Former BerkshireWorks employee alleges retaliation

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PITTSFIELD — A longtime employee at the BerkshireWorks Career Center contends he was forced into retirement after reporting allegations that a former executive director had sexually harassed female employees.

Daniel Collins, of Clarksburg, said he recently gave up on negotiations with BerkshireWorks management toward a settlement of issues surrounding his "forced retirement" in April, when he said he was given the choice to retire or be fired over alleged job performance issues.

Collins said he now wants to make public what happened to him, which he termed "retaliation for doing my job" as the financial and human resources manager at the BerkshireWorks center.

Collins, 68, said he also believes part of the alleged retaliation against him stems from an age discrimination complaint he filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. He applied for the executive director's post in late 2013 and wasn't granted an interview, he said.

Ultimately, Collins blames his alleged mistreatment and retaliation on the agency's executive director, Kenneth Demers, and Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi — who by virtue of his office appoints BerkshireWorks' executive directors — possibly in concert with officials at the state level.

Demers and Bianchi reject Collins' assertions.

Bianchi stated he was "absolutely not" involved in the actions or decisions that led to Collins' departure. He denied retaliating against Collins and said he has had little or no involvement in the operation of the BerkshireWorks office, beyond appointing the executive directors.

Bianchi said he was made aware last winter, however, that state officials had raised concerns about the fiscal management of the office, and he understood that Demers would be dealing with the situation.

"It is discouraging that Mr. Collins continues his vengeful crusade to interfere with BerkshireWorks' mission, especially given that BerkshireWorks allowed him to voluntarily retire from the agency in lieu of terminating him for poor performance," Demers said in a statement to The Eagle.

Collins maintains that he never received a negative job performance review or warning in his 40 years with BerkshireWorks, the county's employment and job training agency.

Received complaints

Collins said that in early 2014 he investigated several allegations of "inappropriate behavior" and "sexual harassment" brought forth by female employees of BerkshireWorks against their boss, William Monterosso, whom Bianchi had appointed executive director that January. At the end of his investigation, Collins told the city that Monterosso should "resign or be terminated."

But Pittsfield Personnel Department officials "just didn't believe" the harassment allegations, Collins said.

At least two of the women have since filed sexual harassment complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination against Monterosso, BerkshireWorks and the city, according to Collins. Those complaints and his age discrimination complaint all are pending, he said.

MCAD does not comment on its active investigations. Monterosso's attorney at the time called the employees' allegations "baseless."

Collins said he believes city officials blamed the allegations against Monterosso on employees who were unhappy that Bianchi had replaced John Barrett III as BerkshireWorks' executive director when his contract ran out in late 2013. Barrett, the former North Adams mayor, was appointed to the position by the previous Pittsfield mayor, James M. Ruberto.

Collins said he sent 11 employees to the city's Personnel Department to discuss the alleged sexual harassment.

Monterosso, a city native who had previously worked for 15 years in workforce development and headed agencies in Kentucky and West Virginia, was placed on paid administrative leave in April 2014. On May 19, 2014, he resigned and left with a severance package that included pay and health insurance through July 31, 2014, and a confidentiality agreement that prevents anyone involved from discussing the settlement publicly.

"All of this started when they hired Monterosso," Collins said of the sequence of events that led to his leaving BerkshireWorks. But the situation was complicated, he said, by the fact that Bianchi replaced Barrett — who Collins said had unanimous support from the office staff to continue — with Monterosso.

Both Collins and Barrett have contended that the decision was primarily political in nature because Barrett had been appointed by former Mayor Ruberto, a Bianchi rival who had defeated Bianchi in the 2009 contest for mayor. Bianchi denied that allegation, saying he wanted to find a director who had more professional experience in the employment and recruitment field than the former North Adams mayor.

Collins said that, in addition to sending employees to the city Personnel Department to register their complaints, he at one point refused to approve paychecks for Monterosso, and then that approval authority was taken over by the city treasurer's office at the direction of the mayor. Although the BerkshireWorks office operates employment and training programs in the region receiving annual federal and state funding, the mayor appoints the directors and federal funding passes through the city to the employment office.

In a follow-up query from The Eagle, Demers declined to comment on details of Collins' allegations.

"I do not believe it would be appropriate for me to respond to these questions at this time," Demers said.

State review

After returning from a vacation in April 2015, Collins said he was notified that alleged deficiencies in his performance, stemming in part from an annual state Department of Career Services financial management review, would be used terminate his employment if he did not agree to leave on his own. Collins said he was immediately placed on administrative leave and never returned to the office, while severance and settlement negotiations commenced between attorneys.

The Eagle obtained a copy of the Department of Career Services' financial management review of BerkshireWorks for fiscal 2014. The report followed an on-site DCS review conducted in April 2014, during Monterosso's tenure with the office.

The state review doesn't name any employees, but it lists several procedural and fiscal issues and makes recommendations to fix them.

Among items mentioned were checks issued "without following the documented procedures," multiple checks that "lacked proper backup documentation," a "travel voucher's supporting backup was not signed by the director," and "the supporting backup for the travel voucher was not signed by the director."

The DCS review stated that the local office had been "conditionally certified," pending responses to the issues noted and a follow-up review.

Collins said he received the annual review report from the state in 2014 and responded within 30 days to the items noted in it, as he had done after every annual review during his 20 years as financial manager. He said it is typical of the state review "to find something," such as a mistake on a voucher or a procedure that must be updated, and then to work out with the local employee or employees whether changes were required going forward.

"It's all little things," Collins said. "It's no big deal."

He said the types of issues are the same typically noted after each annual DCS review, and are identified at other employment offices in the state as well. Normally, he said, the items are resolved through a dialogue between the office and DCS officials, but that process did not occur after the fiscal 2014 report.

