“YOU CAN LOCK YOUR DOOR FROM A THIEF, BUT YOU CAN’T FROM A LIAR.”
This was my late grandmother’s favorite phrase, which has resonated with me throughout my life. Nana was a larger-than-life figure during my formative years. I would not be the woman I am today were it not for Nana, whose positive influence, hardworking spirit, and love for God served as constant inspiration to me. Nana was a staunch Seventh-day Adventist who taught my four siblings and I to love God first and keep the Sabbath holy from sunset to sunset. The Sabbath was a “high day” in our household. Nana referred to Friday, the day before our Sabbath, as “preparation day,” and for us it was indeed like preparing for a wedding or special event. On Fridays, I was always right by Nana’s side, helping to prepare meals for the next day, with the mouth-watering aromas of her cooking tempting me as a child. The Sabbath could not come fast enough! I could barely wait to partake in the scrumptious meal we had prepared.
As soon as the Sabbath meal was prepared and stored away, Nana ensured our clothes were selected, clean and ironed, and that our shoes were polished and ready for church the next day. The final phase of preparation day was ensuring that we were all showered, dressed, and seated in the living room to usher in the Sabbath by sunset. Nana would ask each of us if there was a special song we would like to sing, and we all chimed in like a mass choir. Nana would then recite a scripture or two from the Bible, and she would always end our worship session by calmly reading Psalm 1. Whenever she got to the last verse—“But the way of the ungodly shall perish”—her voice would rise a notch or two. She would look each of us in the eye as she emphasized the word “perish,” loudly, to be sure that we all could hear, shaking her index finger in our faces. My brother Lemuel, who was younger, though we operated as though we were twins, would often break out in laughter. I, on the other hand, trembled in my dress shoes. After worship, my grandmother made sure that we all went to bed early, because she would wake us up at daybreak on Sabbath for morning worship before hustling us off to church.
My grandmother also taught us the importance of truth telling. Nana couldn’t stand a liar. Inevitably, my siblings and I would tell occasional white lies and get into mischief, as kids do. Often, it was as though an invisible guest had entered our home, eaten the hidden cookies, drank the last glass of milk, or taken money from Nana’s wallet to buy candy. None of us would dare confess to the misdeed, though we knew that we would all be punished if the perpetrator did not confess. We would stand in silence, exchanging fearful glances, hoping someone would come forward and take the fall.
“Liar, liar, pants on fire!” These were the words we squealed at each other when someone was caught telling a lie. Then, with anger in her voice, fury on her brow, and that index finger pointing at our little faces, she would echo her favorite words, “You can lock your door from a thief, but you can’t from a liar.” As a kid, I did not understand what my grandmother was trying to convey. However, as I grew older, I would experience ill-fated circumstances that helped me to understand the meaning of her words. I have grown not only to appreciate, but to share my grandmother’s contempt for an individual who lies outright and without conscience. Growing up under my grandmother’s influence has given me the fortitude to never suppress the truth where lies exist.
I WAS STUDIOUS AND AMBITIOUS AS A CHILD because of the positive influence of my mother. I was known for my exceptional memory of reciting poems, and under the tutelage of my grandmother—who was an exceptional chef—I was becoming something of a cook. My grandmother may have been the one who provided me with the moral and spiritual foundation I needed early in life, but her daughter and my mother—Viola Estella—was an equally important figure. My mom was instrumental in my pursuit of education, making sacrifices to send me to private schools, an opportunity that she herself never had. She would spend hours with me after school, going over what I’d learned during the day and helping me with homework. Also, she enrolled me in music lessons and typing classes at an early age.
At the age of fourteen, I attempted my first business venture by operating my Bonnie Bell cosmetics business after school and full-time during the summer. I had the time of my life taking care of my customers’ beauty and personal care. I was a young entrepreneur and loved it!
The lessons I learned from my mother and grandmother contributed to my tenacity and drive to succeed, eventually leading me to pursue a career as a civil servant. This would lead to a series of esteemed positions at U.S. government departments, and a rewarding career in government for eighteen years with a sterling track record. In June of 2007, after serving with the Department of Homeland Security as a senior budget analyst, I was offered the position of Chief, Budget Formulation and Implementation, for the Department of Labor (DOL), and I accepted. Little did I know that this decision would alter the course of my life and bring my rewarding and successful career to a screeching halt.
