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The ConnDOT Incident, aka The Busway Incident

Mike Sanders, the transit administrator of the Connecticut Department of Transportation, emailed various community members last week promising to keep Flower Street open while the busway, aka CTfastrak, is built, and to look for long term solutions to keeping it open.

I want to trust him and believe him, but I don’t. Especially not now, knowing Sanders makes empty threats, curses at co-workers and bends rules. I’m not making this up. It’s all described in 300-plus pages of testimony from the federal civil rights trial of McKinney v. DOT from January 28, 2011, just one day from a week-long trial.

So how do we know this promise to keep Flower Street open for a time isn’t a white lie to placate us? Before ConnDOT Commissioner James Redeker answers, he must read the transcript to understand why ConnDOT lacks credibility.

The transcript is here: 1.28.11 testimony, so you too can read the witnesses airing ConnDOT’s dirty laundry: racism, homophobia, fighting with sharp objects and lunchboxes, selective punishment, and a failure to create confidence in internal processes like discipline.

Even though the federal jury delivered a defendant’s verdict, the witnesses described intense dysfunction in the very department responsible for planning, building and marketing CTfastrak.

Plaintiff Daphne McKinney formerly worked in the ConnDOT division responsible for everything mass transit – from marketing to compliance with state and federal laws. Among the defendants she sued in 2006 was Sanders.

Sanders escaped liability in summary judgment, but still had to testify for the part of the case that went to trial.

If you’ll recall, last week I described Sanders’ ad hominem attack on me in a public meeting for reporting on the lawsuit in 2007. Now, I know that’s who he is. But before we get to his bullying, first, he painted a sorry picture of ConnDOT thanks to convicted felon John Rowland’s budgeting. Sanders:

“The Regulatory unit had been gutted during the 2003 early retirements. We lost 9 out of 11 employees. We had to assemble a whole new team and it was a fairly interesting transition, a lot of dysfunctionality, a lot of personality conflicts, and a lot of people that really didn’t know what their job was because obviously they’d never done it before; and there was not a lot of transition time to train new people to do the job. So that period from June 2003 probably for about a year was a very difficult period.”

Or it has always been difficult in ConnDOT, period. Current ConnDOT commissioner James Redeker is the ninth commissioner in the past 11 years. In January 2009, Redeker was bureau chief of public transportation, and was Sanders’ immediate supervisor. Most of the events in this lawsuit occurred long before that.

McKinney’s attorney W. Martyn Philpot called DOT maintenance workers Joe Harvey and Andrew Caserta to testify about a fight they had on a highway over water on a hot summer day. Someone threw a lunch box. It got run over by a car. Someone threw a litter-pick-up stick, with a nail on the end. Direct hit on a passing car’s windshield.

The internal DOT fact finding process punished both men with a week off, unpaid. It was Caserta’s fifth fight. Caserta was angry because he didn’t start the fight.

Or then there was the ConnDOT maintenance worker who used racial and homosexual slurs against minorities, arising from a different incident on a highway where motorists and workers were apparently endangered.

But maintenance garages are, as the Attorney General’s office says, rough and tumble places. What about offices? HQ? More dysfunctionality.

“The File Cabinet Incident” occurred in May 2006. Sanders wanted to inspect files in a file cabinet managed by Celeste Martires, a DOT staffer out on sick leave.  McKinney had a key, but since the cabinet had personal effects of Martires, McKinney asked for something in writing to open the cabinet.

Sanders frustration is easy to grasp. Just gimme the key to open the cabinet. But he testified he didn’t even try to call Martires, who had sued him for discrimination, too. Martires apparently perjured herself in this case. Look elsewhere for saints. Here, D.O.T. means department of 10-year-olds.

When McKinney refused the key, Sanders threatened to withhold Martires’ paycheck.  Sanders testified: “I had made the threat knowing that in the end I’ve been in this public service long enough to know that it was an empty threat that I couldn’t carry out anyway.”

Martires called the Governor’s office to complain. It was said problems with Ms. McKinney only grew worse after this. I can’t imagine why.

ConnDOT has a zero tolerance policy against bullying in the workplace. McKinney felt she was being bullied by co-worker Lisa Tilum, but her complaints weren’t being taken seriously. Tilum had apparently previously bumped, smirked and grinned in a nefarious manner at McKinney.

Tensions between McKinney and Tilum boiled in “the Paper Cutter Incident,” or, alternatively, “the Fax Incident” in July 2006.

On a Friday afternoon, McKinney hurled a blood-curdling scream, and Sanders ran to the scene, only to find no blood. The transcript didn’t say if he was disappointed by that. He testified he found McKinney claiming Tilum threatened to hurt her with paper.

Or maybe Tilum was at the fax machine doing work and McKinney was at the paper cutter, slicing up a real estate ad. And maybe Tilum threatened to knock her on the noggin with a stack of papers. It’s hard to say what happened.

Sanders wrote up an incident report, but didn’t give it to his supervisor. He said he didn’t have to, playing word games with attorney Philpot over the meaning of ConnDOT personnel directives. Sanders filed his memo in his desk.

“The Fax Incident” went to ConnDOT’s threat assessment team on Monday morning. Sanders didn’t even know ConnDOT had a threat assessment team. “They probably have bylaws or rules of some kind, but just by the nature of the nature one would assume that they’re assessing any immediate threat,” Sanders testified.

If the threat assessment team saw a threat, they would separate the employees. Why can’t they do that with bicycles and cars? The threat is pretty clear. But, the “paper cutter/fax incident” was not dangerous enough to separate the two employees.

That same Monday morning, McKinney emailed then-Commissioner Stephen Korta to ask: “What I want to know from you is that if I address this situation off state property will I be able to keep my job?”

After McKinney sent the email about addressing Tilum off state property, Sanders responded by writing “I can’t believe she would be so stupid as to be talking about physical threats, but what else do we have to go on without knowing what she really meant. I’d feel uncomfortable if I were Lisa coming back into this tomorrow.”

Sanders, having worked with McKinney for 17 years, testified in a deposition McKinney was not violent and would not employ physical intimidation.

Although McKinney did draft a different email – state exhibit 518 (meaning the state used more than 500 exhibits) –saying Tilum would not be so bold off state property, and instead “be the sorry bitch she is.”

Some of these emails went to the State Police and to a second threat assessment team meeting. McKinney got arrested and placed on administrative leave. The charges appear to have been dropped.

Then, in what Philpot noted was not Sanders’ finest moment, Sanders sent out an apparently snarky, gloating in-house email announcing McKinney’s departure. ConnDOT HR didn’t like it.

But they didn’t punish Sanders for that. Or his “Shut the F— Up Incident.” Sanders, who doesn’t work in a garage, noted that “reprimanded is kind of a formal thing.” Without a reprimand, he can swear at co-workers like Sheldon Lubin with impunity.

Sanders explained: “We were having a staff meeting on personnel plans and Sheldon kept saying you didn’t ask for enough people in Regulatory and Compliance and he asked a question about three times and I finally said, Sheldon, we’ve been over this, just shut the f*&^ up.”

The transcript actually uses the swear word. We are a family newspaper. We won’t. Sanders was forced to apologize to Mr. Lubin. But he hasn’t to us in the community.

For years, we busway followers have listened to Sanders fib, change stories, ignore us, and belittle us. And now, we see ConnDOT protecting him. He and his dual masters’ degrees must be really valuable. Or not.

Because if the means are the ends, the hundreds of millions we are investing in CTfastrak may be wasted. It pains me to say this, because I want mass transit infrastructure to succeed.

Yet after examining one day of trial transcript, I have no confidence in the people administering CTfastrak.

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