General says his firing was related to DES lawsuit

2013-04-01T12:25:00Z 2013-04-02T00:22:17Z General says his firing was related to DES lawsuitThe Associated Press The Associated Press
April 01, 2013 12:25 pm  • 

HELENA — The Montana National Guard brigadier general who ordered an investigation into the state's Disaster and Emergency Services was fired last year after he rehired a woman who was suing the state over her dismissal from the troubled agency.

Brigidier Gen. Joel Cusker said he was given no explanation for his dismissal, but he concluded from meetings and conversations with then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer's chief of staff and Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger that it was over the decision to rehire a person who had shown such "disloyalty."

Cusker has since retired from the military and is working part time for a defense contractor training National Guard personnel in how to respond to disasters and emergencies. He spoke to The Associated Press recently because he said he believed it was important for the truth to be known.

"It's bringing some truth to what's been a dysfunctional element of government for some time," Cusker said. "The truth coming out should never harm the chain of command. If the chain of command (says it is) harmed by the truth coming out, it is already damaged."

Neither Schweitzer nor his former chief of staff, Vivian Hammill, returned calls for comment. Bohlinger's phone has been disconnected and nobody answered the door at his Helena home.

Department of Military Affairs spokesman Maj. Timothy Crowe said Cusker was dismissed in April 2012 when new Adjutant Gen. Matthew Quinn decided not to keep Cusker on as a top aide. Quinn instead chose people in whom he had full trust and confidence in to make up his new command team, Crowe said.

"Ultimately, he did not decide to retain Gen. Cusker and (decided to) have someone else lead the staff element," Crowe said.

Cusker was the director of the joint staff, the Montana National Guard's No. 2 officer, when Adjutant Gen. John Walsh became Steve Bullock's running mate and Schweitzer appointed Cusker as interim adjutant general in March 2012.

Cusker had risen through the ranks since enlisting in the Guard in 1978, receiving a MacArthur Leadership Award, studying at Harvard University as a national security fellow and volunteering for combat duty in Afghanistan.

Cusker's officer evaluations up to that point were outstanding, with Quinn writing in 2007 that then-Col. Cusker "is the soldier every commander wants on his staff." His last review by Walsh in 2011 calls Cusker "my go-to officer" who is "among the top 1 percent of every soldier I have served with."

Cusker spent five weeks last year as head of the Department of Military Affairs before Quinn was appointed. In that time, Cusker said he learned of eight lawsuits filed by former Disaster and Emergency Services personnel over a recent reduction in force within the division and spoke with an employee there who described a hostile work environment and sexual harassment.

Cusker ordered a "climate survey" of the DES workplace to be headed by communications consultant Julie Benson-Rosston. An outline of that investigation was made public in February after a legislative panel threatened to subpoena the agency.

Benson-Rosston's report described employee fears of retaliation, bullying managers and sexual discrimination within DES, but concluded it was not a hostile work environment.

Cusker said he believes it was not the agency investigation, but the decision to re-hire 22-year employee and division spokeswoman Monique Lay, that led to his involuntary separation from the National Guard.

Lay's position was eliminated in the reduction of force at DES. Lay filed a lawsuit that claims she and her former supervisor were actually dismissed in retaliation over complaints that a temporary staffer received special treatment because she was having a sexual affair with DES Chief of Staff Paul Grimstad.

Lay says the tumult resulted in a dysfunctional workplace and longtime employees being replace by unqualified ones.

Grimstad acknowledged the affair in a 2011 court hearing, but said it was one night only. Crowe said allegations of sex-for-favoritism were unsubstantiated and that a state hearings officer had already dismissed Lay's claims before she filed the lawsuit.

Cusker agreed to hire Lay as a financial specialist in another division of the Department of Military Affairs, the Centralized Services Division, in March 2012. She was qualified for the job and she had signed up for a special job register that allows former state employees to be considered for a vacancy before it is publicly posted, he said.

Days after the hire, Hammill called Cusker on his cellphone and ordered him to her office.

Cusker provided the AP with handwritten notes from that meeting, in which Hammill said, "We don't hire people who are suing the state."

"That action will get you fired," Hammill told Cusker, according to his account.

On April 5, Cusker, Hammill and two others within the administration met to review Lay's hiring, and concluded that it was legal, Cusker said.

"It's everybody's right to file litigation whether you like it or not," Cusker said.

Six days later, Cusker received a call from Hammill. "At 2 o'clock, the governor will announce his selection of the next adjutant general, and you are not it," he recalled her saying before she hung up.

The new adjutant general, Quinn, called Cusker into his office on April 15, and told him he did not want Cusker on his team. Cusker then received a notice of involuntary separation, which forced him out of the Guard.

Cusker met with Bohlinger after receiving the notice and asked the lieutenant governor to intervene. Bohlinger said he would take the matter up with Schweitzer that day, then left Cusker a voicemail that Cusker still has on his cellphone.

In it, Bohlinger said he spoke with Hammill and she said the governor would not reconsider.

"I didn't know anything about this, but there was a person hired by you that was involved in a wrongful discharge lawsuit with the state, this person is suing the state and the governor just felt that this was disloyal. So, but be that as it may, he is not going to do anything about this," Bohlinger said in the recording.

Crowe said the decision to dismiss Cusker was Quinn's. General officer positions in the Guard are very few and there were no options to place Cusker in another position within the state, Crowe said.

Bullock's office has directed the Department of Military Affairs to conduct a new climate survey at DES. The governor said Friday the litigation against the division is from the past, and he believes it can effectively respond to a crisis.

"I am confident that they can do the job they are supposed to do," Bullock said.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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