OPWDD whistleblower asks workers to speak up
ALBANY — After a jury in Syracuse ruled in favor of state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities employee Jeffery Monsour in a workplace retaliation suit Monday, he is asking other OPWDD workers to bring issues of abuse, retaliation and falsified records to light.
This verdict could set precedent for OPWDD employees talking with the public about problems they see within the agency. The jury determined that the agency violated Monsour’s First Amendment rights when it retaliated against him for reporting problems within the agency to journalists.
“They [OPWDD employees] are afraid,” Monsour said over the phone Tuesday. “People are afraid because once you turn something in, they [OPWDD] come after you viciously.”
Though this is the first case in which a jury ruled that OPWDD retaliated against a worker, agency employees — including former employees at Sunmount, an OPWDD hub based in Tupper Lake — say the practice is common and kept quiet.
“If you talk to the media … they’ll go back and they’ll start looking at notes until they find something,” former Sunmount employee Dave McMahon of Tupper Lake said. “It could be something that happened four or five years ago. … This stuff is going to continue and continue until somebody from Albany comes down here and really straightens out administration.”
McMahon said that although this verdict is a landmark for whistleblowing and treatment of OPWDD employees, it has not changed anything yet. It is a start, he said; extended and consistent attempts will be needed to reveal workplace retaliation within the agency.
Drawing comparisons to the streak of whistleblowers revealing rampant sexual abuse within Hollywood, Washington and the media, McMahon mentioned that all it took was one person to come out and say something to start a flood of revelations.
Monsour clarified that he does not want to prompt OPWDD to close facilities or to damage the care it provides to the state’s 1 million disabled individuals; he currently works at two facilities.
An OPWDD direct-care worker for 18 years, Monsour said he was troubled by instances of falsified fire drills, sexual abuse and a lack of discipline for abusive employees seen while on the job. After revealing these concerns to superiors and seeing no changes, he turned these issues over the the press in 2011.
The jury determined Monsour had been denied promotions and transfers, and had been falsely accused of abuse by as retaliation for speaking to the press and revealing flaws in the agency.
The abuse allegation stemmed from a loud argument he had with a co-worker in front of a resident, where he said he was sworn at while he tried to defuse the situation. The allegation was settled in arbitration, and Monsour submitted a letter with no admission of guilt, but the allegation remained in his personnel file for 18 months.
“Jeff Monsour is an absolute hero and champion for the disabled,” said Michael Carey, founder of the Jonathan Carey Foundation, which advocates for people with developmental disabilities under state care — named for his son, who was killed by staff at O.D. Heck, an OPWDD facility in Schenectady. “He is a defender of the defenseless, and I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
Carey said he also does not want OPWDD facilities to close, mentioning the value they hold for disabled individuals. He does want to see reform and what he refers to as “common-sense changes” such as proper background checks for employees and cameras in secluded areas to deter sexual abuse. (Editor’s note: An earlier version of this paragraph incorrectly said Carey wants “conclusive investigations from the Justice Center for claims of physical, mental and sexual abuse. Carey said he actually is calling for the elimination of the Justice Center and for its officials to be federally investigated, stating that the center covers up abuse instead of finding it and that investigations should be handled by local police and prosecuted by local district attorneys.)
Gov. Andrew Cuomo set up the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs in response to abuses such as the death of Jonathan Carey. The agency took over investigating abuse from OPWDD and other agencies, but advocates, staff and others have criticized its backlog and scarcity of prosecutions.
OPWDD officials did not respond with comments for this story.
Monsour’s lawyer Robert Sadowski said instead of retaliating against Monsour, OPWDD should charge him with making changes to the issues he brought to light.
“They should advance him to a position where his skills and services and interests could best be served,” Sadowski said.
Monsour was awarded a mere $1 in damages and continues to work at OPWDD, splitting time between the Stony Creek facility and Fort Edward day habilitation center.