Over the past year, Chicago’s Department of Water Management has faced a number of serious allegations of systemic racism and sexism, as well as fostering an environment of harassment and retaliation for employees who dare to speak up.
These allegations, which began with a Chicago inspector general report concerning racist and sexist emails between a number of high-level Water Department employees, led to some changes within the department, notably the resignations of Water Commissioner Barrett Murphy, Managing Deputy William Bresnahan, District Superintendent Paul Hansen and two other top managers in 2017.
But according to a number of current and former employees of the Water Department who spoke with Project Six, the problems of the city’s Water Department have been much more substantial than offensive emails and negligent top leaders.
The Water Department sources, specifically chemists from the Jardine Water Purification Plant near the Loop and Sawyer Water Purification Plant on Chicago’s South Side, spoke with Project Six to show not only how the Water Department’s work environment has been much more toxic than previously reported, but that the environment has been fostered by management-level employees who use it to harass other employees, especially employees of color.
Previous reports on Water Department racism
In May 2017, the City of Chicago’s Office of the Inspector General uncovered volumes of racist and sexist emails circulating throughout the Department of Water Management, leading to the resignation of several top agency officials, including then-commissioner Murphy.
The Chicago Tribune later exposed those emails, which displayed a city department fraught with racism, sexism and homophobia. The emails, which began in 2013, showed images of the Ku Klux Klan and naked women and included offensive comments against gay, Muslim and African American people. Top department officials received and even forwarded some of these messages.
Amid the email scandal, a federal lawsuit was filed against the department which alleged that African American employees were routinely denied promotions and exposed to racial slurs and sexual harassment. The city is fighting this lawsuit and trying to get it dismissed.
WGN Investigates also uncovered a photo depicting a noose hanging from a Water Department truck, which added to the controversy.
In January 2018, City Council held a public hearing to address the emails and allegations against the department. During the hearing, water department employees claimed that racism and sexism continued even after Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed an African American commissioner, Randy Conner. Conner told City Council that he planned to implement a new training program against the department’s continued culture.
City Council’s Progressive Reform Caucus called for a second hearing along with an independent study to shed more light on, and expose, further issues facing the Water Department. However, neither has yet to take place. The spokesperson for the Water Department did not know when, or if, another hearing would take place.
Evidence of systemic racism
Confidential sources from the Department of Water Management who spoke to Project Six allege that the problems of the department have been much more than a few bad apples in the workplace.
The sources—who are not being named because of their fear of retaliation—allege that certain water lab employees have essentially been given free rein to harass and intimidate other employees, especially those who speak out against harassment and the culture of racism. They detailed their experiences and provided Project Six with photographs that appear to back up their claims of a racist, hostile workplace.
The photographs, taken between 2006 and 2016, some of which are included with this investigation [i], are alleged to show the ways that outspoken employees and employees of color are intimidated. These include a note, written on the calendar of a complaining African American employee, labeling the employee a “Judas”; the placement of makeshift crosses in front of the lockers of African American employees who filed complaints or spoke up; and the conspicuous placement of a copy of Mein Kampf with a prominent swastika on the cover.
In interviews with Project Six, multiple sources allege that their complaints about these issues went unaddressed.
Megan Vidis, the spokesperson for the Water Department, could not comment on misconduct that took place before Commissioner Conner’s administration, but said that “Since taking over the Department of Water Management (DWM) in June of 2017, Commissioner Randy Conner has been clear that he is committed to an inclusive, welcoming environment at DWM. Racism, sexism, homophobia or religious discrimination will not be tolerated. DWM has mandated annual EEO [Equal Employment Opportunity] training for all DWM employees and will appropriately discipline employees if discrimination occurs.”
A protected employee
In their interviews with Project Six, Water Department sources described a coordinated effort of intimidation, much of which was undertaken by a seemingly untouchable employee, Anthony Nguyen, a Water Chemist II for both the Jardine and Sawyer labs.
Over the past decade, there have been many reports of misconduct by Nguyen.
A 2008 complaint [ii] to the Illinois Labor Relations Board by a Water Department employee cited Nguyen’s use of Mein Kampf placed on desks of African American employees to intimidate them. Part of the complaint reads, “almost every time [Nguyen] gets upset with someone of a certain ethnic group he pulls out this Nazi book with a large swastika on the cover. He pulled it out recently in late April . One of the employees saw it and was upset and reported it. Many of us have seen this book.” The complainant was unaware if further action was taken.
