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Hickenlooper’s Burden: The Mess at the Colorado Department of Human Services

August 11, 2015
2013 - 12 - 12 Colorado State Veterans Home 2

Colorado State Veterans Home At Fitzsimons, a part of the Dept. of Human Services Dept. plagues with problems, crises

As fast as it appeared on the media horizon, it disappeared. Here one day, virtually gone the next.

A major scandal involving mismanagement, abuse and intimidation at the highest levels of the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) – and throughout the department – has come and gone from the news. CDHS is a state agency with a budget (if I could get the figures correctly) of more than $22 billion; it has responsibility over everything from the mentally ill, to prisons, to foster care and veterans nursing homes. The scandal, described below, resulted in what amounts to an administrative shake up, but little more.

In order to stem the tide of criticism and avoid a more serious investigation, high level administrator, Vicki Manley, CDHS’s Director of Long Term Care Services, was let go (given the choice between quitting and being fired), but the Human Services executive director, Reggie Bicha, ultimately responsible for the mess in the system remains on the job, tenaciously defended by Colorado’s Governor John Hickenlooper. Beyond the firing of Manley, the department’s accumulated grievances have not been addressed. An administrator is let go, but other than that, the CDHS hasn’t changed a bit, an eerie foreboding of more to come. But through what amounts to clever political maneuvering,  the governor has put out a fire that could threaten his legacy and undermine his national political aspirations.

The mess continues

A torrent of harsh criticism

Vicki Manley noted in a July 21, 2015 local CBS-tv story  that she was given the choice between resigning or being canned, and so she chose the former, but there was more than a note of bitterness in the interview. “I didn’t know I was going to be doing that (seeking other opportunities) until a half hour after I was told,” Manley told CBS4. If the comments in response to that story are any indication, few tears were shed by Manley’s subordinates concerning her departure. The comments were, to a person, unusually harsh; they pulled no punches. Among them was Griffis, a resident of the Colorado State Veterans Home in Aurora, one of the facilities under Ms. Manley’s direct supervision, whom Manley tried to expel y (but failed). Griffis had the temerity to raise questions about how the facility was (mis)-managed and tried to attend the different public meetings involved. The others are mostly her colleagues and employees.  It is uncommon for employees to publicly chastise a former supervisor in this manner, but chastise her they did.  One has to wonder if Manley will take any of the criticisms seriously, learn from them or if she will, to the contrary, refuse to acknowledge her responsibility.

Here are just a few samples of the responses to the CBS – tv story; they are taken directly from the website.:

  • Don Griffis, retired professor of music at Metro State University, wrote an extensive criticism of both Manley and personally trained thane and enforcer, Debbie Blanc: “As a five-year resident of Fitzsimons [Colorado State Veterans Home in Aurora], I have witnessed and been the subject of Ms. Manley’s domineering attitude and actions toward our geriatric veterans and our staff. Her “resignation” was a welcomed surprise. Her failure to hire and/or maintain qualified administrators was obvious by the number of abrupt resignations here and at the Division of VA Homes office (no Director for fifteen months) and now the Administrator at Rifle. She and her roving handmaiden(?) “Debbie” rained (reigned?) havoc on us for months while unsuccessfully attempting to find a durable Administrator following the sudden but unopposed resignation of Brad Honl. She even enveigled an Acting Administrator (who lasted two weeks) to sign a letter of eviction to me based on totally spurious grounds, which was summarily overturned by the State Board of Complaints. She’s gone now.”

At the end of his comment Griffis asked the question many within the state system are posing: “Who will follow her in CCAI, the Division Directer job, the Rifle administrator and the Fitzsimons one? Let the interviews begin, but by whom and when?”

  • Diane, writing on the CBS – Denver website, added to Manley’s profile: “She was a bully and worse, she was an aggressive bully. Each day she came in looking for something to jump on. She spent part of each Friday recording incidents from the week that she thought she might be able to use against some person in the future. She was a protege of the notorious “Enforcer” Jenise and learned from her plus added some of her own wrinkles. The office is a calmer place now.”
  • Elsie added her opinion: “She had it coming. She was worthless as a manager except at the game of organizational politics. She isn’t alone as many State managers have as a first question “who can we make responsible for this” rather than “how do we improve performance on this issue?” She is/was a barracuda; let’s see how she performs in the private sector.”

She is/was a barracuda; let’s see how she performs in the private sector.

