, U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello. But Coleman has always been a bit of a maverick, proud to play the gadfly role. In 2004, he supported then-state Sen. Barack Obama over the state party’s pick, state Comptroller Dan Hynes, for U.S. Senate. The same year, while serving as Canteen Township clerk, Coleman backed Steve Reeb, a Republican vying with the former Democratic mayor of Belleville, Mark Kern, in the race for St. Clair County Board chairman. A decade earlier, Coleman supported Sue Montalvo for county assessor over Sam Flood, an influential Democrat who went on to serve as Blagojevich’s government-relations director and who is now the interim director of DNR. In 2004, Blagojevich made deep cuts in the DNR budget, costing Coleman and 123 others their jobs. In no time, Coleman had hired a lawyer and filed a lawsuit in federal court, naming Flood and then-DNR director Joel Brunsvold as defendants. In his complaint, Coleman asserts that the real reason he lost his job was his long history of not bowing to the white political establishment. Brunsvold and Flood dispute Coleman’s allegations, although the parties are reportedly close to reaching a settlement. People familiar with Coleman’s political history say that it’s hard to measure the extent to which race played a factor. Certainly his rabble-rousing likely cost Coleman brownie points with some whites, and probably some African-Americans as well. So to call Coleman’s woes comeuppance for biting the hand that fed his own political ambitions might not be too far off base — particularly in southern Illinois, where paying to play is as deeply entrenched as the Sears Tower is tall. But even if Coleman had it coming, politically speaking, other black DNR employees have echoed many of Coleman’s claims, pointing to years of declining numbers of African-American employees at the agency. The result, they say, is a daily fight against a culture of discrimination at DNR that no one who can seems willing to do anything about.
Controversy has always had a way of finding Coleman. A basketball standout at Springfield’s Griffin High School in the late 1970s, Coleman — who moved to the capital city from East St. Louis to live with his brother — attended Chicago State University on a basketball scholarship. During his senior season at CSU, Coleman injured his knee and left the team. According to a 1982 Chicago Defender article published after the incident, his coach said that Coleman, though a promising athlete, walked away from the team. However, Coleman claims that the coach kicked him off the team; he accuses the coach of not understanding black players. After finishing up his sociology degree at Quincy University in 1983 and working his way up to management at the another state agency, Coleman made a lateral transfer to DNR in 1994. As the first African-American site superintendent at Horseshoe Lake State Park, in Madison County, Coleman says he got the vibe that some white employees had a hard time accepting him as their boss. One secretary, he says, refused to do any of the work he gave her. Despite the racial tension, Coleman engaged co-workers in discussions about race, seeing it as an opportunity to provide diversity education. After the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Coleman says that a white park worker speculated that the culprit “must have been one of those ragheads,” referring to a Middle Easterner. “We didn’t have any Middle Eastern employees, but I don’t like stereotypes and decided that race shouldn’t be discussed in the workplace. I decided we weren’t going to talk about race anymore,” Coleman says. Later, he says, the same employee gave Coleman a book on the Ku Klux Klan and said that if he weren’t afraid that he’d lose his job with the state, he’d join the Klan. One day, Coleman says, he got a call from a hospital where the man had gone to seek medical treatment. A hospital worker on the phone told Coleman that she had a responsibility to inform him that the man had said that he planned to take a gun to work and shoot Coleman. So Coleman got on the horn to then-deputy director Bruce Clay, who called the park and state police to arrest the man. He was fired but subsequently reinstated and transferred to a different park after a civil-service hearing. That incident, Coleman says, coupled with the day-to-day struggle to earn the respect of his employees, caused him to no longer enjoy going to work. “I was disappointed that to just to provide recreational services, it had to be this complicated,” he says. In 2003, Coleman was promoted from site superintendent to complex manager, overseeing operations at Horseshoe Lake, as well as Frank Holten State Park, located in St. Clair County. In May, Coleman’s job at Horseshoe Lake was taken over by Scott Flood, son of Sam Flood. Coleman didn’t like the move, and he e-mailed his bosses several times about Flood’s lack of experience and repeatedly threatened to discipline him. In March 2004, Flood, who could not be reached for comment, was shipped to the Washington County Conservation Area, and Coleman was demoted to his old job running just Horseshoe Lake. That May, Flood was promoted to regional land manager, thus becoming Coleman’s boss. If he’d had his druthers, Coleman — a former recipient of the DNR employee-of-the-quarter award and Ducks Unlimited Illinois Conservationist of the Year honors — would have retired from the agency. That now seems unlikely, and, in Coleman’s view, Blagojevich is largely responsible because he has allowed the problems at DNR to persist on his watch.
