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Thursday, Oct. 23, 2003 02:20 pm

Trouble man

Jerry Wiley, by many accounts, was an intelligent and capable state employee. So why was he fired?

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Jerry Wiley
Nick Steinkamp

Early in 1999, Jerry Wiley, chief fiscal officer for the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, went to meet John Johnston, his new boss. The one-on-one meeting was one of many that Johnston, who'd just been named IDVA director by Gov. George Ryan, had scheduled with key staff members.

Wiley brought with him some concerns. In addition to basic budget issues, Wiley says he spoke to Johnston about "time bombs" and potential lawsuits relating to the treatment of the department's African-Americans. He wanted to give the director "a heads up" about possible trouble.

What Wiley didn't know at the time was the trouble would be his own.

Soon after that meeting, Wiley, the highest-ranking African American at IDVA, says he found himself at odds with other top department officials. In secret memos to Johnston, one of these officials accused Wiley of having a "personal agenda," spending too much time on a mentoring program and too little time in the office. When Wiley found out about the accusations -- accusations that appeared to be without basis -- he shot back with angry memos of his own, further straining his relationship with the department's top brass.

As a term employee, Wiley had to be reappointed by the director every four years. His second term came to an end in December 1999. Johnston chose not to grant Wiley a third.

Wiley responded by filing a federal lawsuit against Johnston and the department, claiming his termination was racially-based.

It was a dramatic turn for someone who had been credited as being an effective state employee and who, up until 1999, had garnered high marks in his job evaluations. And it was a disappointing turn for someone who'd seen himself as living proof that the Republican Party could stand for opportunity and inclusion. Wiley had spent the late 1980s and early '90s quietly building a reputation as a leader in a party he joined, he says, because he felt "a sense of mission."

Now all he feels is betrayed.

_______

Born in Lexington, Miss., in 1959, Wiley is the fifth of eight children. His mother was a Head Start teacher; his father, a jack-of-all-trades at the Lexington Advertiser. The newspaper was owned and edited by Hazel Brannon-Smith whose editorials about southern racism earned her a Pulitzer Prize.

The Advertiser was barely scraping by when Wiley was growing up. Wiley remembers days and nights when he and his siblings would have to help their father at the newspaper's print shop; his father had few coworkers around to assist him. Wiley remembers what Mississippi was like in the early '60s -- the separate facilities for blacks and whites and the outdated textbooks his all-black school had to use. And he remembers the night, in 1964, when Klansmen firebombed the Advertiser's office.

Years later, Wiley took the first chance he had to get out of Mississippi, joining the Army right out of high school. He was honorably discharged in 1979 and, while traveling, decided to attend college at Chicago State University.

Chicago transformed Wiley. He became interested in public service and majored in political science. A couple professors challenged him to consider creative approaches to politics. One encouraged him to join the Republican Party.

"He made a very compelling argument I never considered before," Wiley says. "He said not all blacks should be Democrats, which almost by definition we are. His point was that we could give the Republican Party a chance to be exposed to different people." The professor also argued that African Americans who joined the party could advance more rapidly than with the Democrats.

"Later, as I listen to President Reagan during a State of Union address, I began to respond to his message," Wiley says. "On one particular day, I felt so inspired by President Reagan, I dug up one of my old uniforms and wore it all that day. I consider myself a fiscal conservative. I used to believe that when you don't have, it makes sense for the government to give. I do not believe that government and spending is the answer to all problems. I do believe in free enterprise and less government."

Another professor, picking up on Wiley's interest in politics, challenged him to move to Springfield upon graduation and lined him up with a six-month legislative internship with the Governor's Board of Universities. Wiley had a job at the time as a Cook County deputy sheriff, but he accepted the internship and a measly stipend. After a few short months the supervisor of the internship told Wiley that he had taken to "Springfield like duck to water."

When the internship ended Wiley immediately landed a job as a program analyst for the Illinois Bureau of the Budget, which was part of the governor's office. He stayed there for four years until 1990, when he became fiscal officer for Veterans Affairs.

_______

The Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs is a large agency with an annual budget of more than $70 million and about 1,100 employees. It oversees four nursing homes and many programs that assist Illinois' roughly one million veterans and their families. The agency even provides free hunting and fishing licenses and camping permits for veterans. It works with the U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs and administers many federal and state grants.

But underneath the department's mission of service, it has a longstanding reputation among some as being racially insensitive and among others as a refuge for patronage. Among the critics is state Rep. Monique Davis, a Democrat from Chicago and chair of the Illinois House's Human Services Appropriations Committee, which oversees IDVA's funding. Davis says her office routinely gets complaints from African-American veterans and minority employees within the agency. Although the agency's makeup is about 10 percent African American, none of whom are in management, Davis says more than half the veterans the agency serves are black.