He said that this time he responded as usual, but he never got a reply from the state before being placed on administrative leave seven months later.

"They were holding it over my head," he said.

Colleen Quinn, a spokeswoman for state Department of Career Services Director Alice Sweeney, stated in an email to The Eagle that "DCS has no record of receiving a response from BerkshireWorks," concerning the fiscal 2014 report.

Collins said he definitely did file his written response to the review, as he had in all other fiscal years.

Asked why he thought he wasn't simply fired if there were serious problems, Collins said, "Because it was all bull----."

He said of the typical deficiencies noted on the reports that there was "nothing fraudulent and nothing that could not be resolved. There was never any wrongdoing." In addition, he said, there are audits of the office performed by an independent firm annually and no fraud or other no serious problems were identified.

Monitoring required

In a March 13, 2015, letter, Edward Bartkiewicz, the manager of field management and oversight for Department of Career Services, stated that the fiscal 2014 review of BerkshireWorks had identified "multiple fiscal findings" in the areas of "accounting systems and reporting; cash and grant management; cost allocation and cost classification methodology, and property/inventory standards." The letter was addressed to Bianchi, Demers, Sweeney, Berkshire County Regional Employment Board Executive Director Heather Boulger and others.

The letter also stated that the Berkshire Training and Employment Program had been "designated as a high-risk grantee" program, and that the DCS would require BTEP "to provide more detailed financial reporting," and noted that "additional monitoring by DCS may be necessary."

The letter stated that DCS would impose a "prior approval/special condition" designation, "requiring pre-approval of the procurement of any new contracts," and require "BTEP to submit payment requests [with the exception of their weekly payroll] to the DCS for prior approval."

Those restrictions on BerkshireWorks operations were lifted by the DCS as of Aug. 31, Quinn said.

Collins said he doesn't remember being shown the March 15 letter, but believes that "whatever they found was all correctable." He said he took the fact the state did not respond to his written responses to the fiscal 2014 review as indicative of a plan to eventually use the report against him.

Asked about concerns identified at the state level about financial management at BerkshireWorks, Sweeney said in a telephone interview that the DCS reviews both financial and program operations at the state's 16 regional employment and training offices and reports to the entities with management responsibility — in Berkshire County that being the Pittsfield mayor and the regional employment board.

Sweeney added that, while the annual review reports are given to those overseeing each employment region, any "personnel determinations" are made at the local level.

"We make fiscal recommendations," she said, "not personnel recommendations."

Boulger, the head of the county employment board, said that board oversees local employment and training programming but also is not involved in personnel decisions at BerkshireWorks.

Collins also speculated that public disputes that erupted between Barrett, when he was director at BerkshireWorks, and DCS officials could have played a role in what he sees as retaliation against him because he was associated with Barrett.

Many administrations

Collins said he has worked in the BerkshireWorks office during several administrations, beginning with Mayor Charles L. Smith (1980-88), but he has never seen such disputes erupt involving an administration or any significant involvement in the office by a mayor, except to appoint a director as needed.

After finding no one he thought qualified for director in an initial search, Bianchi initiated a second job search, which led to Monterosso's hiring in January 2014, and both Collins and Barrett applied. Barrett, whose contract had expired in September 2013, also had applied previously, and he had agreed to stay on as an interim director during the second search process.

Barrett said he was one of two finalists in the first search, and the other candidate withdrew from the process.

If Barrett, who had been in the position since May 2011, was going to be replaced, Collins said, "there is no question I was the most qualified" after many years in the office.

Barrett said that when Ruberto appointed him in 2011, in part to help address federal and state policy and procedure compliance issues at BerkshireWorks, Collins was "most cooperative" in assisting with efforts to bring the office procedures into compliance.

Barrett added that Collins "never got negative reviews" during his long career, including throughout Barrett's tenure as executive director.

"I was disappointed that Dan Collins was not treated better. He was a dedicated employee for more than 38 years," Barrett said.

Ended talks

After Collins left BerkshireWorks in April, his job settlement negotiations dragged on until October, Collins said.

Collins said that in early October, he became "fed up" with the negotiations and told his attorney, Richard Dohoney, of Donovan & O'Connor, to end the talks with the attorney representing BerkshireWorks.

The bottom line, he said, was that the other side offered him just $5,000 — to be paid by the city of Pittsfield — and he would have had to agree not to talk to the media about the issues or pursue a lawsuit, among other things.

Collins said he had misgivings about the settlement as it was, but the relatively low payment amount was a final straw. "I decided that it's not worth signing [a nondisclosure agreement] for $5,000," he said. "I said, 'No, thanks.' "

Collins said he received three weeks' severance pay, and he contrasted that with the separation agreement for Monterosso, who left after six months of total employment, including time he was on paid leave.

The amount paid after Monterosso's resignation reportedly totaled at least $20,000. Monterosso's annual salary was reported at $88,600.

"After 40 years, I got three weeks [of pay]," Collins said.

In addition, Collins said Demers appealed his application for unemployment insurance, but the appeal was rejected at the state level. Collins said he now is receiving jobless benefits. Demers did not respond to a question concerning Collins' statements about his unemployment application.

Collins said he had planned to work a few more years before retiring. In addition to his age discrimination complaint against the city and BerkshireWorks, he said he's considering a lawsuit alleging wrongful termination and retaliation.

The draft proposed settlement agreement Collins supplied to The Eagle, which was to have been signed by Collins, Bianchi and Demers, would have barred Collins from a lawsuit or other actions over the disputes involved in his departure and would resolve any job-related allegations against him.

He would receive $5,000 and any job performance issues concerning his work as financial manager would be resolved.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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