Stonington report finds no evidence of Oliverio claims against McKrell

Stonington — Highway Department employee Daniel Oliverio’s allegation that Public Works Director Barbara McKrell is unfairly targeting him is not “objectively reasonable” and his responses to situations with McKrell appear to be exaggerated, according to a 27-page report completed by town Labor Attorney Meredith Diette.

Diette's report found that “the evidence does not support a finding that McKrell’s alleged actions rise to the level of creating a hostile work environment or engaging in retaliation,” and that McKrell’s explanation of events with Oliverio are not unreasonable and are supported by witnesses and other evidence.

“Moreover when asked to evaluate plausible explanations for McKrell’s actions, Oliverio dismissed each alternate scenario and refused to consider any reason that did not fit his alleged pattern of hostility and retaliation by McKrell,” Diette wrote.

She further wrote that while the evidence does not support Oliverio’s allegation of retaliation and a hostile work environment, it does reveal there are wounds in the department that need to heal.

She recommended that going forward, McKrell “should be more aware of, and proactive in avoiding, even the perception of favoritism and disparate treatment. Further, Oliverio and McKrell should work to improve their own communication for the benefit of the department as a whole.”

First Selectman Rob Simmons commissioned Diette to undertake the extensive investigation after he received two emails from Oliverio, on April 10 and April 18, complaining about McKrell’s treatment of him, which he said was due to his friendship with fired Highway Supervisor Louis DiCesare II and former Selectman Mike Spellman.

McKrell accused Spellman, now the Groton City police chief, of harassment after he questioned her about the use of pesticides on high school athletic fields. A town investigation upheld her complaint. Meanwhile DiCesare has sued the town in federal court and filed three union grievances.

Over the past two months, large groups of residents have spoken at selectmen’s meetings in support of Oliverio and criticized McKrell.

Oliverio filed his complaint about McKrell after an April 18 incident in which she instructed Highway Foreman Tim Keena to call Oliverio over the townwide radio system instead of using a cellphone to ask what time he took a coffee break that day. Oliverio, who has worked for the department for 16 years, said the incident embarrassed him in front of his co-workers and was the latest incident in which McKrell unfairly targeted him.

Simmons released Diette’s report on Monday after The Day filed a state Freedom of Information Act request. Oliverio read the report last week and on Thursday said, "I love my job and just want to be able to do it without feeling targeted, worried or stressed. It was necessary for me to bring forth the issues that I did so they can be addressed through proper channels. Regardless of what the report says, I will continue to do the best on any assignment I am given, as I do currently." 

Diette interviewed all 16 highway employees as well as Oliverio, McKrell, Simmons, Highway Supervisor Tom Curioso and Director of Administrative Services Vincent Pacileo. The highway employees as well as McKrell called Oliverio a very hard worker. Eleven of the workers said they had heard Oliverio say he does not like McKrell.

“Department personnel who were interviewed described McKrell as structured but fair and very busy. They acknowledged that McKrell has been more focused on holding the department personnel accountable for their assigned work assignments and work place accidents than previous public works directors. None of those Public Works employees interviewed, other than Oliverio, feel that McKrell treats Oliverio different or adverse because of his friendships with DiCesare or former Selectman Spellman,” Diette wrote.

She wrote that no other employees have complained about McKrell and that she has a clean disciplinary record. She added that none of the employees interviewed, including Oliverio, has ever heard McKrell say she does not like Oliverio.

The report found that the day before the townwide radio incident, McKrell held a meeting in which she instructed employees to refrain from using their personal cellphones unless they were on a break or at lunch. She said the department had received complaints from citizens who had seen employees on their phones while in their town vehicles. She told them to now use the townwide radio system to communicate with one another. Some employees, though, questioned the reliability of reception in certain areas of town. Diette wrote that it was understood that personal cellphone use would be curtailed going forward but some use would be permitted.

The report found that the next afternoon, McKrell instructed Curioso to call Oliverio over the radio to determine if he was using his phone during paid work time. This came after she was copied on a 2:10 p.m. email Oliverio sent Simmons asking if he could attend an upcoming training class for his role as tree warden. Oliverio later admitted to sending the email using the town phone issued to him in his role as tree warden, a job separate from his highway department position.

In a transcript of the conversation, Keena asked Oliverio what time he had taken coffee breaks that day and Oliverio said 9 a.m. When he was questioned by Diette he said he was on an afternoon break and not driving, having just pulled into the Public Works garage and parked when he sent the email at 2:10 p.m. The report states, however, that the GPS system in Oliverio’s truck indicated he was driving at 2:11 p.m. on Elm Street and did not park the truck until 2:17 p.m.

In his interview, Oliverio questioned the validity of the GPS system as it updates every two minutes unless there is a change in vehicle action.

Some of the employees told Diette they were surprised McKrell had instructed Keena to use the radio despite her instructions the day before. But they said they would not have been embarrassed if the radio was used to question them.

Last month Simmons said the town would not be disciplining Oliverio after McKrell complained that he used his cellphone while driving a town truck and when not on a paid break.

The report also found that McKrell suspended Oliverio for five days without pay in 2016 for a 2015 accident in which he backed out of a private driveway onto a state road and struck a vehicle. The other driver was taken to the hospital and the town truck damaged. Oliverio filed a union grievance over the discipline and Simmons downgraded it to a “written consultation” that stayed in his personnel file for one year. Oliverio alleged she disciplined him due to his relationship with DiCesare and Spellman.

The report found that McKrell had disciplined five other town employees for accidents since she began work in 2014.

Diette also wrote that her investigation did not substantiate Oliverio’s claims that McKrell did not want him to be named tree warden after she raised concerns about a possible conflict with his highway job or that she did not select him for a two-day training course because of his friendship with DiCesare and Spellman. Diette also did not find evidence that McKrell assigned him to work outside in the rain by himself after he discussed unsightly weeds along Route 2 at a meeting of the town’s Beautification Committee, which he co-chairs, or that he no longer receives “high profile assignments.”

j.wojtas@theday.com

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