The Water Department spokesperson did not respond to questions of whether the Water Department was aware of the labor relations board complaint.
But this is far from the worst behavior attributed to Nguyen. A Water Department source alleged to Project Six that in approximately 2009, Nguyen urinated in a coffee cup, placed the cup in an oven to dry it out, and then replaced the cup on an African American employee’s desk so they would drink from it. However, the source threw the cup away after Nguyen left and before the other employee could use it. The employee did not formally report this incident, fearing retribution and believing the department would not effectively control Nguyen.
A now-retired female lab employee relayed another incident, in which Nguyen was urinating in a laboratory sink when she came to work early. She asked him what he was doing. His reply was “I’m marking my territory like a tiger.” She claims she did not report this incident for fear of retribution.
Other employees alleged that Nguyen used a variety of means to intimidate others, including yelling and screaming at African American employees, sharpening knife-like items in front of employees, threats, and on more than one occasion even physically assaulting others. Nguyen’s city personnel file [iii] and evidence provided by sources corroborate these allegations.
When asked how Nguyen was able to get away with such horrendous behavior, those who work at the Water Department alleged that Nguyen acted as a proxy for management-level employees to harass and intimidate African American employees. One employee interviewed by Project Six alleged that Nguyen was able to keep his job because he was an “enforcer for management in general, and for [current Deputy Commissioner] Alan Stark in particular.”
The Water Department spokesperson declined to comment on Deputy Commissioner Stark’s relationship with Nguyen.
A 2007 complaint [iv] filed with the Illinois Department of Labor regarding Nguyen resulted in a finding that the Water Quality Lab had failed to successfully implement Chicago’s Violence in the Workplace Procedural Manual among middle and upper management. The report further criticized the lab’s management for not ensuring “that employee’s behavior and misconduct is controlled.”
Nguyen’s personnel file shows that from the beginning of his employment, in 1998, through 2017, Nguyen received formal discipline at least 10 times for a variety of serious offenses. These include a five-day suspension in November 1999 for sexual harassment, a seven-day suspension in 2000 for “verbal abuse” and “explosive behavior,” and at least four additional incidents that included substantiated claims of workplace violence. Only twice did his discipline exceed a 10-day suspension.
Despite the numerous reports of serious misconduct, in the yearly performance reviews included in Nguyen’s file, he never scored lower than an 83 (a rating of 70 or high is required for merit pay increases).
It wasn’t until the 2017 email scandal report that came from the Chicago Office of Inspector General did the city finally take action and terminate Nguyen [v]. While the city’s Law Department said [vi] Nguyen’s firing was not related to the department’s shake-up over racist emails, they never addressed the nearly two decades of torment he launched on African American coworkers. The last entry in his personnel file [vii], November 27, 2017, is an AFSCME 31 arbitrators report recommending that Nguyen be rehired to his previous position at the water lab.
Despite the substantial arguments from the city for why Nguyen should be fired and his long history of misconduct at the Water Department, an arbiter ruled in favor of AFSCME 31 and reinstated Nguyen to his full-time position in the Water Department—meaning Nguyen is still a city employee at the Department of Water Management.
Regarding Nguyen’s arbitration, the Water Department spokesperson, Megan Vidis, said, “Department of Water Management officials enacted progressive disciplinary actions against Anthony Nguyen, which eventually resulted in his termination. He appealed his firing and subsequently won his arbitration hearing and returned to his full-time position.”
Water Department sources that spoke with Project Six also echoed an issue that came up repeatedly in testimony by Water Department employees during the January 2018 Chicago City Council Committee on Human Relations meeting. The disciplinary process used within the Water Department routinely punishes employees who speak up, while failing to punish those who engaged in truly egregious conduct.
During his City Hall testimony, a 24-year veteran of the Water Department, John Ware, alleged[viii] that he fell victim to retaliation after filing a discrimination complaint against his superiors when they tried to replace him with a white colleague with less education, experience and seniority. Following his complaint, Ware received a 29-day unpaid suspension for allegedly making disparaging comments about a water commissioner, a claim he vigorously denied. Ware had never been disciplined before.
The sentiment that discipline is used to silence aggrieved workers was echoed by numerous other employees during the City Council testimony. “As soon as you complain, you get punished,” claimed Ed Mosely [ix], an 11-year veteran hoisting engineer. Another employee testified of being “afraid to tell the truth, because I may lose my job.”
