Rhonda Powell on her whistleblower lawsuits against Macomb County officials after she was dismissed as director of Health and Community Services. Daniel Mears, The Detroit News


Detroit — A former Macomb County director of health and community services filed a whistleblower suit Tuesday against County Executive Mark Hackel and his assistant, John Paul Rea, asserting she was fired for complaining about racial discrimination affecting county employees.

Rhonda Powell, a native of Mount Clemens, said the firing Sept. 5 left her child without health insurance and caused her emotional distress.

Powell and her lawyer, Nabih Ayad, said that despite public campaigns to encourage diversity, the county remains a racially polarized bastion where black employees are targets of intolerance and prejudice.

“The past month has been quite a personal roller coaster, for me,” said Powell, who officials said was the highest-ranking African-American employee in the history of the county.

“My track record of leadership, inclusion and advocacy has been highly celebrated by the community and the county executive as recently as this year."

Speaking of her firing, Powell said: “So what I understood that to mean is my attempts to hold county administrators accountable for protecting the rights of staff who are being attacked and harassed on a monthly basis with racial intimidation was not going to be allowed.”

Powell and Ayad said several county employees have filed complaints, which are under review by the county in its personnel processes.

Hackel’s office referred questions to county's corporation counsel, John Schapka.

 “Ms. Powell’s termination had nothing to do with race or being a whistleblower,” said Schapka.

“It was a direct result of a series of serious administrative failures which resulted in a loss of trust and confidence in her ability to responsibly supervise the County’s Health and Community Services Division.

“Some examples include: multiple violations of the county’s ordinances/policies and state law; inappropriate use of county facilities, misappropriation of county funds, compromising the security of county facilities.”

 Ayad said her suit and her termination had nothing to do with assertions made in a separate whistleblower suit filed against Powell in August.

In an interview, Schapka agreed.

Powell said she was fired shortly after she brought the concerns about the alleged discrimination and harassment of county officials employees to Rea and Hackel, then notified a state agency.

“As soon as I reached out to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, I was terminated by the deputy county executive,” Powell said.

Powell and Ayad said she was offered a severance package, which they believe was a payment in return for her willingness to remain silent.

Powell declined the offer, she said.

“It is my belief, however, that real leaders protect the vulnerable,” she said. “And not prey on them.”

In an interview, Schapka said Powell never brought her concerns to county officials and that they did not know that she had approached the Michigan Civil Rights Commission.

“To be retaliated against for blowing the whistle, the retaliator has to know that you blew the whistle,” Schapka said.

“The retaliating party has to know of your report, and I’ll guarantee: Nobody in this government knew anything of her talking to anyone at the state,” he said.

“So if that’s the basis of her claim, I’m afraid that’s a very unsuccessful claim.”

Civil rights leaders and member of the clergy appeared at a news conference in the Penobscot Building to support Powell’s complaint and demand for a jury trial in the Macomb County Civil Division. Among them was Ruthie Stevenson, past president of the Macomb County NAACP.

“As we stand here today, my heart grieves,” Stevenson said. “Because we’ve marched, we’ve walked, we’ve been in meetings with the county to address these issues for at least 20 years.”

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