Affirmative Action for Whom?
Ileana Vallarino Trevino directs the Affirmative Action and Equal Employment office at the University of Houston and is the person designated to process discrimination and harassment complaints from the school's employees. Two weeks ago Trevino, who has held the $86,500 position for a year, took an unusual step with the approval of her boss, Chancellor Arthur Smith.
Trevino contacted top officials of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington and got the agency to reconsider its decisions validating discrimination complaints by two women employees against Trevino's immediate supervisor, General Counsel Dennis Duffy. Trevino told aides to EEOC chairwoman Ida Castro that the local EEOC findings were biased because of the friendship of the Houston director and a woman who held Trevino's job before she was hired.
The EEOC reacted almost immediately to Trevino's calls. It had Houston EEOC officials cancel the findings of discrimination and retaliation by UH against Susan Septimus and Glena Yerby, and transferred the case to the Dallas office for review. UH officials issued a low-key statement expressing confidence the institution would be cleared of all charges.
The complainants now have the choice of waiting indefinitely for new findings from Dallas or suing the university.
Trevino raised a new set of issues when she got on the phone to the EEOC. Critics contend that by going to bat for the boss, she compromised the impartiality and credibility of her office to process confidential complaints by school employees against their supervisors.
Civil rights attorney David Lopez has represented students and professors complaining of sex or racial discrimination at UH. He says Trevino's actions are inappropriate and raise serious questions for those who have beefs with the school bureaucracy.
"It suggests that the function intended for the office is to cover up or excuse or defend the institution rather than -- as its name suggests -- assisting people who believe they have had their rights violated," reasons Lopez.
He's considering breaking off contact with Trevino's office and going straight to court on one case.
"Tentatively, I'm going to go ahead and file a formal complaint with the office of civil rights in the Department of Education and take it out of the loop internally, because it's pretty obvious that office is not going to be helpful to us," he says. Other sources say the U.S. Department of Education and the federal Office of Contract Compliance have assigned investigators to probe complaints about how the school is handling discrimination complaints.
Houston EEOC director H. Joan Ehrlich declined to discuss the specifics of the UH case but says affirmative action directors should be neutral with management and the complaining employee. In fact, Ehrlich says, personnel directors are very frequently whistle-blowers against management.
"They are really helpless to do anything because often management perceives them as defenders of employers rather than advocates for the people who are complaining," says Ehrlich. "If they find wrongdoing, it's in the best interest of the institution to get rid of the wrongdoing, to eliminate it."
Trevino says she decided to take action after noticing irregularities in the way the Houston EEOC office handled the discrimination investigation.
"I've worked in the field of EEO for 20 years, and if I saw the same situation with respect to a complainant, I would have reacted the same way," says Trevino. "My job above all else is to ensure the integrity of the process for everybody; because if it fails, even on the side of management, it's failing."
Trevino says she came up with the idea to plead the university's case to Washington, got Smith's direct approval and called chairwoman Castro's office.
Trevino suspects the handling of the case was influenced by the friendship between Houston EEOC director Joan Ehrlich and Electra Yourke. When Yourke was Trevino's interim predecessor at UH, she clashed repeatedly with Duffy. Trevino also questioned Ehrlich's claims that she actually recused herself from the investigation.
Trevino stresses that she was concerned only about the handling of the discrimination complaints and not their merits. Yet her points about possible bias parallel the sentiments of Chancellor Smith in his five-page memo to his academic inner circle several months earlier. Smith made no bones about his feeling that Duffy is the innocent victim of a cabal of disgruntled employees in the General Counsel's office.
Chairwoman Castro's staff let Trevino lay out everything in her 15- to 20-minute call, Trevino says. When she was finished, Castro special assistant Ralph Soto told her, "I have already read the file and looked at all the documents, and we will be issuing you a letter of reconsideration," Trevino says.
Asked why the agency moved so quickly, EEOC communications director Reginald Welch cited Castro's sensitivity to questions about the agency's impartiality.
"She is very concerned that she leave no stone unturned to make sure the public perceives this agency as doing quality work, fair and unbiased, without any improprieties whatsoever in our process," comments Welch.
The quick EEOC action raised suspicions among the complainants of political influence by UH supporters. Trevino, a former equal employment officer for two federal agencies, admits she was "very surprised" by the speed of the response.
"It led me to believe that it was not entirely based on my presentation at that moment, that clearly they had been looking into this," Trevino says.
Electra Yourke says if there is bias, it is on Trevino's part as a defender for the school. "Here we have the affirmative action director, the supposedly objective, neutral, not-dominated-by-management affirmative action director petitioning Washington to rescind a finding."
Yourke recalls that after the discrimination claims against Duffy became public, Chancellor Smith issued a memo inviting legitimate grievances to be filed with Trevino's office.
"He said if we've done anything wrong, we want to make it right, and you should go to the completely objective, confidential affirmative action office," says Yourke with a chuckle. "So he sends this out, and the next thing we read about is Ileana Trevino talking to EEOC to rescind these findings. Helloooo."
Yourke has now filed a federal complaint against Smith for making false allegations about her in one of his memos concerning the case. It is being processed by the EEOC outside the Houston office.
The guilt-by-association charge involving Ehrlich is laughable, Yourke says.
"We're friends," she responds. "So what? Suppose we were joined at the hip? Does that mean Dennis Duffy did not discriminate against Susan Septimus? That he did not yell at her for two hours as she sobbed uncontrollably behind her desk in her own office? It has nothing to do with the case."
Ehrlich says the friendship is irrelevant because she recused herself from the UH case early on and did not even read the case file.
Septimus's attorney, Andrew Golub, claims that the real conflict of interest exists in the UH chain of command, with Trevino defending her bosses at the expense of the people she is supposed to help.
Golub says the UH affirmative action office may say it is protecting the rights of aggrieved employees but that the Duffy case reveals they are not serious about equal employment compliance.
Trevino replies, "The university is obviously my client. But the university includes clients and students. Everyone is my client." She concedes that her EEOC call may have temporarily worked against the complainants.
"If they have a legitimate complaint," says the director, "then it will be reheard again in Dallas and they will ultimately prevail, and they should be confident in that fact."
It's about the only thing she and Electra Yourke agree on.
"I'm glad this has happened because when Dallas comes up with the same conclusion, we will not have this bogus conflict of interest clouding it anymore," says Yourke. "Then hopefully we'll begin to deal with the actual events."
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