The Water Department’s spokesperson said that every misconduct report is immediately addressed, and that harassment is not tolerated in any form.
Testimony before City Council also alleged that multiple agencies, including the Water Department, Illinois Department of Human Rights and Chicago’s Office of the Inspector General, failed to address numerous complaints about the professional environment within the Water Department.
The Water Department sources interviewed by Project Six confirmed the pattern of inaction on reports of harassment inside the Water Department.
A 2009 internal letter from an African American water lab employee to Chief Water Chemist Rasheda Gaither provided to Project Six [x] appears to showcase one of these alleged acts of inaction. A water lab employee was ordered to sit next to Nguyen, even though the employee had a well-documented history of complaints of being subjected to violence and intimidation by Nguyen. To avoid confrontation, the employee abandoned his assigned seat and spent the next five months working at a different location within the water purification lab.
After five months, however, the employee was disciplined by Gaither after she was informed by Deputy Commissioner Alan Stark that the employee was not sitting in his assigned seat next to Nguyen. The African American employee explained his reasoning for not sitting in his assigned cubicle, “You are aware that he [Nguyen] has had a number of violent altercations with African Americans since his tenure with this department… One morning he was seen sharpening a shank like piece of metal,” he says in a memo.
In a letter following the discipline,[xi] Gaither’s notes to Deputy Commissioner Alan Stark indicate that the employee told her it was unsafe for him to occupy the seat next to Nguyen, and she also acknowledges the employee’s claim that Nguyen had threateningly sharpened a knife within the lab. Gaither, however, disputes that Nguyen had a knife, instead referring to it as a “mini-saw,” and that Nguyen was allowed to “take it to his car and not bring it back to work.”
Even in the course of disciplining the employee for switching seats, Gaither notes the high likelihood that seating the employee next to Nguyen would inevitably result in violence. “[The employee’s] requests for preferential seating should be addressed. The [Water Purification Lab] has had a history of employee altercations…[the situation] has led me to believe that seating them near each other is going to be a catastrophe. If I am to force [the employee] to sit next to Mr. Nguyen I can rest assure that there will be another violence in the workplace report.”
One Water Department source told Project Six that they retired early specifically due to the unbearable treatment they endured by Nguyen.
Another chemist in the lab claimed in a 2008 violence in the workplace incident report[xii] that for every complaint made, a retaliatory complaint would be launched, and that when an African American lab worker complained to upper supervisors, the mistreatment would escalate. Part of the memo reads, “These fictitious and unsubstantiated claims must stop.”
Unlike the African American lab workers who were terrorized for decades at the labs, many of the upper management staff had little worries or concerns during their work history at the lab. Photos provided to Project Six show[xiii] several supervising chemists sleeping during work hours on various days or playing Solitaire on city computers during work hours. Several photos show different instances of Nguyen sleeping at his work station, although Nguyen’s personnel file appears to contain only a single disciplinary action for sleeping, in 2014.
Serious reform still needed
Disturbing as these accounts may be, it is vital that the full scope of the Water Department’s dysfunction, including the water labs, be brought to light. Not fully addressing the labs’ environment does an unforgivable disservice to the people of color, women and other employees victimized by a venomous work environment.
The city and its citizens cannot hope to begin to move forward from the deep-seated racism, sexism and hateful environment in the Water Department without a full accounting of how this toxic environment manifested itself and of every official and employee who played a role in allowing it to fester.
The only way to ensure that these systemic problems are truly ended is for a complete independent review of what misconduct took place for years, what employees and officials were involved, and what substantial reforms are being put in place.
Ensuring that Chicagoans are provided with clean, safe water is a vital responsibility of our city government. Ensuring that the workers who make that water clean and safe are protected and listened to is an equally vital responsibility of our city leaders.
Brandon Smith, Independent Journalist contributed to this investigation.
[i] Evidence packet pages 17-30
[ii] Evidence packet page 1
[iii] Evidence packet pages 2-8
[iv] Evidence packet page 9
[vii] Evidence packet pages 12-13
[x] Evidence packet page 11
[xi] Evidence packet pages 12-13
[xii] Evidence packet page 16
[xiii] Evidence packet pages 17-30
This investigation abides by Project Six’s Guarantee of Quality Scholarship.