Although most had never met before last fall, Kimberly Conner, Kelvin Coburn, Gloria Dixon, and Trevor Lawrence have stories that sound a lot like Coleman’s. Their employment at DNR overlapped during a period between 2000 and 2002, and each has filed racial-discrimination complaints with the Illinois Department of Human Rights, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Office of Executive Inspector General (created by executive order in 2003), or in federal court. Separately, these complaints could be dismissed as personality conflicts with co-workers and supervisors; together, the ex-employees say, the complaints reveal a pattern of discrimination at DNR that has gone unchecked for a long time. East St. Louis native Dixon, who declined an interview with Illinois Times, says in her lawsuit that she was subjected to a “pattern of harassing, discriminatory, and retaliatory actions” based on her age, race, and sex and the fact that she filed an internal complaint with the agency’s EEO when she worked at Frank Holten Park. Meanwhile, Conner and Coburn were having issues in Champaign with their boss, Region 3 administrator Jim Capel, who, they say, picked on African-American office workers and treated them disrespectfully. “He was an ass,” Conner says, “but blacks caught the brunt of it.” Co-workers say that Coburn was constantly at odds with Capel, who also did not return a call seeking comment. Coburn admits that he sometimes purposely antagonized Capel. In his June 2003 complaint to the Illinois Human Rights Commission, Coburn writes: “I have been subjected to harassment and racial bias by the regional land manager on a continuous basis. All of my actions within the workplace are closely scrutinized more so than that similarly situated non-black co-workers. I have complained about the ‘negative and discriminatory actions’ to management repeatedly to no avail.” Moreover, Coburn says, he was denied promotion and a white woman with less experience was promoted instead. On the surface, some of Coburn’s beefs seem petty. In 2001, Capel denied Coburn’s secondary-employment application — which state employees must submit if they work at a part-time job or have a private enterprise — to deejay on weekends at a Champaign hip-hop club.  “It seems after some of the nights Mr. Coburn works, he comes in late or calls in sick,” Capel wrote on the form. However, Coburn says, there was no way for Capel, a middle-aged white man, to know what nights he worked at the all-black club. This, he says, is just one example of Capel’s singling him out. But it was the piling on of a number of minor incidents, Coburn says, that drove him to filing his EEOC complaint and eventually a lawsuit. Coburn now acknowledges that sometimes he did come to work a few minutes late. “Every morning, I had to come up with a reason to go into that office,” Coburn says, “and, yeah, sometimes it took few extra minutes to find that reason.” But whereas Coburn, a lanky Gulf War veteran, was more outwardly combative, co-worker Conner was less noisily defiant of their supervisor. From 1999 to 2003, she kept a log of her run-ins with Capel, documenting what she believes was racial and sexual discrimination. Like Coburn, the culmination of several seemingly trivial occurrences, is what pushed her over the edge. Once, according to her complaint filed with the EEOC, she caught Capel looking down the front of her blouse, which she reported immediately. Another time, Conner says, Capel consulted white workers about preparations for the office holiday party and shut blacks out of the process. While Conner was finishing her bachelor’s degree at Eastern Illinois University, Capel denied her tuition reimbursement on the grounds that the classes were not related to the job she did at DNR. “Racial discrimination has been an ongoing problem,” Conner writes in her log in August 2002. “African-American personnel have been forced to endure the detrimental effect of racial discrimination, the creation of an unhealthy work environment and undue stress. I, frankly, should not be forced to endure what I perceive as racial bias in its rawest form.” Conner was issued a right-to-sue letter five days after filing her complaint with the EEOC, giving her 90 days to file a lawsuit against the agency, which she did in February of 2003. Her two-part complaint includes a charge that she was denied several promotions because of her race. In nine years spent working at DNR, Conner, who eventually finished her bachelor’s degree, never received a promotion in eight tries. “I don’t know if I was naïve or what, but I didn’t expect to be treated like that,” she says. Trevor Lawrence, of Springfield, didn’t expect what he got, either. In September 2003, after two years as an intern with hopes of becoming an DNR public-information officer, Lawrence received a letter from human-resources director Michele Cusumano saying that the department determined it wasn’t in its “best interest” to promote him. He’d been fired. In his final performance evaluation, Lawrence scored “acceptable” in seven of eight categories and “accomplished” in one. He promptly filed a complaint with the Illinois Department of Human Rights, claiming that because the agency couldn’t cite poor work performance as the reason for his dismissal, race must have been a factor. Lawrence and his attorney declined comment for this story. However, in July, IDHR did find that five of Lawrence’s comparatives — all them nonblack — were hired and promoted to their target positions within one year and entered a finding of “substantial evidence” that discrimination had, in fact, occurred.
