Looking the Other Way

In Houston's Health Department, zero tolerance apparently applies only to dissidents

In the Houston Health and Human Services Department, if an employee falsifies city documents, it means automatic termination. According to the unwritten but official policy, the department has zero tolerance for the misdeed.

That's why Anja Cotton was fired from her job late in 1998 as a Health Department food inspector. Specifically, the city charged, Cotton had written on an inspection report that she had spent eight hours scrutinizing a Fiesta store, when in reality she'd skipped out an hour after her noon arrival. Moreover, the store manager testified at a hearing, Cotton left with these parting words: "If anyone asks, I was here until 8:45 p.m."

Cotton had a pretty good disciplinary record in her seven years with the department, with only two written reprimands in her file for minor infractions (both of which she'd protested). But given the policy, the cleanliness of her past had no bearing on her punishment. Nor, insisted department management, did the fact that Cotton had helped organize a dissident group of inspectors to protest working conditions in the food inspections bureau -- and had filed complaints against her boss, Chirag Bhatt, with the Office of Inspector General.

But Cotton thought her public grievances had led directly to her departure, and she's suing the city under the state Whistleblower Act. "They fired me because I would fight everything they would do that I thought was not good for the employees," she says. "I knew my rights, and they didn't like that."

The circumstances surrounding her alleged document high jinks at the Fiesta had always seemed iffy. Cotton's documentation, which inspectors must fill out in minute detail or face sanctions, was all in order. The same store manager who later testified against her had signed all her paperwork, which included times as well as the details of the inspection (he said he didn't look at it before signing). The tracking device on her city vehicle indicated her car was in the Fiesta parking lot during the time she claimed to be doing the inspection (the manager said her husband picked her up, then dropped her back at the car hours later). And she had affidavits from three people, including her husband, who stated they'd seen her in the store during the hours she had supposedly stolen away.

Moreover, the chief internal inspector for Fiesta was a former city inspector and friend of bureau chief Bhatt's, whom Cotton had reported for illegally tearing up citations against restaurants and food stores. Knowing this -- and believing the department was looking for an excuse to fire her, which she'd previously told the Press -- it seemed especially strange that she would have informed the store manager she was breaking the law.

Health Department director Mary Kendrick chose to believe Bhatt and the Fiesta manager, and recommended termination. So did a Civil Service Commission panel, which upheld Cotton's firing on December 11, 1998. Falsification of city documents. Zero tolerance.

That same day, department assistant director Bob Tannis wrote a memo to his boss, deputy director Earl Travis. Tannis had been investigating two employees in the Bureau of Occupational Health and Radiation Control, Angela Deniston and Joy Howard. Tannis had discovered that, among other infractions, Deniston had written on her time sheets that she would be in training sessions November 12 through 19, when in reality she had been out of the country on her honeymoon. The entries, which were made before her departure, were then changed after she returned in order to make them more palatable. Howard, her supervisor, had collaborated in the deception, according to Tannis. After interviewing everyone involved, he wrote Travis, his recommendation was to fire them both. Falsification of city documents. Zero tolerance.

In addition, the investigation revealed that bureau chief Marilyn Byrd may have known about the violations but went along with them. And on December 10 department lawyer Daphine Sands wrote Byrd a memo implicating her for violating the city's policy on reimbursement for out-of-town travel. Byrd had apparently signed off on a claim for travel to the San Jacinto College campus on Uvalde, inside the city limits. "This is in-town not out-of-town travel," Sands wrote. "End of discussion."

When Cotton was recommended for dismissal, without the benefit of anyone asking her what had happened, Health Department management moved quickly. Travis passed the allegations to the Office of Inspector General for investigation. Before the OIG had issued its findings, Cotton was issued a termination letter by Mayor Lee Brown on Kendrick's recommendation.

In the case of Deniston, Howard and Byrd, department management did nothing.

Department spokeswoman Cathy Barton has a ready explanation. Kendrick needed to wait for the results of an OIG investigation into the matter (still pending, 16 months later) before taking any action. The department didn't wait with Cotton, she says, because hers "was a simpler investigation." Health and Human Services doesn't have the capacity to do a complex investigation like the one required for Byrd, Howard and Deniston, Barton says.

But if Kendrick and crew had had their way, there wouldn't even be an investigation of the three. A month after Tannis recommended firing Howard and Deniston, no one above him had moved on the matter. At that point the OIG launched its investigation, only because another disgruntled employee, Bart Stephens, blew the whistle and gave the OIG incriminating documents.

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