Part 1: Four employees claim retaliation from SBA managers

Monday - 2/7/2011, 6:44am EST

WFED's Jason Miller

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(This is part 1 of Federal News Radio's investigative series, Discouraged and Disrespected at SBA.)

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Karla Saunders has worked for the government for more than 29 years in the human resources field. She said she never received a poor or unsatisfactory performance review in all her years of service, including in senior management positions at the Small Business Administration, the Labor Department and the IRS.

But over the last three years, Saunders said she's been treated like a complainer and a troublemaker by senior SBA officials. She said this isn't because of the job she is doing. Rather, Saunders said SBA officials are repeatedly retaliating against her for blowing the whistle and testifying on behalf of another agency employee after accusations of mismanagement arose against three managers.

"Managers were collectively mistreating us and, after then, SBA Administrator Steve Preston conducted an investigation. Two of the three managers were removed from their positions," Saunders said in an interview in her attorney's office. "The one remaining manager, Darryl Hairston, ultimately became acting administrator during the 2008 presidential transition."

Saunders claims Hairston and other senior officials have been exacting revenge against her for testifying. And, she said the reprisals continue with new SBA Administrator Karen Mills and her senior staff.

Saunders said she was sent on a detail to the Labor Department in 2008 from her job as director of training. When she returned to SBA a year later, managers did not return her to the director of training position, but put her in two positions back-to-back she was unqualified for, and tried to send her to a third position she was not suited to do. Basically, Saunders said she was turkey farmed.

Saunders is not alone. She is one of four long-time career federal employees at SBA who claim agency management is retaliating against them for blowing the whistle on allegations of assorted human resources and contracting fraud. Diane Sellers, Ethel Matthews and Stevie Gray also allege misconduct by SBA managers, and retaliation when they brought the potential illegal activities to the attention of federal HR authorities.

SBA's Jonathan Swain, the assistant administrator for communications and public liaison, in e-mailed responses to questions said, "Many of your questions relate to ongoing personnel matters pertaining to a few employees. Out of respect for individual employee privacy and to ensure the integrity of the dispute resolution process including potential mediation or settlement, it is the agency's policy to not discuss ongoing or pending personnel matters publicly. The agency certainly does not believe, however, that there is widespread retaliation against employees or whistleblowers, as your questions suggest."

Bad situation

Saunders' attorney Vincent Melehy called her situation among the worst he's seen in 13 years practicing federal employment law.

"This agency just doesn't get it," said Melehy, who represents four other SBA employees who have similar experiences as Saunders. "They've taken my client out of her position. They did not voluntarily put her back in the position. They just kept moving her around. And when Office of Special Counsel ordered the agency to put her back, they basically gutted the position. It is an agency that is allowing these discriminatory and retaliatory actions to continue in a systemic way and it needs some swift and decisive action."

Saunders said the retaliation started with the detail to the Labor Department, but grew worse when she returned to SBA a year later. She said SBA managers put her in positions she was unqualified for.

The first one was in the role of a senior advisor in the Office of Entrepreneurial Development.

"I would sit and read materials, I would ask for work repeatedly," Saunders said. "One point in time, I went to the deputy director and said 'I have nothing to do.' She said 'I have to find something for you to do.'"

Saunders tried to make the best of it.

"We came up with one assignment I was able to successfully complete," she said. "Overall it was a very demeaning, wasteful experience."

About six months later, Saunders said SBA moved her into another "created position" with the Office of Faith Based Initiatives. Again, she said she has no experience in this area but tried to make the best of it.

A few months later, Saunders said SBA wanted to move her for a third time. Eugene Cornelius, SBA's deputy associate administrator in the Office of Field Operations, asked Saunders if she wanted to be reassigned to his office.