Whistle-Blower's Lament

Was a Tucson Water employee fired because she exposed misconduct?

It's appropriate that a Crystal Bottled Water dispenser is in the room where the City of Tucson's Civil Service Commission is considering its latest termination appeal. After hearing about all the dirt in the Tucson Water Department, those attending may think twice about what they drink.

In 17 hours of sworn testimony spread over four days last week, the commission heard two totally different views of the department and a fired employee, Maria Magda Thompson. Private attorney Lyle Aldridge, representing the city, said Thompson did not show up for work repeatedly so had to be terminated. Thompson's attorney, Steven Sandoval, portrayed Tucson Water as an agency that tolerates abusive behavior while punishing people like whistle-blower Thompson who complain about it.

The city's case was relatively short and straightforward. Beginning in February 2000, for the third time in two years Thompson stopped coming to work for an extended period, so she was fired. "The city cannot continue to maintain people on the payroll who don't show up for work," Aldridge told the commission.

Thompson's coworkers generally thought she did a good job in the customer service office, where she was employed before being axed. But, as David Modeer, director of Tucson Water, stated, "I made the decision to terminate her because she didn't report to work for in excess of 30 days and didn't submit the required medical information. So I was left with no option but to terminate her."

Attorney Sandoval, however, is slowly painting a very different picture, one that begins in July 1997 with a well-documented incident at the Tucson Area Remediation Project facility near Irvington Road at I-19. Prior to that, Thompson, an employee of Tucson Water since 1994, said she loved her job as a water treatment plant operator.

But once a tank of sulfuric acid at the TARP facility developed a leak, Thompson's life changed forever. Against advice, supervisor Mike Ring ordered the acid to be transported to the city's water treatment plant on west Ajo Way for disposal. Although Ring's decision was technically within regulations, Thompson thought it was a dangerous procedure and refused to participate. The transfer was eventually halted after two employees were splashed with acid.

The remaining acid from the tank was then kept in a secondary containment area. Some people allege it entered the drinking water supply from there, but Modeer flatly denies that charge.

Thompson blew the whistle about what was going on at the TARP facility to the Tucson Fire Department, and an investigation found numerous violations. Ring, a man who is a foot taller and more than two times heavier then the diminutive Thompson, reportedly characterized the anonymous whistle-blower as "some fucking idiot."

Once it became rumored that Thompson had made the call, she says Ring began mistreating her. "He would slam books, cuss and swear all over the place and once threw a sump pump in my direction trying to intimidate me," Thompson testified. "I didn't know what was going to happen next."

Thompson also complained about other things, such as an anonymous letter alleging she was having an affair and a co-worker patting her on the thigh. City officials claim these incidents were dealt with, but Thompson says, "The tension overwhelmed me and I absolutely felt endangered. I started to stress, and when I do that I don't sleep. I couldn't eat. I couldn't function. Did I have to quit my job to feel secure? I was really scared."

For over a month Thompson stopped going to work or being paid. She eventually sought a transfer, or "accommodation" in city parlance, based on a physical disability. According to testimony, when Ring learned of this he allegedly said, "Fuck her. I'm not going to give her an accommodation. She can be a dishwasher for all I care."

Ted Bailey, Thompson's immediate supervisor, said Ring's management style was one of intimidation. Then he added, "He used foul language frequently and still does so today. ... He demonstrated on many occasions abusive language and directed it many, many, many times toward operators." Interjecting his opinion, Civil Service Commissioner Jimmy Fisher complained that he didn't see the relevance of these statements to the case.

Bailey also said he is concerned about retaliation because of his testimony. Commission chair Ed Kelly, however, refused to allow him to say why or by whom.

Eventually a frustrated Thompson filed a grievance against Ring. But she says Marie Pearthree, then in charge at the treatment plant and now deputy director of Tucson Water, denied on at least five occasions that Ring was out to get Thompson, and even gave him more work responsibilities. Based on that, Thompson contacted Modeer.

The Tucson Water director says that during an interview, Thompson gave him the names of fellow operators who could verify what Ring had said about her transfer request. Thompson emphatically denies that. Modeer also claimed no one would acknowledge Ring's statement, but that he was counseled for using foul language anyway.

Thompson, however, has a written statement from a coworker confirming the Ring incident. But, she says, "Everyone says they won't tolerate retribution, but it always goes on."

In May 1999, Thompson was moved to Tucson Water's customer service office, located in the headquarters building downtown. She worked on the first floor, Modeer on the third. According to her supervisors, she did a good job.

But in October of that year, the TARP incident resurfaced at a City Council meeting. The next day's Arizona Daily Star contained a story about it by Keith Bagwell, in which the reporter twice wrote that Modeer had labeled Thompson a disgruntled employee. Under oath last week, Modeer said repeatedly he never considered Thompson that and never said it.

Bagwell, who no longer writes for the Star, stands by his story. "Modeer must have used that term or something essentially the same," he says. "I didn't make this stuff up, much as Modeer would like to think that I did."

When Thompson saw the newspaper article and also heard herself described the same way on television, she stopped going to work. In December 1999, however, she returned. But two months later, she stopped working again, this time permanently.

Defending her actions, Thompson told the commission, "I would have returned if the city had addressed Modeer's statements to the media, or if I had been moved to another location. I felt I was threatened by the administration of David Modeer and Marie Pearthree. I couldn't work in the same building as Modeer. Why didn't he retract his comments? I believe I was terminated because I was a whistle-blower."

The Civil Service Commission will resume its hearing in early September. At that time, both Mike Ring and Marie Pearthree may be called to testify. In the meantime, Maria Magda Thompson's advice to anyone considering being a whistle-blower for the city of Tucson is, "Don't report any misconduct."