During the second week of my tenure at the DOL, I experienced the first in what would end up being an ongoing series of demoralizing and degrading episodes of workplace discrimination. It all began on Friday evening at the end of my second week of work, when I left the office at 7:45 in the evening. It had been a long and productive day, and I was eager to see my family and join them in our Friday evening preparations for the Sabbath. The following Monday morning, when I arrived at work, I was called into my second-line supervisor’s office. As I sat down, she asked me why I had left work when I did on Friday. I told her that I had finished my work for the day and wanted to get home in time to observe the Sabbath with my family.
“I didn’t know you observed a Sabbath. If I’d known that in our interview, I would have made other arrangements,” she replied.
“The point of the interview was not to discuss my religious beliefs, or any other personal matters, but to discuss my knowledge, skills and ability to get the job done,” I responded.
“So, if I ask you to come in on your Sabbath, are you not coming in?” she said.
In response, I told her that I could not come in on Saturday, during my Sabbath hours; however, I would be happy to come in after my Sabbath, or on Sunday, if necessary. She looked at me with disdain and said, “Your performance will not be satisfactory then,” and dismissed me from her office.
I was stunned and could not believe what I had heard. In the coming weeks, months, and years at the DOL, it became clear that this supervisor, and others, were determined to eliminate me from my position. For the next seven years, I would endure an excruciating battle against the unethical and discriminatory leadership at the DOL, leading to character assassination, the deterioration of my mental, emotional, and physical state—not to mention ruining my stellar career. In the wake of incidents that demonstrated bias against people of color, systemic racism, massive inconsistency, and outright lies, the DOL would ultimately destroy my career and my reputation. What happened to me was wrong, and I refuse to be silenced. I am determined to set the lying records straight, speak truth to power, and confront ignorance with facts in this book.
Each one of us must do our part to fight against racial inequity and discrimination in this country and throughout the world. This is my intention in sharing my story. I hope to motivate, inspire, and give strength to others who have faced discrimination and injustice, and—most importantly—I hope to generate change so that others may avoid the injustices that I have experienced. The fight for justice should never be a spectator’s sport. We should never be afraid to get into “good trouble.” The world needs to know my truth—the naked truth.
Part I – The Destructive Nature of Lies
FEBRUARY 21, 2014, WAS A FRIGID DAY. I sat at my desk in the Francis Perkins Building at the DOL, where I had worked as a budget analyst team Lead, in name only, at the Departmental Budget Center (DBC) for close to five years. Just a month earlier, my family and I had memorialized my mother’s passing and I was still missing my mother dearly and trying to cope with the loss. My mom had been a staunch supporter of my career and a great inspiration to me throughout my life. Her daily call had kept me going, and now the silence of my phone was deafening. I’ve never known silence like this.
Almost four and a half years earlier, I had been reassigned to the DBC from a position in a different department of the DOL, after filing an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint with the department for religious discrimination and retaliation against my supervisors. Geoffrey Kenyon was the DBC Director and my new supervisor. As my supervisor, he was very hands-off, passing my cubicle each morning and evening without saying a word. It took him nine months after I had been reassigned to DBC to even call me into his office for placing me on performance standards. He claimed that he had “forgotten” to do so.
As I understood my role when I took the position, my duties as a Budget Analyst Team Lead with the DBC would include: developing, planning, and implementing program strategies for the Department’s Congressional and Presidential budget justifications; reviewing the DBC’s efficiency procedures and internal controls; leading reviews of the agency’s compliance with federal appropriations laws and agency policies; representing the agency in formal conferences and briefings before the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Congressional staff to justify and defend budget estimates and appropriation requests. They also included addressing budgetary issues as they arise, in conjunction with OMB officials and agency program managers.
I had hoped that my reassignment to the DBC would be a chance to start fresh in a new agency, putting my past struggles and the treatment of my previous supervisors behind me, and beginning a new phase of my career. However, that had not been the case. The retaliation and discrimination I had experienced in my previous position had continued during my tenure at the DBC.
For starters, I was the only black GS-15 budget analyst team lead in the DBC, and the only employee with this title who was not being permitted to perform the duties of a budget analyst. Instead, my duties were purely administrative, limited to developing the agenda for our monthly budget meeting, and booking a conference room for that meeting.
After seeing the writing on the wall, on many occasions, I had requested a transfer to another agency, hoping for an opportunity to employ my knowledge, skills, and abilities in a meaningful way and one that would serve the department with meeting its goals and objectives. However, my requests fell on deaf ears and were always denied. In June 2013, I had filed a second EEO complaint against Mr. Kenyon for retaliation and erosion of duties. On February 14, 2014, I completed the questions for the department’s EEO investigation proceedings in my case.
