Yellowstone County Auditor Debby Hernandez last month apologized for calling payroll employees “idiots” in a voicemail message.

In a March 16 email to a payroll employee and copied to the board of county commissioners, Hernandez said, “I am sorry about the voicemail that was sent on January 6, 2017, regarding payroll. The office was short-staffed, unable to process reports and up against a very short deadline. I apologize.”

Hernandez said on Thursday that the email apology was the third time she has said she’s sorry for the incident. She added she was surprised when she received a disciplinary letter from the commissioners and questioned why the issue was coming up again.

Hernandez said the voice message incident already had been investigated as part of an outside investigation into communication problems between her office and the finance department.

Hernandez was referring to an investigation into a hostile workplace complaint by her against the county finance director and a finance employee.

The investigation, conducted by Michele Puiggari, of Puiggari & Associates Consulting, in Missoula and completed March 15, found no evidence to support the charge of a hostile workplace but said the issues were about “personalities.”

Hernandez also said this week that she complained about “problems” between her office and the finance office. “I never claimed it was a hostile work environment,” she said.

Puiggari’s report said in its introduction that Hernandez complained that she and her staff “were in a hostile work environment.”

Commission Chairman John Ostlund disagreed with Hernandez’s characterization that the disciplinary letter was part of the hostile workplace investigation.

The commission’s disciplinary letter to Hernandez, Ostlund said, was a separate matter and unrelated to the outside investigation of a hostile workplace.

The commission’s disciplinary letter to an elected official may have been a first. Ostlund said he couldn’t recall any other elected official having such a complaint leveled at them.

Ostlund also considered the issue settled. “The matter is closed and we’re going to move on,” he said.

Hernandez’s email apology comes after an internal investigation into a written complaint on Jan. 13 by the payroll employee to the board of county commissioners. The payroll employee complained about Hernandez calling payroll employees “idiots.”

The county provided to The Billings Gazette copies of the commission’s disciplinary letter and Hernandez’s apology email. Both documents had the names of the payroll employee and others blacked out to protect their privacy.

The commission’s disciplinary letter said the payroll employee received a voicemail message on Jan. 6 from Hernandez’s office. The recording was a conversation between Hernandez and one of her staff.

“In the conversation, you (Hernandez) can be heard calling payroll staff ‘idiots’ multiple times for the way they were dealing with a payroll issue. In that conversation, you can also be heard calling payroll’s action a ‘horrible error,’” the commission said.

The commission noted that in Hernandez’s response to the complaint, she indicated that the message was “inadvertent,” that she had called herself an idiot first during that conversation with her staff and that she had apologized.

“However, after having the message transcribed, there is nothing to indicate in the voice message that you referred to yourself as an idiot. Moreover, there is nothing to suggest that you directly apologized to Payroll staff for calling them idiots and, finally, your assessment of the ‘horrible mistake’ was in fact not a payroll mistake in the first place,” the commission’s letter said.

Hernandez’s conduct, the commission continued, violated county employee policy in which every employee is expected to act in “a professional, responsible, and courteous manner at all times.”

Hernandez’s recorded conversation violated “at least two written standards,” including, “inflicted negative attitude or conduct toward co-workers” and “failure to maintain professional conduct toward co-workers.”

The commission told Hernandez that it intended with its letter that she would “on your own accord as an Elected Official offer up a sincere and personal apology” to the payroll employee.

Further, the board advised Hernandez to “refrain from behavior that falls short of professional and responsible behavior in the work place” and said a copy of the letter would be placed in her personnel file.

Hernandez said she and her staff didn’t realize they were being recorded and that the call was from a staffer’s phone, not hers. She didn’t use anybody’s name and didn’t swear, she said.

“We felt bad about it. We’re very sorry it happened. It was a bad day and a bad time,” she said.

Her office, Hernandez said, was having problems running reports and was “blowing off steam. Yeah, we were all a little frustrated.”

There was no intent to hurt anyone, Hernandez said.

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Federal Court, Yellowtone County Reporter

Federal court and county reporter for The Billings Gazette.