|Melissa George Bowman|
Melissa C. George filed the complaint against Riley communications director David Azbell, and it was settled for $53,000 in December 2003, according to a report last week from Bill Britt of Alabama Political Reporter. Britt's investigative piece included a copy of the settlement agreement and related documents, which can be viewed at the end of this post. (Melissa George since has married, and now is Melissa Bowman George; she serves as public relations manager for the Alabama Hospital Association.)
The settlement agreement itself is brief--less than three full pages--and it contains curious language that does not seem to add up. Here are key provisions in the agreement:
* George made a complaint of "harassment and discrimination" against a state employee, Azbell;
* George decided that "the best course of action to secure her professional future" was to leave her state job;
* The Riley administration agreed to "facilitate George's transition to the private sector" by providing a letter of reference from Chief of Staff Toby Roth, placing a copy of the letter in George's state-employee file, providing a re-dated version of the letter to any prospective employer, providing "only favorable and positive references" to any future inquiries regarding George's past employment, and ensuring that George was classified as eligible for re-employment with the state.
* George was allowed to maintain her state retirement account in the same fashion as all other employees who leave state service voluntarily and in good standing.
* George acknowledged that Riley and Roth "did not participate in, and deny any awareness of, the conduct giving rise to" the settlement agreement.
* George retained the services of Bobby Segall, an attorney with the Montgomery firm Copeland Franco Screws & Gill.
What is nonsensical about the settlement agreement? Let's consider what the Riley administration apparently would have us believe:
* Language in the agreement consistently indicates that George was an excellent employee. She was to exit in good standing, with only favorable and positive references, and she was eligible for re-employment with the state. And yet, it was George's idea to leave her position in order to "secure her professional future"?
* Higher ups in the Riley administration were unaware of Azbell's boorish behavior toward George, according to the agreement. And yet, the problem had become severe enough that George hired an attorney?
As a former state employee myself, with almost 20 years of service at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), I know this agreement almost has to include a heavy dose of horse feces, probably inserted at the insistence of the Riley administration.
State employees generally do not bring down mega salaries, but their jobs come with solid benefits that one does not lightly give up. We see no reason to doubt that Melissa George was an outstanding state employee; after all, she started in the press office under Democratic Governor Don Siegelman and was in the process of staying on under Riley. But we see plenty of reason to doubt that it was Ms. George's idea to leave her state position. Why would a state employee--who was good at her job--decide that "the best course of action to secure her professional future" was to quit? Answer: she wouldn't. That idea almost certainly came from the Riley administration. The implication in the settlement agreement is that someone was going to make Melissa George's work life a living hell if she stayed--and her professional future was going to be jeopardized by unjustified negative references. In other words, Bob Riley and Toby Roth bullied Melissa George into quitting a job that she probably enjoyed until David Azbell came along.
Here is another oddity: Riley and Roth could have helped George transition to another state job; any number of departments probably would have been happy to have her. But they wanted to make sure she was forced into the "private sector." Why?
As for the notion that neither Riley nor Roth knew about Ms. George's problems with Azbell . . . I find that highly unlikely. I was the victim of harassment and discrimination from my UAB supervisor, Pam Powell, so I know what the complaint process is like in a state job. I verbally complained to Powell's superior, Dale Turnbough, and filed a formal, written grievance with human resources. I made numerous efforts to resolve the situation internally, as suggested by our employee handbook, long before lawyers entered the picture. I feel certain that Melissa George took a similar course of action, especially since her employee handbook probably read a lot like mine did.
It's certainly possible that Bob Riley, as governor, was not aware of Azbell's behavior toward George. But it's hard to believe that Melissa George went straight to an outside attorney without first trying to resolve the matter internally. And that means Toby Roth, as Azbell's superior, probably knew about the situation--and, like higher ups at UAB in my case, failed to correct it.
We are left with a portrait of an administration that did not take workplace harassment and discrimination seriously. David Azbell's treatment of Melissa George was bad enough. But Bob Riley and Toby Roth made sure she was victimized a second time.