Sussman: Sullivan County Retaliated Against David Sager


On May 15, 2013, Dr. David Sager was terminated from his position as the Deputy Commissioner of Sullivan County’s Department of Family Services (DFS).  He was given no warning or explanation — just a letter from Commissioner Randy Parker telling him to collect his belongings and leave.

In the month since the firing,

  • a public outcry and allegations of dereliction of duty and cover-ups have  surfaced against senior officials at DFS.
  • on June 6th, Sullivan County’s  NAACP and  a union rep for Teamsters Local 445 stunned a crowded meeting room with questions about 4 million dollars  worth of services that went missing in the Foster Care Program and  about child abuse cases that were never investigated.   Those questions nearly drowned out two others:  (1)  why were so few cases of fraud investigated by the DFS legal team during the past seven years; and (2)  why are so many  of our current investigations being conducted on  old complaints?
  • an online petition  (that remains open and was initiated by the writer of this article)  has gathered 472 signatures demanding that Dr. Sager be reinstated as Deputy Commissioner of DFS and that the County Legislature conduct an immediate investigation into the circumstances surrounding his termination.  (Several signators have appended comments that allege personal knowledge of wrongdoing in DFS.)

The overflow public turnout at the Health & Family Services Committee meeting on June 6th forced a change of venue to the large Legislative chamber where several speakers stepped to the podium.

Sandra Shaddock,  Vice President, International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 445 asked the Legislators to account for  a $4 million discrepancy in the County’s funding of its Foster Care Program.

Elaine Williams and Sandra Cuellar Oxford (NAACP)  issued a Freedom of Information request “to obtain all Child Protective Services/DFS Legal abuse and neglect petitions filed in the past year in Sullivan County Family Court.”   By way of explanation,  the NAACP stated, “We believe that current efforts on the part of an overworked and understaffed CPS staff are simply not sufficient. The protections we expect and deserve for our children and families have been short-circuited by what can only be described as a cavalier and disengaged DFS Legal Department. In short, more than ever, our most at-risk children are at even greater risk…. Based on what we have seen to date of Commissioner Parker’s leadership, we are very concerned it appears that Mr. Parker’s aggressive behavior and reckless policies will go unchecked without the benefit of Dr. Sager’s sound reasoning as part of the management team at the Department of Family Services.”

When YNN’s Eva McKend asked Commissioner Parker for his response after the Health & Family Services Committee meeting, he said,  “No comment.”  However, later in the day — and for (again)  unexplained reasons —  Parker provided an interview  to The Times-Herald Record in which he accused Dr. Sager of  being a political appointee who’d been forced down Parker’s throat and who was incompetent to perform his duties.  Characteristically, the interview provided no explanation for why it took Parker seven months to fire his  “inexperienced”  Deputy,  why he praised Sager’s work in at least one staff meeting and why the Commissioner spoke with Sager about expanding the Deputy’s sphere of  responsibility.

For his part,  Dr. Sager wrote at his Facebook page on May 23, 2013,

“I performed my duties as Deputy Commissioner of the Sullivan County Department of Family Services competently and professionally. Because Commissioner Parker has offered no reason to me or anyone else for my abrupt termination, I can only conclude I was let go as an act of retaliation for expressing to Mr. Parker my serious concerns about both past and present failures on the part of DFS relating to individual cases and the inability of certain employees to conduct their work competently and in accordance with the law. DFS employees in my office have come forward to say I was a caring, productive, and hard-working colleague. Though Commissioner Parker and I occasionally disagreed on a course of action privately, I was always a supportive and deferential deputy. Recently Mr. Parker praised my work at a departmental meeting in front of the entire staff. In fact, leading up to the day of my firing, he and I were seriously discussing adding additional responsibilities to my portfolio.”

Ignorance seems to be the Defense of the Day:  

