King Marden Center

The Wisconsin Veterans Home at King.

PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR

A Wisconsin Department of Veterans official labeled an employee who spoke out about concerns at the King veterans home a "whistleblower" and discussed how to demote the employee, according to emails obtained by the Cap Times. 

The emails, exchanged in February between former King veterans home commandant Jim Knight and Chris Neitzel, the agency's human resources director who left last week after less than a year in the job, show the two men discussing the position description of an employee who was leaking information about the home. 

The employee has "been a constant whistleblower since August and hasn't stopped from what I can tell," wrote Knight. Knight affirmed that the employee's position description would be "downgraded" and that the employee would be "demoted ... due to proven work rule violations." 

Knight also notes that the employee would receive a letter of expectation "intended to place some degree of control on her activities here," according to the email. 

The employee has worked at the King home for nearly five years and is a decorated military veteran, receiving an expeditionary combat medal after serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to records the employee provided to the Cap Times. 

Neitzel rebuked Knight in a response email and wrote the agency does not consider the employee a whistleblower and that the employee is not being demoted.

"I am hopeful that your response below is a result of your confusion," Neitzel wrote. "Just to be clear, (the employee) is not being demoted due to performance or a violation of any work rule nor is she considered a 'whistleblower.'"

Neitzel said changes to the employee's position description is not based on "performance issues or violations of any work rules," according to the email. He went on to note that the employee does not fall  within the classification of "whistleblower."

"Unfortunately, this term is used incorrectly too often," Neitzel wrote. "There is certain criteria that must be followed for an individual to be covered under whistleblower rights, as stated again, she has not and does not meet this criteria. Does this clarification help you understand the direction we are taking with (the employee)? I need to make sure that you understand the misstatements you made below."

The emails offer a look into how state officials have discussed employees who have leaked information and raised concerns at the King veterans home. According to agency rules, employees are barred from speaking to the press.  

Personnel management has been a focus of new WDVA Secretary Dan Zimmerman, who said he is currently examining human resources practices at the home overall.

WDVA spokeswoman Carla Vigue said Zimmerman reviewed the situation and in an email confirmed the employee "received no change in pay, has the same job classification and job title, has a revised position description, and is a current employee. We look forward to having this employee continue to work at WDVA."

The employee at the center of the emails is one of several current and former workers at the 721-bed nursing home who spoke with the Cap Times about their concerns regarding the quality of care there. The employee was investigated in November for allegedly violating WDVA rules. The state Department of Administration found the employee guilty, but the employee disputes the agency's decision.  

Vigue said Zimmerman "strongly believes in openness and transparency."

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"The WDVA takes all concerns seriously, investigates them, and then makes changes and improvements where necessary," she said.

Jeff Scott Olson, a Madison attorney who is representing the employee, said the comments could support a lawsuit from the employee. 

"It sounds like (Neitzel) is writing for the purposes of creating a defense," Olson wrote. "Whether (the employee) fits the state law definition of 'whistleblower' is of no concern to me, because the state law remedies are weak. It does appear to me, though, that (the employee) was the victim of retaliation for activities protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, so (the employee) should have viable federal law remedies."

To be protected as a whistleblower under Wisconsin law, an employee must either disclose the information in writing to the employee's supervisor, or disclose the information in writing to a governmental unit designated by the state Department of Workforce Development. 

Last year the state Supreme Court narrowed the whistleblower classification in an opinion denying protections to a state Department of Justice employee.

In the case, the state Supreme Court ruled that an employee was not protected as a whistleblower after asking a supervisor whether the DOJ could legally use a taxpayer funded security detail for Attorney General Brad Schimel to attend the Republican National Convention. Schimel was not attending in his capacity as attorney general.

The court ruled that the employee's email was not protected under the state's whistleblower laws because it did not contain new protected information and because the supervisor already knew the information

Auditors with the Legislative Audit Bureau, which has been investigating the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King for more than eight months, has interviewed employees about work conditions at the home. The bureau's report is set to be released this spring. 

 

Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.