To somewhat improve its relationship with minorities the department launched a program in the '90s that attempted to hook veterans up with troubled children, most of whom were African-American kids from the Chicago area. A state grant that had to be re-approved every year funded the program. Veterans could choose a child to mentor or, possibly, to adopt. Wiley was the agency's point person, juggling the relationships between participating organizations, which included the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and the Chicago Urban League.

Several African-American employees from Veterans Affairs service offices in Chicago were also heavily involved. They and Wiley were assigned by Johnston's predecessor and the program's creator, Robert Foster, to attend meetings and events relating to the program. Foster expanded their job descriptions and began inviting more minorities to manager-level meetings.

"Foster grew the agency, made it more inclusive," Wiley says. "Johnston turned the clock back." Johnston may have had good reason. He was the department's director before, in the '80s, when Jim Thompson was governor. He left the agency to do consulting and then held a secretary of state job when Ryan was elected to that office. He returned to Veterans Affairs when Ryan was elected governor.

When Johnston came aboard he supported the mentorship program, which, according to department newsletters at the time, seemed to be an up-and-coming initiative. Johnston approved Wiley's travel expenses and time spent out of the office when he was working on the program's behalf. But soon after Johnston started, complaints by a supervisor about the African-American workers arose -- that they weren't showing up at work on time or had left their Chicago offices unmanned. The workers asked Wiley to step in on their behalf -- one felt so harassed by the supervisor he filed a discrimination complaint.

It wasn't the first time the department's African Americans asked Wiley for help. According to Foster, the former director, Wiley was sort of "a central lifeline" between African-American employees and his office.

"They trusted Jerry. They would seek advice through him," says Foster, who is now retired and living in Girard.

Wiley helped set up a meeting between Johnston and the African-American employees. Eventually, many of the issues were resolved. Johnston even gave a white supervisor who was the subject of the discrimination complaint such a poor performance review that the supervisor immediately retired upon receiving it. In his deposition, Johnston says the employee retired because of poor health.

During this time interest grew among at least a couple of other agency officials regarding Wiley's participation in the mentoring program. According to court depositions, the agency's auditor Dan Bullerman, at the request of the assistant director George Cramer, investigated the program and, in a "draft" submitted for the "director's eyes only," claimed Wiley was using the program to advance a "personal agenda." During the deposition Bullerman concedes that there was no proof of a personal agenda. Nor could Bullerman define what the basis of the agenda was -- money, power, prestige? Johnston, in his deposition, says he didn't believe Bullerman's charge. But depositions of Cramer, Bullerman, and Johnston also indicate there were concerns about Wiley being out of the office too much, and about how Wiley's involvement in the program and his role as chief fiscal officer -- as the one who controlled the program's grant money -- created a conflict of interest. The depositions, taken months after Wiley was terminated, were the first time he had ever heard of many of these allegations, he says. Depositions reveal that department officials had a habit of not confronting sources of problems and misunderstandings and preferred to make assumptions with little verification.

During the last few months of Wiley's employment he began to engage in more and more tug-of-war battles with Bullerman and Cramer, with Johnston less and less accessible, sometimes because of health problems that placed him out of the office. Wiley, in an effort to defend himself during one confrontation, issued what became known as the "pit bull" memo, in reference to his description of Bullerman's behavior. Wiley rushed it off so quickly he had to send out a second version to correct the typos. Around the same time Wiley typed up another memo to Bullerman, entitling it, "YOU REALLY HAVE LOST YOUR MIND." Johnston, in a deposition, described the memos as "unprofessional." Johnston also stated that he expected more of Bullerman.

Wiley doesn't apologize for his memos. He says he felt he had to defend himself. His reputation was at stake, as was the mentorship program he cared about deeply -- Johnston was trying to give DCFS control over it. "I have no regrets about them," says Wiley of his memos. "Every memo I wrote was in response to something they did."

On Dec. 13, 1999, at about 10 a.m., Johnston gave Wiley his yearly performance review. Wiley recalls Johnston telling him "you're not going to like it." In contrast to previous reviews, which show Wiley receiving increasingly higher marks through the years, Johnston gave Wiley only "acceptable" ones -- though with no specific complaints or suggestions.

Wiley says he took a copy of the evaluation back with him to his office. He stewed over it and tried to think about how to respond -- and to whom. Then, in the middle of the afternoon, around 2 p.m., George Cramer came into Wiley's office and handed him an envelope. In it was a letter stating that Wiley would not receive another four-year term. As of Dec. 15, and after nine years at the agency, he would no longer be a Veterans Affairs employee.

