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Archive for Wednesday, July 4, 2001

State worker alleges firing came after whistle-blowing

July 4, 2001

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— A Lawrence woman is suing the state, claiming the director of the Kansas Sentencing Commission fired her for blowing the whistle on wrongdoing at the agency.

"I want justice not only for myself, but for the people of Kansas," said Shu Chen, a former statistician at the agency.

Chen said Sentencing Commission Executive Director Barbara Tombs did outside contract work on state time, among other misdeeds. Because Chen truthfully answered questions about the alleged wrongs during an investigation by the state attorney general, Tombs fired her, Chen said.

Tombs and her attorney deny the allegations. Tombs said Chen was fired for insubordination.

"I'm confident the case is going to be resolved in our favor," Tombs said. "We will be vindicated."

A trial is scheduled at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday before Shawnee County District Judge Jan Leuenberger.

The Kansas Sentencing Commission is in charge of developing a consistent system of sentencing people convicted of crimes. It has a $2 million budget and about 12 employees. Tombs earns $61,000, according to the state personnel office.

The dispute stems from Chen's firing in March 1999, less than three weeks after she spoke with the Attorney General's Office.

Chen said she and two other employees were summoned to talk with an assistant attorney general as part of an inquiry into the Sentencing Commission office.

The Attorney General's Office refused to confirm or deny the investigation.

But Tombs told the Journal-World she later received a verbal reprimand for buying clothes for an inmate doing a work-release job at the agency. Tombs would provide no other details.

In the attorney general meeting, Chen said she and the other employees told about an outside contract that Tombs was doing on state time, that Tombs had violated state guidelines on treatment of inmates working at the agency, and that Tombs pressed certain employees to quit and replaced them without posting the job vacancies.

Chen, a Chinese national who was in the country on a work visa, asked Assistant Atty. Gen. Eliehue Brunson to keep her statements confidential because Chen feared she would be fired and have to move back to China.

But Chen said Tombs somehow caught wind of the meeting.

Just days later, Chen said, she was reprimanded by the Sentencing Commission's staff attorney, Kevin Graham, for occasionally giving an inmate worker a bite of her lunch and a glass of soft drink from a two-liter bottle she had purchased. The inmate was removed from the program and not allowed to return to work.

Chen wrote a memo to Tombs and Graham, saying she thought the reprimand unfair given that Tombs had taken another inmate worker on a clothes shopping trip and even threw an office party for the inmate.

Tombs later sent a memo to the staff with guidelines for treatment of inmate workers. Chen said the memo signaled to the staff that it was Chen who violated the rules and was responsible for the inmate being taken from the program. Chen said she then sent a memo to the staff, trying to clarify what she had told Graham.

A few days later, Tombs placed Chen on administrative leave. Tombs later fired Chen, saying that Chen was insubordinate, had disrupted the office and essentially had called Graham a liar.

"I don't think I did anything wrong," Chen said. "I think they were trying to trap me with the inmate issue."

Chen is suing for about $12,200 in lost wages and benefits and unspecified punitive and compensatory damages.

She has been hired by another state agency, the Juvenile Justice Authority.

Chen said she was an unwilling whistleblower. She did not volunteer to speak with the Attorney General's Office. But once asked, Chen said she had to tell the truth.

Tombs denied Chen was fired for blowing the whistle.

Tombs said she did receive an oral reprimand for purchasing clothes for an inmate worker, but said she did it "because I thought it was the kind thing to do."

Her attorney, Thomas Haney, said many of Chen's allegations are not relevant to whether Tombs was within her rights to fire Chen.

Haney said Tombs did do private contracting work on the side, but if she did any of that in her state office, it was an extremely small amount and well within what the law allows.

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