One week later, as I sat at my desk, a DBC administrative employee came to my cubicle and told me that she had just received a call from Mr. Kenyon. He and HR were waiting to speak with me in the fifth-floor conference room.
“Really?” I asked in surprise. I had no idea why Kenyon would want to meet with me. What was going on?
Since my reassignment to the DBC in November 2009, Kenyon had rarely spoken to me, keeping our interactions to a minimum. He only assigned work to me once each month, and any dialogue between us was predominantly via e-mail. At the end of the performance year, he would develop my performance evaluation without asking me for input and call me into his office to ask me to sign it without discussion. Now, suddenly, he wanted to meet with me in a conference room. And with someone from HR. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but it could not be good.
I BEGAN THE LONG WALK TO THE CONFERENCE ROOM. Kenyon and Mr. Browne, a young HR specialist, were sitting at the large boardroom table. I pulled up a chair and sat down across from Kenyon. He barely looked at me. I noticed his hands were shaking, as though my presence unnerved him. He shuffled a stack of paper in front of him, and his voice quavered like an autumn leaf in the wind as he began to speak. “I am proposing to remove you from your position.” He stated. Kenyon continued with his reasons for the proposed removal: (1) Excessive Use of Government Equipment for Personal, Unofficial Purposes on APUS (American Public University System) website and (2) Improper Use of Official Work Hours for Personal, Unofficial Purposes.”
I was shocked when he listed the reasons. With a puzzled look and furrowed brow, I immediately asked:
“And you are telling me this now?”
As I sat waiting for an answer from Kenyon, Mr. Browne interjected:
“It is just a proposal. It doesn’t mean you are going to be removed. Mr. Hugler is the deciding official. He has the final say. I recommend you get an attorney who can help to develop a response to the proposal by the due date. The response must be sent to me. If you have any other questions, please feel free to contact me.”
I looked at Kenyon with disgust. He nervously handed me a printed copy of the proposal, which was intended to remove me from my twenty-five years of government service, his hands still shaking like Jell-O in an earthquake. I wanted to ask if he needed a doctor. My path at the DOL had been far from smooth, but the extreme disciplinary action that I was now facing seemed to come with little warning and the allegations were completely unfounded.
Kenyon’s scheme to remove me from my government career path did not arise in a vacuum, however. As I have mentioned, there was a history of harbored animus against me among upper-level management in the organization, leading up to this event. This had begun almost six and a half years earlier, and two weeks into my tenure with the DOL because of my need to observe my Sabbath, which I will get to later.
At this February 21st meeting, however, I was particularly surprised that Kenyon would propose removing me considering a meeting we’d had, six months earlier, with DBC Departmental E-Budget System (DEBS) and IT Administrator Andy Rider. In early September 2013, Rider approached me about developing an online course delivery platform for DBC staff, saying that I would be “the champion” for the initiative. I was very interested in the opportunity, and as a follow-up, Kenyon, Rider, and I met to discuss plans for it.
Rider and Kenyon had approached me about developing the online course platform ostensibly because they knew that I had just accepted a position as an adjunct professor at the American Public University System (APUS), a private online learning institution. At our scheduled meeting, they explained that they wanted me to share my APUS experience with them and help them to develop a similar online learning platform for this new training initiative. During our meeting, I spoke in detail about the APUS online course delivery platform, the courses I had taken, and how I might be of help with developing a similar platform for the DBC.
The meeting lasted an hour, and afterwards Kenyon approved the initiative and the work that was to be done. He said the details of building the project were mine to work out, and I began working on it immediately. Now, to my surprise and utter dismay, after working on the initiative for four months, Kenyon was proposing to fire me for doing the work necessary to complete the project he’d approved. He was now accusing me of accessing the APUS site during working hours and teaching from my cubicle located in a busy thruway. Kenyon must have understood that I would need to access the APUS site at work to develop an online learning platform for the DBC, though he had never asked me about the details of the project after our meeting.
During his deposition related to my EEO case against him, on March 19, 2015, Kenyon was questioned about the project. In his 2015 testimony, Kenyon stated under oath that he thought the initiative was “a good idea,” and that he had approved the research required to obtain the result, expecting me to work on the details of the project and prepare to give a presentation. From his 2015 deposition:
My attorney: “Did you ever review any of her assignments related to the project?”