She was a bully and a tyrant. She was the “Devil who wore Prada.” She didn’t care too much about the services she oversaw, she just wanted the title, money, and authority. She did unto others and she now has it done to her

A more recent comment sums up what amounts to system-wide employee sentiment on Manley’s administrative demise: “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”

  • “She was a bully and a tyrant. She was the “Devil who wore Prada.” She didn’t care too much about the services she oversaw, she just wanted the title, money, and authority. She did unto others and she now has it done to her” wrote Eleanor.
  • “Sacrificial lamb?!? Her forced resignation was a long time coming. She ordered me to misreport clinical data to the executive team. She bullied, spied on, shamed, and blamed her subordinates. CDHS is better off without her” Rebecca added.
  • “Agreed!! I have many words to describe her, but the two that stand out are egregious and despicable. Rebecca is right – she bullied continually every day. You always knew the hammer was coming down, you just didn’t know for what . . . and EVERYONE noticed it. She was the most unethical person I ever worked for and her behavior was promoted, condoned, supported, protected, and rewarded. (my emphasis). That’s the disgusting thing!! I often question why we were paying someone so much money who had the time to pick on everyone. She was mean, vindictive, and mean-spirited and her side kick Debbie [Blanc] was no better!! They were two of a kind. I’m glad she is gone. Hopefully Debbie is next on the chopping block. I am relieved that there will be no more suffering under her ridiculous “so-called leadership”!!!” another added.
  • A more recent comment sums up what amounts to system-wide employee sentiment on Manley’s administrative demise: “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”

Manley is fired; Reggie Bicha hangs on for dear life; Governor Hickenlooper Panics

In her work, Manley oversaw five divisions at CDHS, a position with considerable responsibility, a huge budget and  a great deal of personal power. Among those institutions which Manley supervised were the Mental Health Institute at Pueblo (better known as the state mental hospital) as well as the state-run system of veterans nursing homes. In announcing Ms. Manley’s demise in a short, curt email to CDHS staff, on July 15 (2015),Reggie Bicha, the CDHS executive director, stated she had “tended her resignation in order to pursue other opportunities.”

The crisis that led to Vicki Manley’s demise has been a long time in coming.

Although when it finally did break openly in the Colorado media centering around mismanagement and patient abuse at the Mental Health Institute of Pueblo, it was already far more extensive than that one facility and had become system-wide. The mismanagement of funds, administrative abuses of employees, systematic efforts to deny employees overtime, incidents of racial discrimination and intimidation, and attempts to undercut, if not gut, the influence of the state employees union, Colorado WINS, the contrived framing and firing of employees protesting increasingly undignified and downright oppressive working conditions had been going on for some time with very-little-to-no attention from either the media or the legislature.

For several years, the many attempts by Human Services employees, staff and relatives of residents, to alert both the governor, John Hickenlooper and numerous state legislators, met with what amounts to a wall of silence. There were not investigations, no media reports. True enough, the crisis in the state’s CDHS began long before John Hickenlooper took office. At its heart, and rarely mentioned is the state’s attempt to squeeze as much out of Human Services employees for as little as possible, ie, to cut costs at the expense of service and to intimidate and silence protest and grievances from within. All this was going on before Reggie Bicha came on the scene, but his appointment  as executive director of the agency did not help. Bicha has proven to be among the state’s more incompetent managers, an incompetence which gave his immediate subordinates, like Manley, an inordinate amount of personal power. The sense came through – and still does – that Bicha rarely knew what was going in CDHS’s subdivisions and being more concerned with “the bottom line” and his own image, even when he did, didn’t lift a finger to address the  growing crisis.

If Manley deserved to be removed, so did her supervisor, Bicha. But for the governor to remove Bicha would have opened up a can of worms that Hickenlooper very much hoped to avoid. Bicha’s performance or lack thereof – reflects directly on Hickenlooper whose current priorities are far beyond the state lines. For some time now he has been busy lobbying on his own behalf nation-wide to become a vice presidential hopeful should Hillary Clinton win the Democratic Party nomination; This initiative is likely greased by what are essentially local political power brokers who have close ties to the Clintons. Taking pride at having been governor of Colorado during a successful economic run, which frankly, like most governors, he had little or nothing to do with – one fueled by the state’s exploding energy sector (based in large measure on fracking) and the new laws making medical and recreational marijuana legal – Hickenlooper would like to ride the state’s success to national prominence (as he will might).

But such a path would have been a little dicey for the former bar owner turned politician. For “Hick” as he is called, had hired Bicha and firing his appointee for which so much publicity had been given as an administrative knight in shining armor, would have reflected badly on the governor. It would have tarnished the governor’s reputation not long after the New Yorker had written what amounts to an endorsement of Hickenlooper as a strong candidate for the vice presidency, given his record as a moderate Democratic governor. The argument has been made – and it holds weight – that Bicha was spared  because his firing would have reflected poorly on Hick’s vice presidential aspirations. Evidently Bicha fought to retain his long-time assistant Nikki Hatch who also avoided the axe.

