Jury awards worker $500K

Whistleblower reported problems at Johnson Youth Center in '90s

Posted: Tuesday, February 15, 2005

A Juneau jury awarded a whistle-blowing former state employee almost $500,000 last week for his dismissal, according to his attorney.

Robert Bacolas, the former Alaska Department of Health and Social Services worker, claimed the state breached his contract, violated the Alaska Whistle-Blower Act and violated his right to free speech by removing him from his job after he called for an investigation into alleged physical and emotional abuse at Johnson Youth Center in 1997. The Juneau center is a juvenile detention facility run by the state.

The jury sided with his client on every point in the verdict, said Bacolas' attorney, Donald E. Clocksin of Olympia, Wash.

Bacolas said Friday it was never about the money or even about him - it was for the kids.

That path cost him his career, he said by telephone from his current home in Medford, Ore.

"This is one sneaky, slimy layoff they didn't get away with," he said.

Alaska state government doesn't fire people, he said. It finds budgetary reasons to lay people off.

Johnson Youth Center Executive Director Greg Roth would not comment on the case on Monday and referred questions to Janet Clarke, the DHSS financial and management services director, who was named as a co-defendant in the case. Clarke would not comment and referred questions to the Alaska Department of Law.

That agency's spokesman, Mark Morones, said he could not comment on the allegations or whether the state will appeal.

"The state will have to take a look at it before making a decision of any possible future action in the case," he said.

The investigative reports from Alaska Child Protective Services that Bacolas generated remain sealed, although the jury got to read them. He said he can only speak in general terms about his allegations.

If he hadn't spoken up, the reports would have been ignored in state government, Bacolas said. "There was a cover-up." He said state officials removed the investigative files from his office.

CPS investigators found "substantial severe child abuse at Johnson Youth Center," he said.

"I objected internally at first," he said. Later he told an administrator the problems rose to a level of public concern.

He found that nearly 100 CPS cases in the Barrow area were not being investigated and the files were closed, he said. "I went up to Nome and fired every (CPS) person there."

The jury determined that Clarke, the department's financial and management services director, who was named as a co-defendant, wrongfully interfered with a letter of understanding between Bacolas and the state. The letter addressed his continued employment with the state.

Bacolas said he saw the problems throughout the state. At one location, there was a case of a social worker taking children into protective custody. The social worker was arrested on a drunken-driving charge after getting the kids to the police station.

"Nobody was doing anything about it," he said.

In 2001, after causing problems in the department by threatening to go public, Bacolas said, he agreed to take another state job in Juneau. He called that job the governmental equivalent of Siberia. He was working as manager of human resources development for two years when his job was eliminated from Gov. Frank Murkowski's budget.

His wife was 812 months into a difficult pregnancy, he said.

"I was continuing to cooperate with the Legislature," he said.

One of the people who testified in support of Bacolas at the trial was state Sen. Fred Dyson. He said Friday from his home in Eagle River that he couldn't freely discuss the lawsuit but that it addressed some "significant public policy issues."

The jury assigned values to specific findings. There was $167,019 for past and future lost wages and benefits and $100,000 for past and future emotional distress. Jurors placed loss of Alaska Permanent Fund distributions for Bacolas, who is married with two children, at $84,500.

Considering some of the redundancies in the jury's verdict, Clocksin proposed to the court Friday that the award total $492,871, plus legal fees. Juneau Superior Court Judge Larry Weeks has yet to interpret the jury's award and enter a final judgment.

Even with that sort of judgment, "I lost money on the deal," Bacolas said. He said he would have done much better financially to stay in state government and retire.

Also, Juneau was his home, and he had to leave, knowing he wouldn't be able to find another job in government, he said. "Both of my children were born there."

He has what he called a good job today. He works in human resources for what he described as a Fortune 50 company, but declined to name the business.

"I lost my career," Bacolas said. Considering the horrible things he saw being ignored, he added, "I'd do it all over again."

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.



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