The City Council’s former hand-picked inspector general on Tuesday shined more light on the hate-filled culture in the city’s Department of Water Management laid bare in racist, sexist and homophobic emails that triggered a high-level housecleaning.
The investigation by Faisal Khan’s “Project Six” focused heavily on a veteran chemist at the Jardine and Sawyer Water Purification plants who remains on the job despite a decades-long history of complaints that he discriminated against and intimidated African-American co-workers.
During a previously undisclosed 2009 incident, the chemist was further accused of “urinating into a coffee cup … [he then] placed the cup into an oven to dry it out and replaced the cup on the desk” of a black co-worker so he would drink from it.
According to Khan, the chemist’s personnel file showed he was formally disciplined 10 times for serious offenses between 1998 and 2017. Those punishments include a five-day suspension for sexual harassment in 1999 and a seven-day suspension the following year for “verbal abuse and explosive behavior.”
At least four of the incidents included “substantial claims of workplace violence,” Khan said. Two of the suspensions exceeded 10 days.
But, it was only after Inspector General Joe Ferguson stumbled across the hate-filled Water Management emails while investigating alleged gun sales by a now-former high-ranking deputy that the city moved to fire the chemist, Khan said.
And that belated disciplinary action was met with union resistance. In late November, an arbitrator reversed the firing and reinstated the chemist, Khan said.
Attorney Victor Henderson represents six current and former Water Management employees — all African-Americans — who have filed a federal lawsuit accusing the Department of Water Management of creating “a hostile and abusive work environment” based on race that includes violence, intimidation and retaliation.
Henderson said the chemist acted as the “hit man” for higher-ups orchestrating what he called a “campaign of intimidation and violence” against black employees that continues to this day, even under African-American Commissioner Randy Conner.
Adding insult to injury, the white deputy commissioner pulling the strings was promoted after the lawsuit was filed, Henderson said.
“We continue to get calls that the promotion process is not right. They’re still retaliating against black people who complain. We get these calls every day,” Henderson said.
“What they’ve done is window-dressing. They put a nice-looking, articulate black guy up at the top, had him send out a memo and say everything is fine. But it’s business as usual.”
Henderson said he’s not at all certain that the arbitration process reversing the chemist’s firing was “on the up-and-up.”
“What the African-American employees are saying is that the process is rigged from top-to-bottom and every place in-between. … They can choose an arbitrator who leans towards the city,” Henderson said.
Calls to the chemist at Jardine were immediately transferred to Water Management spokesperson Megan Vidis, who issued an emailed response to Khan’s findings.
“Department of Water Management officials enacted progressive disciplinary actions against [the chemist], which eventually resulted in his termination. He appealed his firing and subsequently won his arbitration hearing and returned to his full-time position,” Vidis wrote.
The email stressed that, since taking over last June, Conner has ordered “mandatory annual” training for all Water Management employees to underscore his commitment to an “inclusive, welcoming environment” where “racism, sexism, homophobia or religious discrimination will not be tolerated.”
Last summer, a housecleaning triggered by the email scandal flushed out Water Management Commissioner Barrett Murphy and several of his high-ranking deputies. Murphy’s ouster was a shocker because he and his wife are friends with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the mayor’s wife, Amy Rule.
In January, nearly two dozen current and former Water Management employees complained that the same hate-filled culture persists, even after Conner replaced Murphy.
A black woman said she was told she wouldn’t get a promotion because she “wouldn’t go under the desk.”
African-American men said they were denied promotions and overtime and denounced on a daily basis as the N-word, with profanity attached.
Blacks of both sexes who dared complain about discrimination said they were punished with trumped-up charges based on hearsay.
The ugly testimony before a City Council committee turned up the heat on Emanuel to settle the lawsuit; to date, no talks have been held.