Topics: Labor Unions

Op-Ed: 'Whites need not apply' at D.C. labor board?

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Opinion,Op-Eds,Labor unions,Labor

Ondray Harris, the African-American executive director of the Public Employee Relations Board of the District of Columbia, stepped down last week.

His resignation letter provides a disturbing look at alleged discriminatory and partisan conduct by the members of the board tasked with overseeing labor issues and the D.C. government's relations with public employees.

Harris claimed in his letter that two members of the board, Don Wasserman and Ann Hoffman, complained over his hiring of a white female, Erin Wilcox, because they perceived her "as being conservative or politically right-of-center."

According to Harris, at a meeting on Nov. 8, 2012, Hoffman declared that "somebody with a resume like hers doesn't belong here" and "should never work here."

Harris said he was "rebuked" by Wasserman for hiring white male employees despite the fact that no challenge was ever made by the board members to their professional "qualifications, competency, or efficiency."

In fact, Wasserman told Harris to "refrain from hiring white men" in the future to fill open attorney slots, according to Harris.

As a civil rights lawyer and the former Deputy Chief of Employment Litigation in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department, Harris vehemently opposed these "illegal, unconstitutional, and discriminatory comments and hiring demands," telling the board that it was asking him "to hire in a discriminatory fashion based on race, gender, and political associations."

He warned the board that he would resign rather than carry out such policies.

Harris said the events of the Nov. 8 meeting were "so outrageous, shocking, and troubling" that he sought legal advice, including from the board's counsel, Keturah Harley.

Harris said he received a memorandum dated Dec. 19, 2012, from Harley stating that "it is illegal and discriminatory for board members Wasserman and Hoffman to request that the executive director avoid hiring an employee on the basis of their possible political affiliation."

Harley also said that the board could not retaliate against Harris "for his refusal to discriminate against persons because of their race."

At another executive session of the board, Harris claimed, when he informed the board that he would be losing the services of Ms. Wilcox for several months because she was pregnant, Wasserman commented, "good, maybe we can get rid of her that way."

When Harris hired another white male, board members were "hypercritical" of that new employee. And Harris said he was highly offended by other remarks made by Hoffman such as the claim that "the military is full of people belonging to white supremacist groups."

Harris also claimed that the anti-management, pro-union attitude of Wasserman and Hoffman provided a "lack of impartiality" in the board's conduct.

In fact, he accused Wasserman and Hoffman of engaging in prohibited "ex parte communication with unions regarding cases" before the board.

News reports about Harris's resignation focused on the board's concerns over his not being a D.C. resident. Harris claimed that was just a pretext.

Wasserman was on the board when he was hired and Harris said his "Virginia residency was discussed" with Wasserman and other board members at the time.

Instead, Harris said the board raising the residency issue now is "retaliation" for his "refusal to act contrary to law" and for his criticisms of the "illegal activity" of the board.

These allegations, if true, are explosive. They reveal a level of blatantly discriminatory behavior that, as Harris said in his resignation letter, violates both federal civil rights law and District of Columbia ordinances.

These are allegations that should clearly be investigated. This kind of behavior by public officials is unacceptable, especially in the nation's capital.

Hans A. von Spakovsky is a senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org) and a former counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Justice Department.

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