THE OREGON Health Authority (OHA) has seen its share of controversy lately.
The state's public health agency was named in a whistleblower lawsuit in Marion County filed in January, and has faced questions this week over why it's delayed a report—amid furious debate over water fluoridation—indicating cavities are down for the state's schoolchildren.
Then there are Jean O'Connor's allegations. The agency's former deputy director of public health has warned she might file a lawsuit, claiming the state's public health director discriminated against her because she's a woman.
O'Connor, who learned she'd be fired from her post in February, filed a tort claim notice with the state in early March, according to documents obtained by the Mercury in a public records request. In the brief letter, O'Connor claims she suffered "discrimination and harassment by [Public Health Director] Dr. Melvin A. Kohn on the basis of my gender, marital, parenting status, and attempted use of family leave."
She says she was let go from the agency in February without due process, and that a letter sent out to staff about the move damaged her reputation.
"As a consequence of Dr. Kohn's actions, I have and will continue to incur monetary damages, emotional distress, and harm to my professional reputation," O'Connor writes in the tort claim.
The claims go far beyond those listed in the terse letter: from Kohn's alleged demeaning and disrespectful interactions with female employees, to being discouraged from taking time to care for her children, to questioning the agency's male-centric leadership.
And, though many of her contentions were not substantiated by an internal investigation, they've shed light on a rocky culture within the state's public health division.
The report found many OHA employees described working conditions at the agency as "difficult and untenable, citing low morale and high work volume." That's potentially bad news for the millions of Oregonians who count on the agency. It's a primary source for health warnings, such as an alert issued for a salmonella outbreak that occurred in February.
The investigation further noted, with regard to the gender divide among top officials: "The current make-up of division leadership and the perception this creates seems to have negatively impacted employee morale within the division."
A formal complaint by O'Connor is dated February 16, two days after she was informed by Kohn and an OHA human resources worker she'd be let go.
"I have been threatened with wrongful termination as retaliation for challenging discriminatory acts made on the basis of whistleblowing, gender, marital status, parenting status, and use or attempted use of family leave," the document begins, before launching into 10 pages of allegations.
Among O'Connor's chief contentions is that she was fired for speaking with the Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ) about a whistleblower suit filed earlier this year against the OHA by a former employee named Victorina Mata. She says two employees with knowledge of the facts of the suit approached her, and that she called the DOJ for advice on what they should do. For making that call, O'Connor says, she was fired.
She further claims Kohn frequently condescended to female employees, calling them "honey" and "sweetheart."
"Usually in the privacy of his office, and in connection with statements that threatened their employment or that diminished or dismissed their contributions to the public health system," the complaint says. At another point, it alleges Kohn "made statements such as 'she must have been doing her nails' when referring to women who were late or not available to answer questions."
O'Connor also says she was made to feel guilty when she had to leave work to care for her children. Four weeks into her job with the OHA, she says Kohn told her, "I don't give a fuck about your kids. If I tell you to be here, you'll be here," a statement Kohn denied he made.
And O'Connor—who came to the OHA in 2011 after working on public policy matters with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—says Kohn routinely overlooked qualified women for open positions, tapping men to fill interim and full-time spots.
"Dr. Kohn has created a work environment with a 'good old boys' feel, insulting women and pushing them to the fringes of leadership in the division," the complaint says.
As unflattering a picture as the document offers of Kohn, an internal investigation into the matter turned up a less than rosy assessment of O'Connor's tenure at the OHA.
"Several witnesses stated they had experiences with O'Connor in which she was rude, aggressive, bullying and undermining, some of which were reported to Kohn," the report said.
O'Connor declined to discuss the situation, and has not said whether she definitively plans to file a suit.
OHA Director Bruce Goldberg, meanwhile, tells the Mercury the investigation will spur changes in the agency.
"The investigation identified significant concerns in the [Oregon] Public Health Division relating to staff morale," Goldberg said in a statement. "I and my leadership team are working closely with the leadership at the public health division to address and remedy those issues. The employees in this division have important work to do and I want to make sure they have all the support they need to do it."