"It came as a shock to me," says Wiley. "But it was less of a shock about how it was delivered. George Cramer worked from Chicago and hardly ever came to Springfield. Cramer delivering the message was symbolic. Any other type of dismissal -- Johnston saying, 'I want to make a change,' etc. -- I would've accepted." Wiley says he silently read the letter while Cramer was standing in his office and placed it on his desk when he finished. Then he looked at Cramer and asked him how his drive down from Chicago went. In his deposition, Cramer says he didn't know what was in the envelope and was just as surprised as Wiley was about its contents.

In 1999 Robert Foster stepped down as director for health reasons. But he stayed on for a year under Johnston as the agency's benefits administrator. He watched what happened to Wiley from a distance. "I was baffled when it all took place," he says.

"I always respected Wiley's judgment professionally and loved him as an individual. When I was director I depended on him for a lot of things that went way beyond his job description. Jerry helped me out with the mentoring program. Somehow that got turned around that his involvement was self-serving. Really, that wasn't the case."

Rep. Davis was also surprised when Wiley wasn't reappointed. She even made some calls to find out what happened. She knew Wiley because he'd often meet with her during appropriation hearings.

"He's very intelligent, very conscientious, and very loyal to veterans. He probably filed his lawsuit because he was more hurt than anything," she says.

After Wiley left the mentoring program fizzled out and now no longer exists. Johnston, Cramer, and Bullerman have since left the agency.

_______

Shortly after Wiley's tenure ended he decided to sue Johnston and the department. The manner in which he was terminated led him to believe he was targeted based on race. In order to sue a state government agency in federal court on a charge of discrimination he needed permission from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Based on Wiley's claims, he received permission on Feb. 23, 2001.

Wiley's lawyer, Lance Johnson of Springfield, would not speak about the case on the record. From his court filings and briefs, and according to depositions the state's lawyers took, Wiley argues that there was a culture of racial discrimination in the agency and that when he stepped in to change the culture, he was terminated. He also claims that he was punished more severely than white counterparts who were reprimanded for more serious offenses. For example, his case points to the supervisor given a poor performance review for the way he managed the group of African-American employees, but whose punishment seemed to be an early retirement. In his deposition, Wiley also claims that African Americans were treated differently in many other ways: he says he was the only top-level official who had to deliver his own inter-office mail and that African-American employees who had birthdays or who were retiring were never given cards or parties, in contrast to what white employees experienced. One African American was initially denied maternal leave by a supervisor who then approved his own son's leave of absence so he could run for political office.

U. S. District Judge Jeanne Scott in Chicago threw out Wiley's case last fall and denied Wiley's request to add evidence this January. The judge claimed that Wiley simply couldn't prove his termination was racially motivated -- or that Johnston's reason for not reappointing him were insincere. Wiley is appealing the decision. Bullerman and Cramer declined to comment on the case. Johnston's wife said her husband is ill and unavailable for an interview.

_______

Wiley doesn't want to leave Springfield. He believes there's still a place for him as a public servant.

Recently, the Republican Party, in light of the dismal 8 percent of the African-American vote President Bush received in 2000, has increased its efforts to attract more minorities. It hasn't been easy. African-American leaders were among many who took strong exception to comments by U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, a Republican from Mississippi, who said the country would have been better off if then-segregationist Strom Thurmond had won the 1948 presidential race. And they were angry when the Bush Administration took an anti-affirmative action stance in litigation challenging the University of Michigan's admissions policy. In Illinois, reports that the Illinois House Campaign Commmittee, a Republican organization, withheld money from eight black Republicans candidates, also haven't helped.

Wiley says he's kept much of the enthusiasm he had when he first entered public service. During those days he bought the fund-raiser tickets, worked the phone banks, encouraged relatives to vote Republican, and attended GOP events. But his calling to bring more African Americans to the Republican party is gone. He recalls something he considered when his professors were telling him to make a difference in the world: "Whether you're a Republican or Democrat, you'll always be black."

The Republicans didn't altogether abandon Wiley. A few days after he was terminated in 1999 he says he spoke with Diane Ford, a lawyer with Ryan's administration who is credited for engineering a scheme in which Ryan friends quit their state jobs only to be reappointed days later for renewed four-year terms. After taking office this year, Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, quickly fired those employees. Some of the firings are being challenged in court.

Wiley says Ford helped set up an interview for him at the Illinois Department of Transportation. A supervisor told Wiley that IDOT could line up a job for him at approximately the same salary he was earning at IDVA. The catch was the job had no office or any responsibilities. It was a ghost job meant to placate him. Wiley says he was told six others already had been given similar offers at IDOT. He declined.

Since then, Wiley's pursued a few other opportunities in state government. Among his recent prospects: A job working for Democrats in the House.

"My children have to eat," Wiley says.

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