Allegations dubbed complaints of fired, disgruntled worker

By Jeff Lehr

Globe Staff Writer

The Missouri Career Center in Joplin staged an open house this week, about three months after a switch in operators of its adult-worker programs and amid fresh criticism by a dismissed employee of its management.

"We're taking it up from where it was at," said Stephen Gilmore, the coordinator for Lakes Country, the not-for-profit service provider that took over administration of the center's adult-worker programs in mid-June.

The center, which serves a seven-county region, was rocked last year by revelations of employee theft and administrative malfeasance when the primary provider of its adult-worker programs was the now-dissolved Private Industry Council.

The center has been sanctioned for failing to meet federal performance standards for three consecutive years, losing a percentage of the money it would get if it were meeting standards.

The Division of Workforce Development in the Missouri Department of Economic Development stepped in and forced the PIC out of its dual roles as fiscal agent and service provider to the local Workforce Investment Board.

Jasen Jones, director of the local Workforce Investment Board who was hired in December, acknowledged this week that the early scuttling of the PIC's contract in March caused some interruptions in the provision of employment services in the region early this year. But matters have improved significantly since Lakes Country came on board, Jones said.

But Jeffrey Lipp, the center's former local veterans employment representative, contends that the federally funded center continues to suffer a kind of paralysis in provision of services. Lipp says the center has a huge backlog of applicants for services who have not yet been given eligibility assessments, and that the center has been squandering money while failing to meet the employment needs of area veterans, Hispanics and Asians in particular.

"They're ignored," Lipp said of Hispanic and Asian seekers of jobs and job training. "They come in and sit at the computers, and no one will even help them."

Rick Beasley, state director of the Division of Workforce Development, disputed those assertions, and characterized Lipp as a disgruntled former employee "trying to make the Career Center in Joplin look bad because he was dismissed."

"When somebody raises a question like that, my question is, 'Did you help them?'" Beasley said.

Beasley said that if poor customer service for certain ethnic groups was an actual issue in the office, he'd question why Lipp never reported his concern to the regional manager while Lipp was employed there.

Veterans are supposed to receive priority treatment in the provision of services, Lipp said. But in the four years he worked at the center, he said, he never saw a veteran receive Title I services, including many who came to the center who were not eligible for Department of Veterans Affairs benefits, including vocational rehabilitation services.

"Those people are perfect candidates for Title I employment services and training," Lipp said.

He cited as an example a veteran of the war in Iraq, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, who was in need of assistance in retaining his rental housing, in keeping his utility services running and in obtaining schooling. He was denied by the center, Lipp said.

Beasley said he did not have any numbers at his fingertips this week, but he is certain that veterans have been receiving Title I services through the Joplin Career Center.

"But I don't think Jeff was in a position to know if a veteran received services or not," Beasley said.

Lipp's job primarily entailed meeting with veterans organizations, service providers and employers as a representative of veterans, and not case managing of training programs, he said. The center offers about 30 programs, and Lipp would not have had access to the files of many of those, he said.

Lipp said he believes the backlog of applicants awaiting assessments exceeds 100, but he could produce no documentation of that, and Career Center officials said that is no longer the case.

Lipp said Lakes Country recently told state employees with the Division of Workforce Development, who share the center's offices at Eighth Street and Wall Avenue with the service provider's staff, that it has too many clients to serve as it is.

Lipp said the backlog and failure to meet the employment-services needs of people in the region is taking place despite the new provider being left with more than $1 million in unspent money for last fiscal year when it took over from the PIC. He said that is in addition to the money the provider began receiving from the state and federal government for the fiscal year that began July 1.

Jones acknowledged that there had been a backlog in the assessment of applicants for intensive services as a consequence of the dissolution of the PIC. But there never has been a backlog of cases involving core services, Jones said. He said the only waiting period that currently exists concerns determination of eligibility for higher-level services.

"We've eliminated the backlog (for intensive services) and are now meeting with people as they come in," Gilmore said of the adult-worker programs Lakes Country administers.

Lipp cited Jones' purchase of several laptop computers for all Lakes Country staff members as an example of recent squandering of money. He said many of the staff members seldom are out in the field where they would need the laptops.

But Kevin Rainwater, state director for the Springfield-based Lakes Country, questioned how Lipp could assess the presence of staff members in the field. He said the computers have been helpful in extending services to rural areas of the Workforce Development region.

While the first performance measures for Lakes Country will not be available for about one year, Beasley said there are some positive indications that the center is becoming more effective in providing services. He said that before May, only about 30 percent of welfare recipients in the region were being engaged by the center. That's up to about 50 percent this month, he said.

"I mean, that's pretty good," Beasley said. "Is it perfect over in the Career Center? It's probably not because we're all human. But it's improving."

Lipp acknowledges that the stated reason for his firing was a comment he made to the current regional Workforce Development director, Diana Fields.

Lipp, a disabled veteran and former Army reservist who served in Desert Storm, is part Cherokee Indian. He maintains that he was a victim of job discrimination while at the center, getting passed over for a promotion to supervisor despite being the most-qualified candidate for the position.

He filed a complaint in March with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office in Kansas City, claiming discrimination on the basis of his race, gender and veteran status. The EEOC ruled on Aug. 31 that he had a right to sue. He said he filed the complaint not to sue but in an effort to keep his job.

Lipp told the Globe that he interprets his firing on Sept. 15, which became effective Tuesday, as "retaliation" for his EEOC complaint against Fields and his reporting of mismanagement of the center in the past.

In 2003, he complained first to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, and then to the Missouri Ethics Commission and the director of the Department of Economic Development, that the center was receiving $1,000 from a carnival a couple of times a year for use of its parking spaces in the Memorial Hall parking lot without a contract, and that the money was going into an office slush fund used to pay for office parties, retirement gifts and office knickknacks.

The director of the Department of Economic Development subsequently ordered the practice to stop and the revenues already accepted to be placed in the state's general-revenue fund.

Fields on Wednesday declined comment on Lipp's dismissal and his criticisms of the center, and referred all questions to Beasley, who said he could not address the dismissal since it was a personnel matter. But Beasley did say that the arrangement with the carnival, while wrongful from the standpoint of state agency operations, preceded Fields' management of the Career Center.

A letter of dismissal to Lipp from Beasley that the Globe asked Lipp to provide states that he was fired for comments he made to Fields on Sept. 8 during a meeting with Lipp. Fields reportedly called the meeting to discuss concerns that a representative of a major company had expressed about Lipp.

The letter states that Lipp called Fields a racist, a bigot and a sexist during the meeting, and accused her of trying to get rid of him. "You further threatened Ms. Fields, stating that when you leave, you are taking her out with you," the letter says.

Lipp contends that what he said was: "Diane, when I leave here, you and I are walking out the door hand in hand." He said he never meant the statement as a physical threat, but that it was more a sarcastic remark that he was not going to be easy to shed as an employee.

After the incident on Sept. 8, a security guard was hired for the Career Center.

Lipp said Fields and Beasley have tried to paint him as a potentially violent person in the wake of his EEOC complaint. An Internet search of court records shows that Lipp has a 1998 conviction on a weapons charge for which he served a suspended sentence with five years' probation.Alien vs. Predator

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