Voters in five Florida parishes asked to renew 3-mill tax for juvenile detention center _lowres

Advocate file photo by Heidi Kinchen -- Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center (between Robert and Goodbee on U.S. 190)

Mounting claims of discrimination and retaliation against the Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center have created a tenfold increase in an insurance cost for the agency that is trying to curtail the spiraling problem.

The detention center has been sued 15 times over the past dozen years — three times in the past year alone — and has several more claims pending against it with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Recently, the Florida Parishes Juvenile Justice Commission has taken a more heavy-handed approach in its oversight of the detention center’s employment decisions. In March, the commission extended indefinitely the life of an ad hoc committee to review employee disciplinary cases. And this month, the commission insisted on vetting finalists for the center’s next human resources director — a position vacated earlier this year for reasons officials have refused to discuss.

“The shepherd watches the sheep, but who’s been watching the shepherd?” commission attorney John Feduccia said Monday.

“The commission considers itself the shepherd of the shepherd.”

Feduccia said the commission hopes that by increasing its oversight, employees will feel they’re getting a fair shake and the lawsuits will abate.

But the litigation has already exacted a price.

Hal Stiel, of Stiel Insurance Agencies, informed the commission Wednesday that its insurance company declined to renew the commission’s employment practices policy because of the number of claims and lawsuits.

Requests for quotes from a dozen other companies drew only a few takers, Stiel said. As a result, the commission’s annual premium will skyrocket from $5,000 to $50,000, with its deductible soaring from $2,500 to $50,000 per claim.

The lawsuits against the detention center, filed in both state and federal courts, have claimed various forms of racial and gender discrimination, retaliatory dismissals or demotions, and violations of regulatory laws such as the Family Medical Leave Act.

Most of these cases were settled out of court under terms that were not disclosed in the court records. Three lawsuits remain open in federal court, and a fourth is on appeal at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals following a summary judgment in the detention center’s favor.

The center also has at least three EEOC claims pending against it.

Commission and detention center officials have been mum about the litigation, and Tom Hogan, a Hammond lawyer representing several current and former detention center employees with claims against the facility, has declined to comment.

But court records and commission meeting minutes reveal a timeline of heightening concern over the past year, as outside investigators started looking into a tip about possible payroll fraud and a search for the whistleblower apparently ensued.

Former payroll clerk Casey Sclafini sued the detention center in 21st Judicial District Court in Amite earlier this year, claiming she was forced to quit her job after she reached out to the state Inspector General’s Office in February 2014 with concerns over some of the center’s payroll practices.

In her lawsuit, Sclafini describes several instances of executive staff at the detention center reprimanding her, changing the terms of her employment or otherwise treating her unfairly after she voiced her concerns to them. She said Feduccia, the commission’s attorney, also asked her at one point if she was the whistleblower or if she knew who was.

The IG investigation that followed Sclafini’s tip also led to the Feb. 26 arrest of detention center secretary Joy Chauvin. Investigators claim Chauvin recorded her supervisor’s conversations without his knowledge or consent in an effort to prove that management had pegged her as the whistleblower and planned to fire her.

Chauvin faces one count of interception of wire, electronic or oral communications. She has pleaded not guilty.

IG investigators learned of the recordings on Sept. 4, when they met with Chauvin to discuss her concerns that she was being targeted for dismissal, according to an affidavit of probable cause for her arrest. The investigators said they seized a recording device and the recordings from Chauvin’s home the same day.

Feduccia declined to discuss specifics of the Chauvin case or the recordings Monday, but he said the IG’s Office did notify the commission of “certain things that had happened.”

On Sept. 10, the week after investigators seized the recordings, the Juvenile Justice Commission met in executive session to discuss pending litigation and “investigative proceedings regarding allegations of misconduct,” according to meeting minutes.

After the closed-door discussion, the commission authorized an outside attorney to “contact any outside agency and to authorize any sweeps if necessary.” The commission also created the ad hoc committee to review employee disciplinary decisions and asked the committee to consider a proposed new “whistleblower policy.”

The whistleblower policy, which the commission adopted in November, explicitly prohibits retaliating against any employee who has reported possible fraud or other illegal activity.

The commission met in executive session regularly over the next few months to discuss the ongoing investigation and unspecified allegations of misconduct.

Sometime between the commission’s Feb. 11 and March 11 meetings, when the board held its last closed-door session regarding the investigation, Director of Administration Steven Happel resigned.

Happel, who had overseen the detention center’s human resources and payroll since 2008, declined on Thursday to discuss his resignation. He also declined to discuss Sclafini’s claims in her lawsuit that he had reprimanded her for contacting the commission’s accountant about her payroll concerns.

Tom Jarlock, the detention center’s executive director, also declined to comment on Happel’s resignation. Jarlock referred questions on that topic to Feduccia, the commission’s attorney, who said he had no firsthand knowledge of Happel’s reasons for leaving and declined to comment further on the matter.

Commission President David M. Duke said in an email that he, too, was “unaware of the reasons for (Happel’s) departure and his exit interview, if any, would be a personnel matter.”

Duke said the commission will vet any finalists to fill Happel’s position because, “as board president, it is something I think prudent.”

Feduccia said the commissioners want to vet the finalists to ensure they get someone “who is going to take the bull by the horns and manage HR in a way that we can avoid unnecessary litigation or claims being made.”

The commission on Wednesday talked about meeting with Jarlock’s top pick for the job after a recent round of advertisements drew about 30 ré sumé s. But Duke later said the candidate had already accepted a position elsewhere.

Jarlock had told commissioners that his second and third choices had already withdrawn from consideration, leaving no one else he would recommend to them.

Duke said the position will be re-advertised, as the search for “a seasoned HR professional” continues.

Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen, or call her at (225) 336-6981.