  • Most Legislators claim that when Commissioner Parker came to the Executive Committee meeting on May 16, 2013,  they had no clue he was planning to fire Dr. Sager the next day.  (Although, when asked directly by Ellen Neumann on June 6th,  Jonathan Rouis remained mum.)
  • Several Legislators who attended the Executive Committee meeting reported  that, “Parker asked if we would support his actions as Commissioner.”  Some  have even expressed  “outrage” that neither Parker nor Yasgur clued them in about the termination letter.  One Legislator told me that when Parker was asked  why he wanted Legislators’ “support,”   the Commissioner provided no answer.  (BIP Note:  Are the Legislators “outraged”  that they didn’t ask more questions or that Parker refused to answer the few they did ask?  Or, as some of the Legislators have wondered,  “Why didn’t our County Attorney tell us he’d  drafted a termination letter for Parker to use?”  (FYI:  Attorney Yasgur is an “at-will employee”  who serves at the pleasure of the Sullivan County Legislature.1)
  • At the Labor Sub-committee meeting on May 21st,  Legislator Kitty Vetter declared that she’d never heard there were “problems at DFS.”  Sandy Shaddock begged to differ and went on to  enumerate several instances when  she had personally reported  her own and employees’ concerns about DFS.
  • After the June 6th  Health & Family Services Committee meeting, County Attorney, Sam Yasgur told me that he’d  “drafted” Sager’s termination letter  for Commissioner Parker but didn’t inform the Legislators.  “In large part,” he said, “my job is to protect them [the Legislators].”
  • County Attorney Yasgur  offered to provide me with  a copy of the County’s “Whistleblower Policy” but when we went to his office to retrieve it, he couldn’t find it.
  • When I asked  him about the rumor that the County has an “exit interview” policy,  he explained it was used for  employees who leave County service of their own volition.  I explained he was in a position to offer a different policy for the Legislators to consider.  (He shrugged but couldn’t find a copy of the exit interview form, either.)
  • Despite contrary  information  provided by this writer on at least two occasions, Legislator Cindy Geiger continued to assert on June 6th that “at-will employees”  can be terminated without recourse.   “There’s nothing in County law to protect them,”  she added.   (When she was informed that the  protections exist in Federal and State law,  Mrs. Geiger had no response.)

On Wednesday June 12, 2013,  Dr. David Sager and  his attorney, Michael H. Sussman,  appeared at a press conference to announce David’s  plan for the immediate future:

  • A Summons and Complaint  has been filed on behalf of Dr. David Sager against the County of Sullivan, NY.  (The full document can be viewed at The Sullivan County Democrat’s  Facebook page  or a print copy can be obtained from the Sullivan County Clerk’s office at the Government Center,  300 North Street,  Monticello, NY.)
  • Citing to  Section 75B of New York State’s Civil Service Law,1  the Summons and Complaint alleges the following:
    •  “…Parker has claimed that plaintiff lacked the experience to discharge the duties and responsibilities assigned to him.”;
    • “This reason is  sheer pretext in that in the weeks before terminating plaintiff and  before plaintiff’s disclosures, Parker stated that he intended to expand plaintiff’s duties and responsibilities and at the most recent full staff meeting held in April 2013, Parker praised plaintiff’s job performance.”;
    • “In fact, defendant terminated plaintiff because he was reporting fraud and illegal activities which were transpiring within the Department of Family Services, specifically on the part of legal staff, CPS staff and  temporary assistance staff.”;
    • “ Commissioner Parker  engaged in illegal activity when he terminated Dr. David Sager.”;
    • “…plaintiff reported that a serious case of sexual abuse known to [Child Protective Services] CPS staff had not been, and then was not being, properly or timely investigated
    • “…that neglect and incompetence on the part of DSS’  legal staff was causing the failure to conduct a timely and proper investigation.”;
    • “Plaintiff made clear that he believed that CPS’ failure to timely investigate this serious claim of sexual abuse constituted an improper governmental action, was contrary to departmental rules and regulations which required the prompt and thorough investigation of such matters and imperiled the health/safety of the child adversely affected by such conduct.”;
    • “While Parker privately agreed with plaintiff that DSS’ legal staff was not competently performing their functions, he took no remedial action.”;
    • “Indeed, Parker’s political association with one of the DSS counsel caused him to wish to conceal the evidence plaintiff had revealed of her incompetence and professional misconduct and, instead, animated him to terminate plaintiff.”;  (Underscoring added for emphasis.)
    • “But for plaintiff’s disclosure of the incompetence and professional misconduct of this agency attorney and her engagement in improper governmental action, Parker, acting on behalf of the County of Sullivan, would not have dismissed  the plaintiff.”

(The salient portion of  the law cited  by Attorney Sussman  can be read here.)

According to Sussman’s statement at the  June 12th press conference,  “…dereliction of duty and  the improper handling of  long-standing cases  by DSS employees resulted in the endangerment of children.  When David raised the questions to Dr. Parker,  he was doing what he was responsible to do.  Parker’s  adverse action was illegal.”