Although DNR, which currently employs about 1,300 people and oversees state parks and lakes, collects no specific demographic information from customers, white men represent the majority of the agency’s employees. According to agency-workforce reports, which each state agency must file yearly with the Secretary of State’s Index Department, 76 percent of its workers are white men. On top of that, analysis of these reports since 2000 shows that although total minority-employment rates have held steady, African-American numbers have decreased steadily. Of 1,779 workers employed by DNR in 2000, 73 were minorities, representing 4 percent of the agency’s total workforce. In 2005, that number was about the same. African-American representation, however, slipped from 3 percent to 2 percent from 2000 to 2005. On the surface, this dip appears negligible, but the number of African-American DNR workers fell from 59 to 30 during this period, with most employees of color working at the agency’s Springfield headquarters. In addition to its offices in Springfield and Chicago, DNR has five regional offices, located in Sterling, Bartlett, Clinton, Alton, and Benton. The paucity of African-American staff there is what exacerbates the culture of racial insensitivity at DNR, former employees say. But no one expects that DNR will ever see an onslaught of minority applicants. “How many black deer hunters are there?” Coburn asks. “A brother is not going to apply to go work in the woods nowhere.” Moreover, in 2003 the agency moved its Region 3 headquarters from Champaign County, whose population is more than 20 percent minority, to Clinton in DeWitt County, which is 97.8 percent white, according to the latest Census Bureau data. “There is a culture of not embracing minorities or putting them into top-level positions,” says Janette Peak, who worked as a human-resources manager for DNR for more than a decade. For a time, Peak was also in charge of minority recruiting. “We would pass along résumés of who we thought were qualified minorities, but action was rarely taken,” Peak says. Peak, now working in the private sector, says that during her tenure, minorities were sometimes passed over for promotion in favor of less qualified whites but that this would be hard to prove, nonetheless, because of how the hiring process works. The interviewer, she says, might have a heads-up on who is “supposed” to get the job, direction that could come from anywhere, such as the director or governor’s office. Minorities in the agency hoped that things would get better when liberal Blagojevich took office in 2002, but Peak says that neither minority hiring nor the culture improved. The minority-recruitment position was eventually eliminated during a round of budget cuts. “Our hope became disappointment,” Peak says. The rationale given by agency brass, she says, was that they couldn’t find minorities with bachelor’s degrees in areas such as botany. But Peak pointed out that minorities abound in the business and engineering fields, both for which DNR hires. In October 2005, she says, after listening to the experiences of other black employees and coming to the realization herself that there was no place for her to advance in DNR, even with her education and 11 years of experience in human resources, she decided to leave the agency.  Though she can’t say with certainty that she would have reached her goal of becoming a top human-resources administrator at DNR, Peak does believe that if she were white she would have been given more serious consideration.
Peak and other black DNR employees believe that racial tension would be diminished if there were more minorities on the agency’s executive staff, even if numbers didn’t improve. One of the last was former African-American deputy director Bruce Clay, who retired seven years ago and lives in Springfield. Those who worked under Clay say that the climate was different when he was there because Clay was fair and resolved conflicts quickly. “I wouldn’t tolerate [discrimination]; neither would director Brent Manning — Gov. [Jim] Edgar wouldn’t have tolerated it,” Clay says. “You have to have backing from the top that things like that won’t happen. I set the precedent, and it starts with the governor’s office and trickles down.” DNR, he says, will likely never be up to standards on minority hiring because African-Americans aren’t going to want to move someplace like Anna-Jonesboro, in southern Illinois, and human-resources officials don’t want to put them in unsafe situations. He goes on: “Ray Coleman was a good site super, let me tell ya. Why wouldn’t you have a minority run the park when the community is 80 percent minority?” Coleman says he began hearing that black DNR employees around the state were finding themselves in similar situations. With Peak’s help, he and Conner started an informal support group for black DNR employees last year. Coleman had previously worked with Dixon and, because he traveled to Springfield often, was familiar with Lawrence’s case as well. Meanwhile, Conner and Coburn worked together in Champaign. “We knew it was racial,” Coleman says, “but proving it is a different story.” In September, they came together for the first time to swap stories in the offices of the Illinois Association of Minorities in Government, a worker-advocacy group based in Springfield. “Trevor’s case bothered blacks and whites at the agency because he was well liked,” says Roy Williams, the current executive director of IAMG and a former DNR employee. Williams is all too familiar with the experiences of black employees at DNR. As a DNR legislative liaison from spring 2003 to December 2004, he says black employees often came to him to air their grievances, albeit unofficially. Because little was being done, Williams says, he took up the causes of some minority workers. “Constantly we were told that decisions were made by the governor’s office, but what does that mean?” Williams asks. “That’s a hard thing to fight when you don’t have the name of the person who’s making these decisions. They should be able to explain who made the decisions and why.”