The last thing that the governor needs is a major  scandal to tarnish his image and reputation of  the type that exploded in his face with the mishandling of  CDHS. Thus, despite what amounts to as a flood of warning signs, he carefully avoided the issue as long as possible. Frankly, had Hickenlooper done the ethical and eminently reasonable thing, he would have fired Bicha and sent him packing back to Scott Walker’s Wisconsin from whence he came along with Bicha’s personal assistant, Nikki Hatch.

Next in line was Vicky Manley whose ties to both the governor and the Wisconsin team of Bicha and Hatch were more tangential. Manley is a Colorado native, a local girl who had worked her way through the ranks of the Human Services Division and had replaced her immediate supervisor after the latter resigned in disgrace. There is more than a grain of truth in Manley’s suggestion that she took the fall for the mismanagement and abuses for which Bicha ultimately bore responsibility. Still, Manley’s attempt to play the victim as she shed her crocodile tears over her dismissal, has a ring of insincerity about it. Her “management style” bears no small amount of responsibility for the scandals under her direct supervision.

But the politics of the situation, and ultimately, the governor’s concern for his own image saved these two from the administrative guillotine. And it worked like a charm! Manley leaves and the CDHS scandal disappears from the media. Through Manley’s demise, Hick can claim to have dealt with the crisis and can get back to what he really excels at, self-promotion, getting on with his quest for a vice presidential nomination with this potential firestorm out of the way.

Strange, or perhaps not so strange, role of the media

Meanwhile, the media, which had been contacted for months concerning alleged abuses in Pueblo, Denver and elsewhere within the Human Services division, did nothing until it was too embarrassing for them not to. They could not claim ignorance having been repeatedly contacts beforehand. Then after the crisis broke, they could have pursued the issue beyond the Manley firing, to raise questions about Bicha and Hatch (and of course the governor himself). They did in a muted fashion cover the scandals at the Pueblo mental hospital. The grievances were so widespread that they had little choice although the crisis in the rest of the system was left untouched. But even so, the coverage of the Manley exit was scant, a few news items deep in the Denver Post, followed by silence.

For the most part, Hickenlooper and even Bicha escaped unscathed. Hickenlooper can now claim he has dealt with the issue; Bicha speaks about addressing problems of communication with legislature, while essentially denying that the issues raised, for which is responsible, have validity. And for the most part, the media plays along.

It seems that the whole thing would have hardly garnered any public notice at all if not for the fact that 87 of the state’s legislators from both parties wrote a letter to the governor calling the crisis to his attention. Apparently a number of the key players, who showed some genuine spine, some real courage in this affair include Pat Steadman of Denver, Diane Primaverra from Broomfield, Linda Newell of Littleton and Dave Young from Greeley, and Jonathan Singer of Longmont. Morgan Carroll was active as well. Written on May 4, support from legislators was collected and the letter was handed over to the governor’s office a week later. Hoping to tough it out, Hickenlooper failed to respond to a request for an emergency meeting. It appears that as a result the letter was leaked to Denver Post, which (finally) soon thereafter published several major stories on the scandal. The letters publication blew open the whole crisis.

Hickenlooper, now caught in the crossfire, was nothing less than infuriated. So goes Bicha, so goes the guv; he and his staff moved quickly to dose the flames of publicity. The longer the issue remained in the news, the more the stench of what has been Human Services record would be under scrutiny. The governor knew he had to act quickly and he did. After publicly and privately criticizing the legislators for forcing his hand, and suggesting that the whole thing could have been better handled privately, and advised by his usual cronies, he swung into action.

Rather than investigate the charges he worked to shut down the issue as quickly as possible. He began by issuing a written rebuttal defending the indefensible – Bicha’s record – and countering every point in the letter. He also engaged in a public relations counter offensive pressuring legislators who signed on to the letter to disassociate themselves from it. It is not so easy for a legislator to stand up to a sitting governor and those mentioned above deserve to be acknowledged for their courage, principle. On the other hand, in response to the governor’s wrath, many caved, among them State Representative, Dan Pabon, who commented that he “had made a mistake in signing on to the letter” and that in Bicha’s case, “he hadn’t seen any type of behavior that he is not qualified to continue serving.

But his hand forced, Hickenlooper had to give the appearance of addressing the crisis, ie someone other than Bicha had to go and go quickly and the axe fell on Ms. Manley. That  worked. The subject disappeared from the media as quickly as it had erupted, once Manley had exited from the scene…although the plethora of structural problems, abuses plaguing the Human Services Administration, Reggie Bicha’s promises to be “more communicative” aside (as if that was the problem!) have hardly been dealt with if at all. But what lurks under the surface at Human Services is much more than “a problem of communication.” And what is curious about this whole episode is the infinitesimal degree to which the actual issues at hand, some of which are outlined in the famous letter, were dealt with.

So what did this letter  say that finally forced Hick to move?