On March 16, 2017, I represented myself as pro se’ during Kenyon’s deposition related to my removal case. I wanted to again confirm with clarity that I had correctly heard and understood Kenyon’s expectations about the project. I asked if he had indicated at the meeting wanting a presentation based on my research. From his 2017 deposition:
Me: “But you were expecting a presentation for the initiative, correct?”
However, once Browne testified at his deposition, it became clear that Kenyon had told him just the opposite, falsely claiming that he had not approved the project. Browne was puzzled because I had indicated that Kenyon had assigned me the task of developing an online learning platform modeled after the APUS platform. After the removal oral reply meeting with Hugler, Browne had called Kenyon and asked if he knew whether I was teaching for APUS and if he had asked me to develop an online learning platform. Kenyon lied and denied everything.
The following conversation ensued at Mr. Browne’s deposition as I represented myself as pro se’ on March 15, 2017:
Me: “You stated in your response that, ‘After the meeting, I called him (Kenyon) and asked him, you know, this came up in the oral reply. What truth is there to that?’ What did you want to know from Mr. Kenyon that was true?”
Browne: “Mr. Kenyon -- pardon me. Dr. Francis had expressed that Mr. Kenyon had known about the APUS instruction while it was going on; and that surprised me, because I had spoken to Mr. Kenyon, and I had not heard that. So, I called him to see if there was any truth to the assertion that he had known all along that Dr. Francis was doing the APUS instruction, and he said that he had not known.”
Kenyon was blatantly lying about what he knew. I had shared with Kenyon and Rider at our meeting what I was preparing to do at APUS, the courses I had taken, and how the experience would help with developing the online training initiative that he thought was a “good idea”, Kenyon lied under oath and said I had “hidden this” from him. Hence, based on his testimony, he had no other option but to propose removing me from government service. Every word of Kenyon’s testimony that day was a lie.
The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) is an independent judicial agency that was established to protect the Merit System Principles while promoting an effective Federal workforce free of Prohibited Personnel Practices. I had filed an appeal with the MSPB based on discrimination, retaliation, and removal from my position.
The proceeding was held on Friday, May 1, 2015. At the MSPB hearing, in response to my second EEOC claim, Kenyon was asked what else he considered in making the decision to fire me. He stated under oath that “there were a lot of things considered.” One of the things he stated he considered in the removal process was my alleged “declining performance.” This allegation has never been substantiated nor has he provided any evidence to support his claims, yet he used it as a means for requesting an audit into my computer usage and to remove me from my position.
I am still waiting with bated breath for Kenyon to provide a single shred of evidence of my “declining performance.” His lies against me continued like reeling snowballs rolling downhill. And the longer he told them, the bigger they got. Apparently, Kenyon was not required to provide any evidence of his claims to the agency or the courts; he simply had to say it was so, and that was enough. I have learned throughout the legal process that if a lie can win, the truth will be denied.
The next lie that came from Kenyon was that I had hidden my work on this project from him and that “pushed” him to propose my removal. As I sat in the hearing and listened to his testimony, I was confused and disturbed by his lies. He knew full well about the project because he had approved it. He also knew that I would need to access the APUS site during work hours to do research for the project. Under the guise of my “poor performance,” he had ordered an audit of my work computer, which meant he could see exactly what I was using my computer for.
Finally, Kenyon continued to perjure himself at the MSPB hearing when he lied and stated the following: “When I sat down with her in April, and her initial performance standards, discussion for the year and in our mid-year, one of the questions I asked her is what else did she want to work on in DBC?”
This conversation simply did not happen. Kenyon’s claim that we met in April for a midyear review was a blatant lie. Moreover, there had been no progressive discipline or supporting evidence to corroborate his allegation. Kenyon has never asked me any questions regarding what I wanted to work on in DBC in April or June 2013. Instead, he dehumanized and devalued me as a black woman for the entire four and a half years that I was assigned at the DBC.
As my grandmother would say, “When you can lock your door from a thief, you can’t lock it from a liar.” What a perfect example in Kenyon of my grandmother’s favorite words.
In pursuit of his proposal to remove me after I had completed and submitted the investigative questions to my formal EEO complaint in mid-February 2014, the following conversation ensued with Mr. Kenyon and my attorney at the MSPB:
My attorney: “So from then, what happened?”
Kenyon: “Well, then I worked with HRC, Patrick Browne, mainly. He took the first shot at looking at what was in the report and how to make that into a proposal for removal. I worked with OCIO on how to take what was in this report and the details behind it. He came up with the first draft and then sent it to me. I made some comments, edits, questions and that went back and forth for a few months, and we finally came to an approach for proposed removal and sat down in late February.”
