Christina Hall, Detroit Free Press Published 5:09 p.m. ET Oct. 8, 2019 | Updated 6:24 p.m. ET Oct. 8, 2019
A former Macomb County director is suing the county executive and a deputy county executive in a whistleblower lawsuit alleging that her firing was in retaliation for her efforts to investigate employee complaints of racial discrimination.
Rhonda Powell, who was the county’s highest ranking African American employee as Health and Community Services director, is suing Executive Mark Hackel and Deputy Executive John Paul Rea in Macomb County Circuit Court.
Her lawsuit, filed Tuesday, seeks $5 million in damages. Powell, of Southfield, also filed an inquiry with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about her termination Sept. 5, her attorney Nabih Ayad said.
Powell herself is a defendant in a separate whistleblower lawsuit filed in federal court in June against her and the county. That lawsuit was filed by Ernest Cawvey, who says Powell and the county retaliated against him over an investigation that questioned the time sheets of three employees who were friends of Powell’s.
Cawvey, of Brighton, was director of Macomb Community Action and reported to Powell until he was “abruptly terminated” March 18. A jury trial in his lawsuit is set for July 2020.
Ayad and the county’s top lawyer said they don’t believe the two lawsuits are tied.
In her whistleblower lawsuit, Powell claims that she was terminated after she reached out to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights regarding county employee complaints of racially discriminatory behavior at work that were not being addressed.
Complaints by black county employees, especially those at Macomb Community Action, included that “they were being demoted, moved from offices to cubicles, that they were being harassed, and that they were subject to great heightened scrutiny at work, all because of their race, while non-African Americans were not,” according to Powell’s lawsuit.
“As soon as I reached out to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, I was terminated by the deputy county executive. But, at the same time, I was also offered hush money by the HR director in exchange for my silence,” Powell said at a news conference in Detroit. “It is my belief, however, that real leaders protect the vulnerable, and not prey on them.”
She said Rea told her at a Sept. 5 meeting with the county’s human resources director, that he had been directed to inform her that her employment was terminated, effective immediately, because Hackel “lost faith” in her leadership ability.
Powell said she was offered a severance agreement, which would continue her pay and benefits until the end of the year, but she refused.
County Corporation Counsel John Schapka responded to the lawsuit in a prepared statement saying Powell’s termination “had nothing to do with race or being a whistleblower.”
“It was a direct result of a series of serious administrative failures which resulted in a loss of trust and confidence in her ability to responsibly supervise the County’s Health and Community Services Division,” his statement reads.
Schapka’s statement provided “some examples” including: “multiple violations of the county’s ordinances/policies and state law; inappropriate use of county facilities; misappropriation of county funds, and compromising the security of county facilities.”
His statement did not release more detailed information.
However, it added: “The Macomb Charter provides that executive appointees serve at will, at the pleasure of the executive, and therefore can be removed at any time, with or without cause. Ms. Powell knew that when she accepted the appointment.”
Hackel appointed Powell to the post in 2017. She was promoted after serving as director of Macomb Community Action since 2014.
According to a 2017 news release from Hackel’s office announcing her appointment, Powell previously worked for the state and had an earlier stint with the county, serving as director of the Department of Senior Citizen Services.
She also had worked in homeless services in Macomb and Oakland counties as director of the Macomb County Rotating Emergency Shelter Team and as associate director of the South Oakland Shelter, the 2017 release from Hackel’s office stated.
Ayad said Powell also was a founder of the OneMacomb diversity and inclusion initiative and has received several awards this year for work.
Several black ministers from Macomb County, representatives of the NAACP and others supported Powell at her news conference and expressed concern about the lack of qualified blacks in high-profile positions in the growing and diversifying county.
“Blacks — last hired, first fired,” said Bishop D.L. Bradley with the Michigan Advocacy Coalition. “I am concerned about this. I am disappointed about this.”
Contact Christina Hall: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @challreporter.
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