Suit: Macomb fired official for questioning time sheets

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Mount Clemens — A Brighton man has filed a federal lawsuit against Macomb County alleging he was fired from his county job after refusing to approve time sheets for employees whose work he was unable to verify.

Ernest Cawvey, former director of Macomb Community Action, alleges he was terminated without explanation in March after he assisted a probe into three employees who were friends of Rhonda M. Powell, the county health and community services director, who oversaw Cawvey.

The lawsuit, assigned to Judge Judith Levy, seeks a jury trial in U.S. District Court for alleged violations of Cawvey’s First Amendment right of free speech and the Michigan Whistleblower Protection Act, which makes it unlawful to retaliate against someone for reporting suspected illegal activity.

“We haven’t been served yet with the complaint so I am unable to discuss it,” John Schapka, Macomb County corporation counsel, said Tuesday.

Schapka confirmed Cawvey was employed in Macomb Community Action, an agency that Powell supervises. Powell did not return a call for comment Tuesday.

Cawvey was out of state Tuesday and unavailable for comment, according to his attorney, Ray Carey, who declined to discuss the complaint.

According to the complaint, Cawvey was hired in September 2017 to head MCA, one of the state’s largest community action agencies, which leverages federal and state resources to address local concerns and reduce poverty.

Cawvey claims that shortly after being hired, he told Powell he “did not deem it appropriate” for him to approve time sheets of three MCA employees — a volunteer coordinator, a public information manager and a secretary — all friends of Powell.

According to the suit, Cawvey explained he could not verify whether they performed the hours claimed on their time sheets and that Powell or some health department director would have “more knowledge whether they actually performed the work to which the time sheets pertained.”

The lawsuit claims the volunteer coordinator was not in the office during regular business hours but off attending college classes with Powell’s permission, first for a bachelor's degree and later for a graduate degree.

The public information officer was primarily employed with the Macomb County Health Department, another area outside Cawvey's purview, according to the complaint. The suit makes no specific mention of the secretary’s duties.

All three jobs were funded by state, federal and philanthropic grants and Cawvey was accountable for whether MCA funds were expended appropriately, the suit says.

Powell instructed Cawvey to approve the time sheets anyway, even if he could not verify the performance of duties, the complaint alleges.

Between mid 2018 and February 2019, the MCA finance director raised questions  about the accuracy of the time sheets, according to the lawsuit, and initiated an investigation to determine whether the employees had actually performed the work described.

According to the suit, Cawvey notified Powell of the investigation and she directed him to inform the finance director to “terminate the investigation ostensibly because that official lacked authority to question or conduct an investigation” of matters approved by Cawvey.

Cawvey says he declined Powell’s request and later participated in the time sheet investigation, including submitted to an interview.

In February 2019, according to the lawsuit, one of the three employees wrote to Cawvey with a complaint that the finance director’s investigation had created a “toxic work environment.”

The lawsuit alleges Powell “conspired” with the unnamed employee to write the letter as “a means to disrupt and thwart the county investigation.” Cawvey referred the letter to the county human resources department and asked advice on how to proceed.

The suit says that between February and March 2019, the finance director was accused of having made racially insensitive remarks at a work-related event one year before Cawvey contacted human resources. The remark pertained to a haircut or hairstyle worn by one of the three employees, an African-American who “was a friend of Powell,” according to the complaint.

A human resources representative investigated the complaint and in March 2019 recommended to Cawvey that he discipline the finance director, according to the lawsuit. The complaint says Cawvey asked the human resources official about the status of the time sheet investigation.

The human resources representative subsequently informed Powell of Cawvey’s questions and on March 18, Cawvey said he was called to a meeting with Powell and the human resources person and “abruptly terminated” without explanation other than he was an “at-will” county employee.

Cawvey's complaint seeks back pay and benefits, plus compensatory damages for mental and emotional distress.

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