Email exchanges get three Iowa civil rights investigators fired

Emails referred to co-workers as 'Psycho,' 'Roid Rage,' mocked photos of obese, others

Ryan J. Foley
Published: August 22 2011 | 10:59 pm - Updated: 31 March 2014 | 5:59 pm in

Three Iowa civil rights investigators have been fired after sending hundreds of gossipy emails calling co-workers derogatory nicknames like "Psycho," ''Monster," and "Roid Rage," and forwarding pictures that made fun of fat people, Wal-Mart customers and others, according to public records and interviews.

Tiffanie Drayton, Michele Howard and Wendy Buenger repeatedly used mocking nicknames for many of their colleagues at the Iowa Civil Rights Commission in e-mails they sent throughout the workday, according to copies obtained by The Associated Press under the public records law.

They called their supervisor, Don Grove, "Teen Wolf" and the commission's executive director Beth Townsend, "Night Ranger," as they gossiped about their management styles. They criticized colleagues' looks, social skills and mannerisms, quoted vulgar rap lyrics and received and sent offensive pictures all while they were supposed to be investigating complaints of housing and employment discrimination.

"Dude Where's My Car and Psycho are talking about food a match made in stoner/fatty heaven!" Drayton wrote to the other two on March 4 in one of many such examples.

The emails were submitted as evidence in recent legal proceedings in which Drayton, Howard and Buenger have sought unemployment benefits after their firings on June 16. The AP obtained them from Iowa Workforce Development, along with audio recordings of hearings for Drayton and Howard and decisions denying them benefits.

Townsend, also called "Sarg" in some messages, discovered the trove of emails during an unrelated investigation into the alleged release of confidential information. She told AP she fired them after an internal investigation, which found Drayton alone sent an average of 75 personal emails per day from March 1 until June 3.

Meanwhile, Drayton finished only one civil rights investigation during the same timeframe a pace of work seen as slower than usual but satisfactory, according to Grove's testimony. Howard sent 1,600 emails during the same timeframe, almost none of them work-related.

"I discovered that she had been sending these profane, obscene, vulgar, inappropriate emails as well as emails between her and two other staff members that were harassing to their peers and their management," Townsend testified Aug. 5 at Drayton's hearing. "They had assigned nicknames for everybody in the agency that included 'Monster,' 'Psycho,' stoned intern, 'Roid Rage,' 'Rainman," 'Extreme Makeover,' 'Homeless McGree,' 'albino.' They referred to myself as 'Night Ranger.' They referred to their supervisor as 'Teen Wolf.'"

She said the emails were so frequent, they likely took up a majority of Drayton's workday.

Drayton acknowledged during the hearing that the emails were inappropriate and unprofessional but said they weren't harassing because other employees didn't know they were being talked about. She dismissed warnings from her supervisors they could end up in the local newspaper because they were public records.

"Were any of the emails published or received by the Des Moines Register at any point?" she asked Townsend in a cross-examination. "They have not to date," Townsend responded.

Drayton expressed shock after learning Friday that the AP had obtained the emails. Then she downplayed them. She noted that she was appealing her firing by filing a union grievance, which is still pending.

"The majority of those emails were office banter between us. It was just talk, water cooler chat between the three of us," she said. She said she didn't want to comment further because, while she might disagree with the commission's leaders, "I ultimately agree with the mission of the agency and don't want to do anything that's going to hurt the agency."

Howard testified Aug. 4 that everyone at the agency used email for non-work purposes and downplayed the emails as "just the girls being silly." She explained the three nicknamed Grove after seeing a movie called "Teen Wolf."

"He had a beard and he kind of reminded us of a younger version of Mr. Grove," she said.

Listed phone numbers for Buenger and Howard couldn't be found, and their union steward declined to comment. Buenger's unemployment case will be heard next month.

All three earned $41,800 per year at the commission, which enforces Iowa's anti-discrimination law by investigating and trying to resolve discrimination complaints and providing public education. Townsend said the agency has 17 other civil rights investigators and is trying to minimize the impact of the firings.

An email policy adopted March 1 after Gov. Terry Branstad appointed Townsend to lead the commission advises employees to limit use to business "to the greatest extent possible" and not to send messages that are offensive, pornographic, political, chain letters or harassing. The policy also gave Townsend greater ability to fire employees for misconduct.

Judges have denied Drayton and Howard unemployment, saying they committed misconduct and therefore aren't eligible for benefits.

"While employed by an agency whose purpose is to confront, remedy and eliminate discrimination, Ms. Howard engaged in a remarkably broad, persistent campaign of discrimination and otherwise offensive conduct through her abuse of the employer's electronic communication system," Administrative Law Judge James Timberland wrote Aug. 15. "What is even more remarkable is Ms. Howard's effort to minimize, or excuse away, the discrimination and offensive conduct she directed at various individuals and groups."

Timberland said Howard traded and received emails "that made fun of and/or ridiculed obese people, gay, transgendered and/or transvestite people, elderly people, Walmart customers, African-American men, white high school students, white men, and white people generally."

Drayton, who had worked at the commission since 2007, reveled in emails she thought were funny. She told two friends outside the agency on March 30 that the messages "were the highlight of my work week."

On May 27, she added: "I get some pretty hilarious e-mails and have strange conversations that I believe would make an excellent coffee table book."

Excerpts from emails

Here are some excerpts of hundreds of inappropriate emails sent by fired Iowa Civil Rights Commission investigators Tiffanie Drayton, Michele A. Howard and Wendy Buenger:

  • Drayton to two friends who work outside the agency on March 2: "I have nicknames for all my co-workers. Let's see, there is, Teen Wolf, Monster, Roid Rage, Tupac, Psycho, Eliza Doolittle, Ready for the World, Foster Brooks, Mr. Bentley, Homeless McGee, Red Foxx, and Rainman."
  • Drayton to Howard and Buenger on March 3: "Psycho is flirting with the new stoned intern. She told him that if he ever wanted to come and 'yak it out' with her to come find her. Hopefully he's high enough to think it's all a really bad trip."
  • Buenger to Howard and Drayton on March 4: "Every time I walk down that aisle up to the front desk, Homeless McGee looks up and stares at me all the way to the front desk. Creepy!" ''Maybe she's looking for a date," Howard responded.
  • Howard on April 15, referring to commission executive director Beth Townsend: "Sarg is dressed in all black with dark lipstick like a Night Ranger or something."
  • Drayton to Howard and Buenger on May 13: "Why was Rainman dressed up and wearing that black trench coat?" Howard responded: "Hahaha good question! He looks like a perv!"
  • Drayton to two friends on May 27: "I've become a local folk hero in the office because I basically said 'snitches get stitches' to management." The same day, she added: "It's their fault. I try to keep Ghetto Tiffanie locked up while at work but she came out in full force on Wednesday. Now I'm finding it hard to put her back in and whenever I'm walking around in the office the song 'f the police' is running through my head."

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