Doing the Right Thing

Twenty-six years ago I was fired from my job as Wisconsin’s first legal counsel to the Board on Aging and Long Term Care for blowing the whistle on the Executive Director, who was a high functioning alcoholic, but had previously succeeded in insulating himself from evaluation by the Board. After lobbying Congress to require that state long-term care ombudsman programs have legal counsel, I successfully obtained what had appeared to be a dream job, advocating for people living in institutions and receiving long term care, by providing legal counsel to a great team of ombudsmen, and representing victims of abuse and neglect. Little did I know that my dream job would only last nine months.

Before I took the job, I knew the Executive Director. He was very friendly, but had a reputation of being somewhat lazy. Since I am a very independent worker, I did not think it would bother me to have a lazy supervisor. Indeed, my first few months were highly productive. However, staff started approaching me with concerns, and I soon realized that the director’s apparent laziness, which included often not showing up for critical hearings or meetings, was really a symptom of serious alcoholism. It became apparent that the director frequently lied about his whereabouts to cover for his drinking.

Since I was legal counsel to the agency, I sought advice from the State Department of Justice, and on their advice, I proceeded to gather first person evaluations from staff to provide to the Board, whom I discovered had never evaluated the director. I knew I was taking a risk, but I simply could not stand idly by while the director’s alcoholism degraded this state agency, resulting in inadequate protection for the people in institutions and those receiving long-term care, whom we were statutorily required to serve.

After completing my investigation, I provided all the first person information I had obtained to the Board, and then I waited. All of a sudden, a veil of silence dropped down and the Board no longer communicated with me. Fortunately, to protect myself, I retained my own legal counsel and filed a whistleblower complaint with the State Personnel Commission in case of retaliation.

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At this point, the Board had one of its regular meetings over the weekend, and since staff were prohibited from meeting with the Board without the director’s permission (one of his self-protective maneuvers), I went into the office on Monday not knowing what might happen. The director ┬árarely called staff meetings, but he called staff in to tell us that he had tendered his resignation to the Board. However, the director told us that the Board refused to accept his resignation, conditional on his going into rehab. I vividly remember putting my hand on his hand and telling him that I knew this must be very difficult for him, and that I would be glad to do whatever he needed to help manage the agency while he was in rehab.

The week proceeded and the director did not announce when he was going into rehab. Nor did he tell any staff how the agency would operate in his absence. However, on Friday, he asked me to write a memo to him summarizing my cases (something he had not previously done), then he called me into his office and fired me.

It did not take long for me to obtain what was the largest whistleblower settlement in Wisconsin history, but that was small compensation for losing what I thought was going to be a dream job. Fortunately, this firing did not derail my career, and I am proud of what I have accomplished since that time.

Why am I writing about this ancient history today? One of the consequences of living in a small city, is that I regularly bump into people I know in public places. This morning, while doing some grocery shopping, I saw the man who fired me 26 years ago. We made eye contact, said nothing to each other, and proceeded to continue our shopping. This is not the first time I have seen him since he fired me, and each time I see him, I wonder if he will ever have the courage to thank me for saving his life, as he did go into rehab after firing me, and I believe he has stopped drinking. Of course, I also wonder if he will ever have the courage to apologize for firing me. However, just like the handful of other times I have seen him in public, he said nothing.

So, the awkward moment passed, and I must simply take comfort in knowing that I did the right thing and that is all the thanks I will ever receive. He must live with his own behavior. I remain proud of my own. Due to my personal experience, I have a great deal of respect for all the brave whistleblowers out there who risk their careers and livelihood when they expose a superior’s malfeasance. Most will never receive thanks for their important work, so like me, I hope they are able to remain proud of the good work they have done.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

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