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CEPD terminates staff following investigation

By TIFFANY REPECKI / trepecki@breezenewspapers.com - | Aug 21, 2020

At its meeting, the Captiva Erosion Prevention District’s commission reviewed the findings of an independent investigation into allegations raised last month by staff as part of a Whistle-blower’s Act complaint and voted to fire its administrator based on the report, as well as terminated its assistant administrator to start “fresh” with a clean slate.

At the Aug. 10 meeting, attorney Amy Garrard, with AG Employment Law, outlined for the commissioners the findings of her investigation. She reported that she was asked by Commissioner Rene Miville to investigate allegations posed by Administrator Joe Wagenti in a written disclosure released at the July meeting. In July, Miville offered to serve as liaison on the investigation.

Garrard told the commission that she reviewed a number of public documents, listened to audio recordings from the CEPD’s June and July meetings, and conducted interviews with Chairman Mike Mullins, Miville, Wagenti and CEPD consultant Bob Gray, who is cited in Wagenti’s complaint.

According to her report, the scope of Garrard’s inquiry “was limited to examining the factual allegations contained in the disclosure and determining if the allegations could be verified.” She wrote that the allegations fall within three primary categories: allegations of gross mismanagement, malfeasance and gross waste of public funds arising primarily out of the CEPD’s retention of the firm Partners in Progress to perform contractual consulting services; allegations that Mullins hires and/or contracts with companies or individuals that are his acquaintances or friends; and that Wagenti believes that he has been subjected to a hostile work environment based upon alleged repeated threats of termination and unreasonable expectations placed upon him by Mullins.

Garrard footnoted in her report that “there are some other allegations” regarding a medical leave and Assistant Administrator Kimmy Foulds mentioned in the disclosure. She added that they “are not addressed in this report because they are not relevant” to Wagenti’s complaints of “gross mismanagement, misfeasance, malfeasance, waste of public funds or a hostile work environment.”

In a phone interview on Aug. 14, Garrard explained that she was provided with Wagenti’s written complaint, which she reviewed and then decided on the scope and focus of the investigation.

“I saw those as the main issues that were raised in the disclosure,” Garrard said.

At the meeting, she first outlined for the commission her conclusions on the allegations pertaining to the CEPD’s relationship with Partners in Progress, Gray’s firm. Garrard found that contracts awarded to PIP in 2007 and 2008 were the result of a competitive bidding process and that amounts paid to PIP between 2008-2012 included funds necessary to outsource the administrative functions of the CEPD, including the payment of administrative salaries.

“There is no evidence to support a finding that PIP was overpaid, or that there was any inappropriate conduct on the part of the board or Commissioner Mullins with respect to the selection or retention of PIP, or the payment of their invoices between the dates of 2007-2021,” she wrote in her report.

“With respect to PIP’s offer to provide a temporary staff member at a rate of $400 per day, the investigator recognizes that this rate exceeds the prevailing rate for this type of work,” Garrard added, noting that Wagenti did not respond to it nor hire an interim replacement for Foulds, however.

She concluded that the allegations are not consistent with or supported by the facts.

As for the allegation that Mullins hires and/or contracts with companies or individuals with whom he has a personal relationship, she reported that her investigation found a former consultant terminated its contract with the CEPD and a former administrator had the opportunity to remain, but “ultimately did not.” Garrard added that RFPs were drafted and firms submitted proposals that were considered by the board at a public meeting in respect to the retention of new accounting and law firms for the CEPD.

“I could find no factual support for those allegations,” she told the commission.

On the final allegation included in the investigation, that Wagenti was subjected to a hostile work environment as a result of Mullins’ conduct, Garrard explained in her report that she could not confirm based upon the available facts that Mullins had threatened to fire Wagenti on numerous occasions.

“Although certainly the chairman contacted Mr. Wagenti and Ms. Foulds via e-mail and telephone frequently, oversight of the CEPD is part of his responsibilities. It is also part of the administrator’s duties to respond to the requests of the chairman,” she wrote. “The frequency of the contact is not sufficient, by itself, to create a hostile work environment.”

Garrard also pointed to one meeting in which Mullins implied that he had concerns about Wagenti’s performance, noting that there may have been a more appropriate forum to discuss such issues.

“In the future, it would be the recommendation of the investigator that the CEPD develop a performance evaluation procedure so that employees may obtain feedback outside of the confines of a public meeting,” she wrote, adding that the exchange, “however, is not factually sufficient to support a finding that there is a hostile work environment that exists at the CEPD.”

After Garrard completed the overview of her findings, Vice Chair Bob Walter and Secretary Harry Kaiser thanked her for her work. They also asked Wagenti to speak on his original complaint.

“I would like to hear from Joe,” Kaiser said. “Because he made a lot of accusations.”

“I keep asking myself, ‘What was the intent here?'” Walter said.

Wagenti declined to comment further.

“I’m already terminated. There’s no reason for me to speak,” he said. “I feel everyone has made up their mind.”

A motion was made to terminate Wagenti without cause. On the first pass, Treasurer Dick Pyle sought to abstain from voting, but was instructed he had to. The motion passed 4-1, with Pyle dissenting.

A second motion was made to terminate Foulds without cause.

“I just think that it’s time to start fresh all the way,” Miville, who made the motion, said.

It passed in a 3-2 vote, with Pyle and Walter dissenting.

On Aug. 13, Gray commented on the findings of the investigation.

“I was more than satisfied that the investigator concluded that the allegations made by Joe Wagenti were false,” he wrote via e-mail. “He was unable to provide any supporting evidence to back up those allegations or even demonstrate on what basis he made those allegations in the first place. Partners in Progress, on the other hand, was able to provide the investigator with historical documents to refute the allegations — historical documents that exist as part of the CEPD’s public records of which Joe, in his capacity as CEPD administrator, was the official record keeper.”

“It should be obvious to anyone reading through the details of the report and the evidence that the investigator collected that Joe Wagenti was not only negligent in issuing those allegations, but that he issued them in bad faith,” Gray added.

In a phone interview on Aug. 14, Wagenti commented on the investigation’s findings and his termination. He stated that the investigation only lasted two weeks and that what he believed was pertinent information was not considered.

“It was the exact opposite of the investigation of what I thought was going to happen,” he said. “But I wasn’t really relying on them to do a complete investigation.”

Wagenti declined to comment on his next steps.

Foulds also provided comment via e-mail. She stated that the commissioners who voted in favor of terminating her did not know her nor her professional performance, that she had never even met Miville. Foulds added that she was voted out as terminated without being asked to provide feedback.

“I was following (Wagenti’s) directions and, by association with Joe Wagenti, was let go with no faults,” she wrote of her work performance and duties.