OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond fired her Human Resources Director in October. The KING 5 Investigators have discovered the move comes after at least 12 employees, mostly women, complained the HR Director, Kermit Wooden, and managers he supervised created a hostile work environment, causing employees to quit and file complaints and lawsuits. One woman claimed the treatment was so bad and anxiety-inducing that she went out on medical leave for months due to “DOT’s offensive and unlawful treatment of her.”
Last year, Carrie Lipp was fired from her job at WSDOT’s Northwest Region office in Shoreline. Wooden didn’t work in Shoreline but oversaw the HR department. Lipp believes managers got rid of her for speaking up about the unfair, hostile treatment in her department – the Department of Human Resources. It’s the very place that's supposed to set the standard for all 7,000 WSDOT employees--a standard of integrity and ethical conduct in the workplace.
"It's surreal for me to think about it in retrospect because no other job I had resembled that kind of thing, that sort of tense, tense, tense environment,” said Lipp. “People were crying in the office, people were getting into fights, people were slamming doors."
After getting fired, Lipp wrote to top WSDOT officials, including Secretary Hammond, to make sure they knew about the alleged chaos in that HR office.
She wrote: “It was an unethical environment.” She said the top HR manager in her office consistently made "racial and sexual" comments. She also wrote that when she mustered the courage to "stand up and ask questions" she suffered "retaliation" by getting terminated.
When asked if there was any doubt in her mind she was retaliated against for speaking up, Lipp said no. “No. No. I never was counseled on my performance until the very end when it was like all of a sudden they tried to build this huge case to push me out but up until then there was nothing. (I got glowing reviews)…signed off on by my manager," said Lipp.
Carrie Lipp isn’t alone. Women lodged serious accusations against the HR bosses in both the Northwest Region (Shoreline) and Olympia offices before and after she weighed in.
History of problems
Some of the accusations against Human Resources Director Kermit Wooden go back years.
In 2007 the state paid a $25,000 settlement to one of Wooden’s employees in Olympia after she sued for sexual harassment. The WSDOT Secretary at the time admonished Wooden for inappropriate sexual behavior with a subordinate, but the HR Director kept his job.
Last year the state settled a lawsuit filed by a 30-year WSDOT employee for $65,000 after she sued for age discrimination. The woman worked under Wooden in the Olympia office. In her lawsuit she said she suffered “lost wages…emotional distress, humiliation (and a) loss of professional standing.”
A former HR manager in the Ferries Division filed a $2 million claim this year for age discrimination. She says “she has seen a pattern of younger, less experienced Human Resources staff being upgraded, while adverse actions are taken against older more experienced HR staff, who are mostly females.”
A long-time HR manager in the Northwest Region office filed a $5 million lawsuit this year. She wrote that in 2007 her manager, who worked under Wooden, "mocked and ridiculed" her at work causing her "pain, humiliation and fear".
Last month a 15-year HR employee filed a half-million dollar claim against the state. She says she suffered "substantial anxiety" from the "hostile work environment" at WSDOT’s HR headquarters in Olympia.
Kermit Wooden wouldn't talk to us on-camera but in this letter his attorney said the allegations are "untested and unsupported". The attorney, Michael Hanbey of Olympia, said one of the women who sued his client had a propensity to “game the system”. He also said some of the employees didn’t work with Wooden directly. “My client had little or no interaction with (some of the women),” wrote Hanbey.
During those years of controversy under Wooden's leadership, WSDOT executives, including Secretary Hammond, allowed him to stay in charge of HR. They also spent thousands of taxpayer dollars in legal fees as well as thousands more for internal and outside investigators to sort out some of the allegations.
In 2006, WSDOT spent $41,000 on an outside consultant to see if Kermit Wooden and another WSDOT executive engaged in sexual harassment in the workplace. The investigator couldn’t come to a definitive conclusion.
In 2009, the agency spent $14,388 on an outside investigator to look into whether HR managers created a hostile work environment in the Northwest Region office. The investigator wrote that the top HR manager in the office “made a number of highly inappropriate racial and sexual comments and used some highly inappropriate language. Many of these are blatantly inappropriate comments for any public employee – let alone a Human Resources Manager.”
Most recently, WSDOT paid $26,300 to a consultant, Claire Cordon, to investigate if Kermit Wooden was a bully who created a hostile work environment for women. Cordon gave Wooden a mostly glowing review although she found he can be unprofessional in his approach. “There have been times when Wooden has been forceful and abrasive in his communications,” wrote Cordon. But that “it is important to note that Wooden has made some important positive changes since his arrival at WSDOT.”
Despite the high marks given to Wooden, Secretary Hammond fired him just two months later.
Wooden’s attorney tells KING 5 they were shocked, especially given the review. “…the Cordon Report essentially exonerates my client from the various claims made about his actions. I trust you will balance your reporting with such information,” wrote Hanbey.
KING 5 requested an interview with Secretary Hammond or another top WSDOT official to ask why it took so long to hold Wooden accountable and to ask why they fired him after an extensive review by Cordon found him to be a valuable employee.
WSDOT’s Director of Communications Steve Pierce said he couldn’t provide KING with an on-camera interview or answer those questions because of pending lawsuits. He also wouldn’t allow KING-TV into the WSDOT offices to take video of the HR department despite the fact that it’s a public building. Pierce said the KING 5 photographer would be in the way and he didn’t want employees to have to walk around the camera.
Secretary of Transportation Hammond gave Kermit Wooden a termination letter on October 4, 2010. She doesn’t give a reason for firing him. The letter simply states “I am ending your appointment as Human Resources Director at the Washington State Department of Transportation”.
For employees like Carrie Lipp, the letter came years too late.
“I think it's atrocious. I think it's horrendous to know that tax dollars went out to pay for his salary. I think it's so sad that that many people could speak up and that nothing would change," said Lipp.
None of the other women who filed complaints or lawsuits would talk to us on-camera, although the KING 5 Investigators did speak with many of them off-camera. They said they didn’t want to appear on TV because they feared further retaliation.
As for Carrie Lipp, she’s been unemployed for over a year. She said it’s tough to get a job after getting fired from the state.
JUST IN: WSDOT’s expensive legal troubles with their HR department aren't over. KING-TV has learned Kermit Wooden has just filed an $800,000 claim against the state for unlawful termination.
In his claim, Wooden says he was shocked Secretary Hammond fired him despite the recent report finding he was a valuable employee who doesn’t create a hostile work environment. He says she told him he wasn't good at his job and that he was a bully.
MORE: See the tort claim filed by Kermit Wooden here