Colorados Division of Homeland Security has created “toxic work environment,” staffer alleges

Leadership within Colorado’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has created a “toxic work environment” that includes “yelling and showing a lack of respect” toward its employees, a state staffer alleged in a complaint filed this summer.

The allegations spurred the division to launch an internal investigation — the fourth probe in two years involving employee complaints against division leadership.

The state Department of Public Safety, in its investigative findings obtained Tuesday by The Denver Post, said the workplace culture concerns raised by the unidentified staffer would be addressed by a third-party probe currently underway.

Leadership, however, did substantiate claims that an unnamed director had communicated “discourteously” with two subordinates in late 2021.

Several witnesses interviewed during the investigation also “made new and concerning statements related to equity, diversity and inclusion,” Jana Locke, deputy executive director for Colorado’s Department of Public Safety, wrote in a memo Monday announcing her findings. The comments made by one employee “also merit a close review as part of the ongoing workplace assessment.”

The latest investigation, which has not been previously reported, launched July 26, the day after The Post published an investigation into years of aggressive and hostile behavior by Mike Willis, the director of Colorado’s Office of Emergency Management.

The Post’s report found Willis had been suspended twice in 18 months for berating female staffers, throwing objects in rage and intimidating employees.

“Inclusiveness, trust and morale continues to degrade”

The complainant, who was not named, first came to department leadership in early July, according to the 29-page investigative report.

The division’s leadership, he alleged, created a toxic workplace environment by “bickering among themselves, failing to enforce policies and procedures, refusing to communicate with support staff… yelling and showing a lack of respect and decency, failing to promote budget transparency, and poorly managing assets.”

The individual cited one example, from December, when his team was in the process of swapping out computers inside the Pandemic Staffing Shortage Fusion Center.

A division director, who is not named in the report, then entered the room, yelling, “You are not to interfere with these people at all,” the complainant told investigators. “Stay out, don’t interrupt. We are under the governor’s authority, and we have a mission. Unless you have approval, you are not to be in there.”

This individual said he was “taken aback” and “did not appreciate being yelled at.”

The director later apologized. But one witness told investigators that the complainant told her that the supervisor had only apologized “because you’re a Black woman.”

These comments, she said in the report, made her “feel like the token negro.” She wondered “if she was hired and being treated on the basis of her race.”

Locke, in her memo, said these comments would be included in the workplace assessment probe as well as forwarded to the employee’s boss.

The investigation did not look into the workplace culture accusations, but multiple witnesses told state investigators that the “bad environment” had been going on for years, resulting in staffers leaving the department or looking for other jobs.

One individual said the leadership team “gets amazing things done, notwithstanding the conflict and division.”

She likened the situation to “when kids are around when the parents are fighting.”

The complainant said staffers are using sick days or taking extended personal time to preserve their mental health.

“Respect, dignity and decency between staff members has (sic) increasingly declined over the past two years,” this person wrote in a “culture discussion topics” memo included in the investigative materials. “Inclusiveness, trust and morale continues (sic) to degrade across the organization.”

The individual also alleged that division leadership discouraged an employee from filing a grievance — an accusation that Locke did not sustain in her investigation. Allegations of repeated violations of the state’s toll road policy also were unfounded, Locke wrote.

“A pattern of inappropriate behavior”

Details from this investigation mirror some of the behavior outlined in The Post’s previous reporting and the state’s earlier investigations into leadership’s aggressive and belligerent behavior.

During one incident in 2020, Willis pointed his finger into a worker’s head and said, “Are you a (expletive) idiot?” according to an internal investigation.

State leadership, in memos, said Willis’s conduct put the division in a position of liability. Kevin Klein, who leads the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said the director “demonstrated a pattern of inappropriate behavior that must be corrected,” warning Willis that similar behavior in the future would likely lead to his firing.

Current and former employees told The Post that Willis was known to be belligerent during meetings and at industry conferences, where multiple attendees said they witnessed drunk, boorish behavior.

Division leadership also declined to investigate an employee’s claim from 2019 that Willis was drunk during the state’s response to the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting. The division only launched a probe this summer after The Post asked questions about the incident.

Stan Hilkey — who heads the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management — and Klein said they could not substantiate the claim, calling into question the motives of whistleblowers believed to be talking to the press.

The state last month hired an outside firm to assess the workplace culture in the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

The $35,000 probe, led by Colorado-based Research Evaluation Consulting, is expected to conduct interviews, review “overall operational health” and make recommendations for “improving the culture and structure of the division.”

Hilkey said the assessment would not focus on one individual, but rather on the department as a whole.

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