DNR communications director Chris McCloud says that the agency has been working especially hard in the past month to address the issues raised by Coleman and other former workers. “DNR should reflect the diversity of the state, and we are working to ensure that it does,” he says. DNR has an affirmative-action plan in place, but McCloud acknowledges that still more needs to be done to increase diversity. “The perception problem may be the result of an ineffective recruitment strategy, given the challenges to increasing the number of minorities at DNR,” he says. The agency faces certain realities — two successive years of downsizing, the number of unique positions requiring highly specialized training, and the location of jobs in outlying areas where the parks are but few minorities live — that, McCloud admits, pose challenges to recruiting minorities to DNR’s ranks. “Because of these challenges, DNR is committed to being more proactive, strategic and aggressive in order to boost minority recruitment,” McCloud says. Earlier this month, DNR hired Marvin Sprague as its first permanent equal-employment officer in more than a year. Sprague, who has worked in state government for more than 26 years and had planned to retire this month, says that he was recruited personally by Flood to the fill the post. Flood, Sprague says, alerted him to the problems at DNR, and he agreed to sign on for at least the next two years to work on improving the climate. Sprague, former head of Quincy’s Negro Advancement Association (not to be confused the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), will also serve in Peak’s former capacity as minority recruiter. Already he’s met with IAMG’s Williams, and he’s scheduling meetings with other equal-employment organizations, such as the NAACP and Urban League. In dealing with problems in the past, Sprague says, DNR was reactive. “We’re going to try to be more proactive,” he says. “That’s the key to success.” Similarly, a representative for the governor’s office insists that that office is trying to be more inclusive. “Overall, Gov. Blagojevich is committed to a diverse state government demonstrated by the hires he’s in particular control of,” Rebecca Rausch, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in an e-mailed statement. She points to 18 minorities Blagojevich has appointed to his cabinet. The governor, Rausch notes, has also made a “number of historic appointments of minorities to his top staff.” They include deputy chief of staff Esther Lopez, a Latina, as well as Cheryle Jackson and Louanner Peters, deputy chiefs of staff for communications and social services, respectively, both of whom are African-American women.
Civil-rights lawyers say that proving race discrimination in court can be tough because all a defendant has to do is show that the cause for an adverse employment condition (i.e. nonpromotion or termination) could have been something other than race. Or the defendant can just flat outlast — and outspend — an accuser. Of the five DNR discrimination complaints, just two remain viable. In September, a judge dismissed Dixon’s discrimination charge but granted her motion for summary judgment with respect to her retaliation claim. In January, the defendants in Dixon’s suit moved for judgment as a matter of law, meaning that Dixon has failed to sufficiently show that any retaliation occurred as a result of her discrimination complaint. Meanwhile, Dixon, now retired, and Conner have appealed their cases to the U.S. Supreme Court. In December, they received notices saying that their cases had been docketed. However, it appears unlikely that the high court will hear either of them. Conner opted to move to Springfield in 2003 rather than commute to Clinton Lake, where, she says, she felt unsafe as a black woman. In December, Conner left DNR, making a lateral transfer to a different state agency. Coburn, who also moved from Champaign to Springfield in 2003 to work at another state agency, missed a deadline in his federal court case, killing his lawsuit. Now making more money, Coburn says that he is satisfied to simply put DNR behind him and move forward with his life. As he awaits the outcome of months of settlement hearings, Coleman is still trying to save the world — and get a little piece of it for himself. He keeps himself busy with a new job and sewing (this winter, he made a dress for his teenage daughter’s Christmas ball) and heading up the fundraising efforts for the local branch of a national youth-service organization — his first steady job in more than a year. At this point, his career in politics remains uncertain. Although some East St. Louis residents have said that they would help elect Coleman to public office if he moves back to “East Boogie” from Fairview Heights, someone else has offered him help opening his own Quizno’s if he promises to get out of politics altogether. “I’m perceived to be ‘Mr. Controversy,’ so I can’t rest and think that I’m going to be left alone,” Coleman says of the nonstop scrutiny he feels. “I’ve got too many people trying to shoot me in the back with an arrow.” Coleman’s attorney, Eric Evans, says that they have reached a tentative agreement in Coleman’s federal suit against Flood and Brunsvold. Evans does not put a dollar amount on the specific damages Coleman is seeking, saying only that the jurisdictional minimum to file suit in district court is $75,000. However, the agreement will not be final until the actual documents are executed — with any luck, Evans says, by the end of the month. In backing Topinka and Giannoulias, he hopes to see change in Springfield — both in the governor’s mansion and at DNR — come November. “I got nothing out of this administration — all I got was Scott Flood at Horseshoe Lake and the streets,” Coleman says. “I was loyal to DNR under Brent Manning and Jim Edgar, Brent Manning and George Ryan, Joel Brunsvold and Rod Blagojevich. DNR was not loyal to Ray Coleman.”
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