The attorney representing a fired Huron County Department of Job and Family Services employee said the timing looks suspicious. Toledo attorney Marilyn Widman also believes the county is involved in a "smear campaign" against her client.
Nichole "Nicki" Baker was fired Tuesday based on allegations she threatened an HCDJFS client, used profanity repeatedly with the same woman and accessed pornography using the agency computer, HCDJFS Interim Director Lowell Etzler said earlier. Baker, a screener since March 7, 2005, was hired as a clerical specialist Jan. 12, 2004.
Agency screeners make initial contacts with a complainant, gather information from the person and then turn it over to a case worker.
Widman said "any investigation of the underlying facts will quickly show that the termination is not supported, that the county misused its equipment in setting Ms. Baker up with charges." The attorney explained that HCDJFS officials used printouts of pornography shown on a computer screen during Baker's disciplinary hearing.
The attorney, who wasn't at the meeting, stressed it's difficult to tell if the printouts came from Baker's computer or someone else's.
"Nicki absolutely, positively did not do what she is accused of doing with her computer," Widman said.
Huron County Sheriff's Major Greg Englund said Baker filed a complaint early Wednesday afternoon, accusing someone of tampering with her work computer. Englund had no further information because he hadn't seen the actual report as of this morning.
HCDJFS Assistant Director Bonnie Richards said the chief inspector's office of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services monitored Baker's computer from June 8 through 22. That's the same timeline for the allegations Etzler cited against Baker.
"The printouts came from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services," Richards said.
Widman, Baker's attorney, said her client's deposition in a sexual discrimination lawsuit filed against the county was canceled Monday, the day Baker was to be questioned by attorneys. That is one day before the agency fired her.
"I think the timing of the firing is suspect," Widman said.
In April, Baker filed the lawsuit. She has accused former HCDJFS Director Erich Dumbeck, the agency and county commissioners of passing her over for five promotions because Dumbeck reportedly was infatuated with her. Baker also accused Dumbeck of making "unwelcome physical contact" by reportedly touching her on the hips, shoulders and back and making an "unwelcome advance," all between January and 2004 and January of this year.
Baker and Dumbeck had a personal relationship starting in January 2004, when they were co-workers supervised by different administrators.
Richards said she didn't know why the deposition was canceled, adding: "I have not heard word one about it."
Widman, in an e-mail to the Reflector, said the county is using "the age-old tactic of discrediting an adversary" by firing Baker and three other HCDJFS workers.
"The timing of (Baker's) termination is clearly retaliatory and meant to force Ms. Baker into an economic position where she cannot afford to continue her case against the county," Widman continued. "Shame on them, and how foolish they are to think Ms. Baker will simply fall down in defeat."
Assistant program administrator Marla White, eligibility/referral supervisor Jon Kelley and public information officer Stacia Badovick were told Friday their jobs would be eliminated, effective Aug. 24. Richards has said the positions were cuts were staff cuts done to save about $173,000.
Kelley has decided to take another agency job as an eligibility specialist.
Widman called the three workers hard working, knowledgeable and "loyal to the purpose the agency."
"I think there's definitely an effort by the commissioners and the employees of the department to disempower the employees who are willing to stand up for themselves," the attorney said. "They want sheep and all these women are not sheep. That's why we are proud to represent them.
"The citizens of Huron County should be outraged that their tax money is being spent on this kind of effort," Widman said.
She further cited the Reflector online comments on the recent HCDJFS stories as more evidence of the county's "smear campaign." There were 90 responses to the story about Baker being fired as of this morning.
"I'm not worried about the stories themselves," Widman added.
The attorney said the comments symbolize the "further harm" HCDJFS is trying to inflict on the workers. Richards declined to comment, saying she was unsure of the context.