Kenyon’s proposal to remove me from my position was nothing but an unlawful retaliatory action. He launched his proposal to remove me from government service one week after I had submitted my EEO complaint for investigation against him based on discrimination, retaliation and eroding of my duties as a Budget Analyst Team Lead. This had not been the only adverse personnel action I had experienced in my seven-year tenure with the DOL—those were countless. However, this would prove to be the final act in a series of discriminatory and retaliatory actions targeted against me for speaking truth to power.
Kenyon treated me as though I did not belong in the DBC. In this regard, his actions towards me were speaking louder than words. And to add insult to injury, Kenyon intentionally segregated me, the only black GS-15 Budget Analyst Team Lead, from my white colleagues who were also Budget Analyst Team Leads, like I was leprous. The reason he gave was that my job was “administrative” while my white colleagues’ job was “technical” because they worked on the budget process.
Soon after I filed my EEO complaint regarding his actions in this regard and the erosion of my duties, Kenyon wanted to fire me. I wasn’t sure how he had justified his action, but I eventually learned that soon after the meeting on the DEBS online learning initiative, he lied to his accomplice and said my performance was declining, that he was not getting the work and requested an audit into my computer usage, specifically asking for “education sites.” Apparently, he was sitting in the meeting plotting how he would use my research and research material to remove me from my position. Based on his response regarding the project, he had no interest in the project or what had been done.
Kenyon went further than the act of auditing my computer. During the time he was making his case for auditing my computer, I had taken three weeks of sick leave from my position to stay at the Wildwood Lifestyle Center in Georgia, to reconstitute my mental health and recover from the toxic work environment at the DOL. When I returned to the office, I noticed my computer had been moved. Initially, I thought the cleaning staff had perhaps needed to move my computer’s CPU to clean around my workspace. But I reluctantly abandoned that thought after trying to log on to my computer and finding that I had to change my password. I eventually discovered that not only had Kenyon had my computer audited, but he’d had the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO), as well as himself mapped into my computer. In this way, they were able to see everything that I had done daily. He also had all the documents on my computer copied and placed in an empty Xerox box, and the agency paraded the box on a shopping cart as if it was a trophy, it had just won.
Additionally, I noticed when I logged on to my computer that my profile had been changed, with two small “t’s'' added at the beginning of my username. Kenyon actually called me at my desk one day to ask, “Do you know what those two “ts” mean? I was taken aback. In puzzlement, I replied, “No!” He replied, in a soft, mocking tone, “I will call IT and see what that means.” He then hung up. I sat there, still completely puzzled at what had just transpired. In court depositions, I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Vinh Nguyen, one of the IT personnel asked to audit my computer, about circumstances surrounding the profile change. Mr. Nguyen stated that my profile “was changed at that particular time and it meant that it was done because the account was going to be purged, disabled put on hold or litigation, and that request had to come from a manager.”
It is now clear to me that immediately following our conversation about the DEBS online initiative, Kenyon began plotting a case against me and planning to terminate my employment. Perhaps this was what his deputy meant when I heard him say, “Well, I hope it works,” as I saw Kenyon standing in front of Wichlin’s office door engaging in a cagey conversation with him. This would be forever etched in my memory.
Kenyon used a litany of lies to bolster his fictitious claims. The first lie he told was that I was not doing “the work.” Kenyon would later contradict himself by testifying that there was no work assigned during this time. The second lie he told was that my “performance was declining.” Kenyon would also contradict himself by testifying that there were no performance issues. Finally, Kenyon requested that his friend and accomplice audit my computer in search of “educational websites” because of my alleged “poor performance.” These are the exact sites we had discussed at the meeting.
The conference room meeting with Kenyon and Browne was traumatic, but it was not the worst situation I had faced in my tumultuous life. I knew I had done nothing wrong, and I believed that I would survive. Still, as I returned to my desk, I felt that I was at a crossroads, in jeopardy of unjustly losing the career that I had worked for eighteen years to build. I had consciously worked twice as hard as my counterparts to propel my way up from a GS-5 secretary to a GS-15 Chief for budget formulation and implementation. That had been no small fate. Until now, I had never been disciplined for poor performance, and charges had never been brought against me for misconduct. The destructive lies of my DOL supervisors had caused irreversible damages in almost every aspect of my life.
At this crucial juncture, I found myself with many questions: When had this appalling saga truly begun? Why had it started? “How did it get to this point? How would it end?