Pinion: Reinstate them to their jobs and apologize
By JOHN BRANNON Messenger Staff Reporter
By JOHN BRANNON
Messenger Staff Reporter
Give them their jobs back. Reinstate them. Apologize to them.
That’s the essence of state Rep. Phillip Pinion’s comments about three former employees of West Tennessee Head Start who dared to “blow the whistle” about alleged management misdeeds.
Because they were so bold to file their complaints, James Churchwell, Tiffany Moseley and Lora Wofford made the transition from “employees” to “former employees.”
“These people saw wrongdoing and reported it,” Pinion said. “The audits have shown some wrongdoing.”
John Bucy, executive director of Northwest Tennessee Economic Development Council, the parent agency of West Tennessee Head Start, declined to comment. He said that because this matter “is tied up in litigation,” he is not at liberty to say anything.
Others speak out
Pinion is not the only elected official who spoke out this week about the Head Start situation. He is joined by state Rep. Chris Crider of Milan and Obion County Mayor Benny McGuire.
Head Start, which serves children of low-income families in 13 West Tennessee counties, is funded by a federal grant of $10.2 million each year from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Pinion said that’s public money and it ought to be treated that way. If people have misused it, they ought to be punished.
“If those employees were punished because they did the right thing by telling what’s going on, they should be reinstated,” Pinion said. “From the evidence I’ve seen, there’s been some wrongdoing over there and it needs to be corrected. The people who did wrong need to be punished, and the people who brought it to light should not be treated as misfits. They should be given accolades, because they were watching out for the people’s money.”
Mrs. Wofford, who was fired in November 2006, served seven years as executive assistant to administrator Pamela Castleman.
Mrs. Moseley, who served five years as Human Resource administrator, was fired in August 2006.
Churchwell, a Gulf War veteran who served two years as maintenance technician for the Head Start program, was fired in April 2007.
Pinion said it is a matter of accountability. “You are accountable to your editor. (He said to the reporter.) I’m accountable to the people who elect me,” he said. “It’s easy for someone to get in a position and be there so long, they forget they are accountable. I think that’s what has happened.
“They should not only be reinstated and get their jobs back, Head Start ought to apologize to them, too.”
Crider said he’s looking into the situation but is not sure what remedy, if any, he might endorse at this time. He said Head Start and Northwest Tennessee Economic Development Council officials have “circled their wagons.” There’s already been an in-depth official audit by a Union City accounting firm and a formal visit by federal officials that came as a result of employee complaints.
“The Good Ol’ Boy system exists. You see it every day,” Crider said. “Normally, you let it go. You tell yourself, ‘Let them do their thing and you do yours.’ But when there’s something as egregious as this one sounds, you need to confront it. And I don’t mind doing it. I’m not trying to be a troublemaker. But I ain’t in bed with nobody.
“They don’t want to screw each other up. They aren’t going to rat on each other, make the other one look bad.”
McGuire, a member of the executive committee, is also a member of the NWTEDC board of directors. So are Weakley County Mayor Houston Patrick and Lake County Mayor Macie Roberson.
Roberson is now executive committee chairman. The committee is comprised of the mayors of nine West Tennessee counties served by Head Start.
McGuire said the committee will meet in closed session 9 a.m. Tuesday at the NWTEDC office in Martin to discuss the situation. The media won’t be allowed to attend.
“I can assure you, the process is being handled and I think the right thing will be done for the taxpayers of Obion County and the United States,” McGuire said. “It’ll be handled in the proper manner.”
Will Churchwell and others get their jobs back?
“That’s what this meeting is all about,” he said. “The problem with it, though, is the policy committee. Members are selected by Ms. Castleman and it’s hard to get anything done in that committee if she doesn’t want to do it. We need to make some changes over there. We need to change the policy committee, change the bylaws or something. I’m going to look into that.”
Ms. Wofford’s reaction
Reinstatement and a formal apology from Head Start and NWTEDC “will never happen,” Ms. Wofford told The Messenger.
“But it’s nice to have a little support (from Pinion and others),” she said.
For seven years she was Ms. Castleman’s administrative assistant.
She said she first approached Ms. Castleman in March 2006 about things going on that made her uncomfortable.
“Mrs. Castleman was my direct supervisor. I was in the seat to know,” she said. “I saw things on a daily basis. I confronted her about it. I met with her in March 2006 to discuss things I didn’t feel were appropriate. We didn’t get much into the conversation before she cut me off. She knew. And you just don’t buck her whatsoever.
“From March 2006 until the day I was terminated in November, it was so hostile. I can’t describe to you the environment that I was working in.
“I was witnessing all that stuff going on. I saw it. As long as you appear to go along and keep your mouth shut, you’re going to be OK. But if you go against them and speak out, or express how you feel, you’re going to be gone. Your head will be on the chopping block.
“People in that (McKenzie) central office are compensated quite well financially, in my opinion, to keep their mouths shut. Your taxes pay their salaries. It’s a public program. They cannot cover this up. Even the president of the United States has to reveal his salary because taxpayers pay it. They are not going to tell you.”
Would she be willing to be reinstated and go back to work for the program?
“Not unless there were a lot of changes made,” she said.
Churchwell recently began chemotherapy and radiation treatments for a cancerous tumor that formed in his intestines and later spread to his lymph node system. Although released from his duties in early April, he did not get a formal letter of termination — fired for “unacceptable conduct” — from Head Start until Sept. 4.
And even that is questionable. He recently attended a closed session of the NWTEDC personnel committee, where he was grilled. The personnel committee is to make a recommendation to the board of directors whether to “fire” him or not.
Meanwhile, based on the Sept. 4 letter, he has lost health insurance coverage. He faces up to six months of radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Also, he faces major surgery to remove the tumor if and when radiation shrinks it enough.
“I applied for unemployment benefits. They said, ‘You’ve got cancer. You’re not able to work, so you can’t draw unemployment,’” Churchwell said. “I applied for disability. They said I can’t draw any kind of money until Head Start actually fires me. I’m just sitting here without anything.”
Ms. Moseley’s reaction
Ms. Moseley said she registered her initial complaints with Bucy. “I tried to tell him that things weren’t right,” she said. “That was in March 2006. I was let go in August 2006. It has placed quite a hardship on me. There’ll have to be a lot of changes made before I’d go back. I just don’t know what’s going to happen.
“I just want the right things done. It’s not about me. It never was about me. The people who did all this should be reprimanded. They need to stop treating people the way they do.”
Published in The Messenger on 10.04.07