Las Vegas Sun

August 21, 2014

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HIGHER EDUCATION:

Former CSN official loses challenge to firing

She had filed whistleblower complaint in ’06

The College of Southern Nevada’s former director of diversity failed to convince a state hearing officer that school officials fired her in retaliation for disclosing alleged improper conduct by college employees.

State Personnel Commission hearing officer Ann Elworth-Winner last week dismissed Debra Lopez’s whistleblower complaint, issuing a ruling that said evidence CSN presented demonstrated Lopez was let go for failing to dedicate enough time to her job.

CSN attorney Anne Zemek de Dominguez wrote in an e-mail: “This decision vindicates the College and its former administrators.”

“The College continues to encourage an environment of ethical conduct, transparency and communication so that CSN employees have confidence that they can openly discuss any concerns without fear of retribution.”

Lopez, who filed the whistleblower complaint in 2006 shortly after she learned of her termination, vowed to appeal to District Court. She said her attorney had advised her not to comment further.

Lopez has long contended that she lost her position for complaining to college officials about alleged abuses of power such as unfair hiring, discrimination against minority contractors in the college’s bidding process, and racism and harassment in the facilities division.

Elworth-Winner found that although Lopez proved that officials including former CSN President Richard Carpenter were aware of some of Lopez’s complaints, Carpenter fired Lopez at the direction of Jim Rogers, chancellor of Nevada’s public higher education system, who testified that he thought Lopez was not spending enough time at work.

While employed, Lopez had split her time between Rogers’ office and CSN.

According to Elworth-Winner’s ruling, Lopez testified that in the month before she lost her job, her activities included facilitating focus groups at which she gathered information about alleged improper conduct in the facilities division, participating in a financial planning seminar and planning a luncheon.

According to Lopez, the luncheon, for about 100 people, was to welcome senior minority staff and faculty at local colleges.

At the hearing, Lopez also presented documents including work-related e-mail to establish she had been on the job.

Since Lopez filed the whistleblower case more than two years ago, college officials have verified complaints similar to some she said she heard from facilities workers.

In 2007, Carpenter told the Sun that after confirming accounts of employee intimidation, he removed one facilities supervisor and warned others not to ignore grievances. One of those he warned was Bob Gilbert, who was recently indicted by a Clark County grand jury on charges of using stolen college resources in the construction of his private home.

•••

The fight against cuts in state education funding has a new home online.

Last month, the higher education system and K-12 schools launched the Web site www.educatenevada.org, which aims to galvanize public support for education funding in part by explaining the benefits of a college degree.

The site debuted in conjunction with a series of public service announcements about education that are airing — free of charge to the system — on news stations across the state, including those Rogers owns.

In one spot, a woman in a hospital gown asks, “My kids are grown. Why should I care about higher education?”

As she finishes asking her question, the health care worker examining her with a stethoscope disappears, leaving her bewildered.

The Educate Nevada campaign, which urges people to contact their legislators to support education funding, also has a group with about 250 members on the social network Facebook.

•••

In opposing raises for state employees over the next couple of years, Gov. Jim Gibbons will have allies in Nevada’s public higher education system.

Speaking at a Friday meeting of the Board of Regents, which governs higher education, Dan Klaich, the system’s executive vice chancellor, said with revenue falling, the presidents of higher education institutions think “it is inappropriate to allow salaries to increase while reducing or eliminating the institutions’ ability to provide services.”

Klaich went on to say that the presidents think the state should suspend step increases, longevity pay, cost-of-living increases and merit pay for the next biennium.

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