Mr. Sussman also commented on rumors that  “documents and files are being shredded and destroyed” at the Department of Family Services.  “We have heard the rumors but I have not yet substantiated them.”  However,  he called on DFS employees to “not be a party to any destruction  of files.  If you are being directed to destroy ‘stale files,’  document the direction you were given and  the person who gave you the direction.  Report it.  Those  ‘stale files’  are now evidence.”

***************

(BIP Note 1)   For those who’ve asked, “Who’s OZ?  Who would have had the power to pull Commissioner Parker’s strings,” I offer this information from the Sullivan County Government website::

  • The person in charge of prosecuting DFS cases is Colleen Cunningham;
  • At the link to the SC website, Attorney Cunningham describes, in part,  her duties and responsibilities, “The Legal Department represents the Department of Family Services in legal matters before County, Family, Justice and Supreme Courts.”

Additionally,  Ms. Cunningham  is the sister of Chris Cunningham who was a Legislator and former- Commissioner of Health & Family Services.

 

(BIP Note 2)  Comments are being written at The Sullivan Post Facebook page by individuals who claim to have worked with or knew Randy Parker in Richland  County,  Ohio prior to his employment by Sullivan County, NY.  One comment reads,

“You need to check into Richland County Children Services in Mansfield, Ohio. The people of Richland Country tried to warn you about Randy. I believe there are still lawsuits pending against him and he had contempt charges and other legal issues as well. His contract was terminated and he walked away with pay. There was a tremendous amount of turnover while he was the director. The man surrounded himself with lawyers. He is despised here. It wouldn’t take much to find out about his reign of terror. Good luck ridding yourselves of that mongrel.”

A retired peace officer says,

“his reign of terror is just beginning! HISTORY is a good reflection of what the future holds. Whoever did his background check should be checked for dereliction.”  And “ I cringe at the number of “awesome” social workers that i worked with that were made to leave “DISGRUNTLED”. we could tell success stories of providing safety and protection for children. all the good things these workers did without any support from the agency they represented. several times i recall these workers coming in to my office and crying over the things we had to deal with and see, let alone not having any support from their “leader”. Social workers see atrocities involving children every day and to not support them in their jobs is absolutely disgusting.”

Although many other comments have been left by Richland County folks,  BIP’s last offering is this one:

 “I can’t believe that the Sullivan County officials hired Randy Parker if they did any research at all on his background. All you have to do is google his name and you will be amazed! He created an extremely hostile work environment in Richland County, OH. Mr. Parker would belittle employees, use fowl language, cussed at employees in front of their peers, at meetings, etc. Not only did he not get along with employees, he had major problems with other agency leaders, including the Juvenile Court Judge. He has several law suits pending with folks in Richland County. All I can say, is I feel very sorry for the folks that are currently working under him. Shame on you Sullivan County officials, if you continue to allow your employees to endure abusive behavior by this man.”

 

1 Duties of the Sullivan  County Attorney:

 [Amended 1-23-2003 by L.L. No. 3-2003; 4-26-2007 by L.L. No. 2-2007]

There shall be a County Attorney who shall be appointed and qualified, and restricted, and have the powers as set forth in §§ C4.00, C4.01 and C4.02 of the Charter of Sullivan County. When the interests of the County Legislature, the County and/or the County Manager are inconsistent with the interests of a County officer or employee, the County Attorney shall represent the County, the County Legislature or the County Manager, as the case may be. When the interests of the County and/or the County Legislature are in conflict with the County Manager, the County Attorney shall represent the County or the County Legislature, as the case may be. The County Attorney works through the Management and Budget and Personnel Committees in budget and personnel matters respectively.   http://ecode360.com/13910345

2 In part, Section 75B of New York State’s Civil Service Law states:

  2.  (a) A public employer shall not dismiss or take other disciplinary
  or other adverse personnel action against a  public  employee  regarding
  the   employee's   employment   because  the  employee  discloses  to  a
  governmental body information: (i) regarding a violation of a law,  rule
  or  regulation  which  violation  creates and presents a substantial and
  specific danger to the public  health  or  safety;  or  (ii)  which  the
  employee   reasonably  believes  to  be  true  and  reasonably  believes
  constitutes an  improper  governmental  action.  "Improper  governmental
  action"  shall  mean  any action by a public employer or employee, or an
  agent  of  such  employer  or  employee,  which  is  undertaken  in  the
  performance  of such agent's official duties, whether or not such action
  is within the scope of his employment, and which is in violation of  any
  federal, state or local law, rule or regulation.