In the letter, the legislators called on Hickenlooper  to “replace or correct” the highest levels of leadership at the Colorado Department of Human Services; it detailed some of the multiple problems lawmakers attributed to mismanagement. Interestingly enough, it was not the first letter that the governor had received On April 30 he had received another one from the state’s network of mental health clinics complaining about unresponsiveness and a lack of transparency from Bicha’s office.

The Letter: 

Noting this pattern of the unresponsiveness of the Governor’s office to respond to repeated complaints within the Human Services system, the letter cited

  • physical abuse, verbal abuse and unwanted sexual contact of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities at the Pueblo regional center (the mental hospital)
  • a staff member beaten at the Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center
  • recurrent issues with over-prescribing or inappropriately prescribing psychotropic drugs to youth offenders and youth in foster care
  • lack of monitoring of county-delivered human services encroaching on the safety of children citing that “Denver human services child deaths or unsafe placements kept occurring with no consequences;

During that brief moment when the scandal was public news, reports surfaced of the deaths of children under CDHS supervision; it turns out that this is not a new problem, far from it, a result of overworked social work staff and poor supervision and monitoring.

There is more. Much more.

This is just scratching the surface as the deteriorating situation in other facilities within the Human Services network was not even mentioned.  The letter itself spoke communications from CDHS employees who spoke of “a pervasive hostile work environment, being driven-from-the-top culture of fear, retaliation, secrecy and self-protectionism.” “Also mentioned, they speak of a hostile environment, of being threatened with their job if they were to speak to anyone about the issues within the department.” It is unclear, that other than firing Ms. Manley, that anything has been either investigated or done to address these grievances.

One of these places, where employees and residents repeatedly sought an outlet for their grievances with both the legislature, the Governor’s office and the media, was the Colorado State Veterans Home in Aurora. Other abuses that could have cited in the legislator’s letter and should have been investigated by either Human Services and the Governor’s office (in which Ms. Manley was implicated) include:

  • creating a hostile work environment for employees throughout the system
  • denying employees legitimate overtime
  • targeting and purging employees who challenged poor and unfair management practices;
  • pressing middle management types to lie – to fabricate charges against employees, especially those who worked for the state recognized union, Colorado WINS or who otherwise tried to help fellow employees with work-place related grievances and problems.
  • the hiring on the part of Ms. Manley of unqualified personnel with full executive powers over the facility who were then given extensive powers in violation of state policies (and probably federal law); in what amounts to unbridled nepotism, these in turn hired family members for employment within the state system.
  • violating the employee management agreements  and  procedures on co-management
  • conspiring with “Fitz” residents to discredit and expel residents who questioned some of these practices (the case of Don Griffis)

In what was among the most egregious cases, an employee at the Colorado State Veterans Home at Aurora, Robert Davis, a well-respected specialist in Alzheimer cases was fired after warning a supervisor that employee morale at the facility had sunk to a new low. In a case that suggests complicity between Manley’s personal assistant and the temporary director of the facility, the Aurora Police Dept and State Attorney General’s Office, Davis was not only fired but a restraining order preventing him from stepping foot for two years on the Aurora facility was issued. The restraining order should be annulled; Davis should be given his job back with back pay and damages..and the persons within the administration who set up this bogus case against him should be held accountable, morally, legally.

_______________________

Afterword (July 13, 2017). 

I am writing now as this piece, now several years old, continues to be read rather often. The crisis – only the tip of which – is described above, got played out. Two of the main culprits in making things worse, Human Services Administration Vicky Manley and her attack dog, disgraced former Denver Police employee, Debbie Blanc, were fired. Well Manley was fired and Blanc’s position was terminated and she was stripped of the administrative power that Manley had given her.

So that dark chapter is over. But the crisis remains. There has been change – ie, the worst at the top of the barrel, or most of them, are gone, but the status quo remains. In fact, once again, the changes at Human Services are little more than “those changes necessary to retain the status quo.” It remains the poorly run, economically chintzy place it was when Manley and Blanc were wreaking their team havoc there.

John Hickenlooper survived what was arguably one of the biggest scandals in his administration essentially unscathed, as did, somewhat miraculously, Reggie Bicha who, a bit more “scathed” than the governor, will soon be on his way out the door to oversee administrative disasters in other states.  The heart of the scandal – even bigger than what was transpiring at Fitz, took place in Pueblo. It continues.

Colorado’s Division of Human Services remains plagued with a mountain of problems – poor management at pretty much all levels, employee turn over, the fundamental cause of which is low salaries and arbitrary, constantly shifting working conditions, and a highly unstable workforce with chronic levels of turn over. Some of these problems could be addressed by a more generous state legislature, but this, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats are in control, is unlikely. The state employees union, Colorado WINS, whose response to the crisis was, and remains, for the most part ineffective and uninspiring, is weaker today than it was five years ago.

So it goes.

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