A state board Monday dismissed a wrongful termination complaint brought by the former head of procurement services at the Arizona Department of Administration, who alleged he was forced out for pointing out age discrimination and corrupt state procurement practices.
Ashoke Seth, who resigned in February, filed a wrongful termination complaint with the Personnel Board in March saying he was forced out after asking questions about what he claimed were inappropriate state contracts awarded at the behest of Kevin Donnellan, a deputy director at the agency who has close ties to Gov. Doug Ducey.
Donnellan, who also serves as a policy adviser to Ducey, worked for Ducey while he ran Cold Stone Creamery, worked on his 2010 campaign for state treasurer, and worked for him at the Treasurer’s Office before moving to ADOA after Ducey became governor.
In an amended complaint filed later, Seth also alleged he was forced out in retaliation for a letter he sent to the agency’s leadership alleging age discrimination.
Three members of the Personnel Board unanimously voted to dismiss Seth’s complaint Monday after the ousted state employee made his case in a hearing stretched over three days this fall. A fourth member of the board — Chad Kirkpatrick — recused himself from the vote, saying he had a conflict of interest, but did not specify the conflict.
Throughout the whistleblower process, Seth was pushing to regain his state job, which now seems to be out of the question. Seth did not appear at the board hearing and did not return a call seeking comment.
The Personnel Board’s decision comes after a hearing officer for the board, who was present throughout Seth’s multi-day hearing, issued a 16-page recommendation last month urging the board to dismiss Seth’s complaint.
Hearing officer Prudence Lee wrote in her recommendation to board that Seth was not retaliated upon for filing an August 2017 memo with ADOA alleging discrimination and a hostile work environment.
The recommendation from Lee said Seth was dismissed in Feb. 2018, not as retaliation for his memo seven months earlier, but because of a review of the Procurement Office and Seth’s lack of response to recommendations for improvement.
In quickly summing up the report at the Monday hearing, attorney John Fry from the Attorney General’s office — the Attorney General’s office represented the state in the case — said Lee heard testimony from 13 witnesses during the hearing and reviewed dozens of exhibits before coming to any conclusions. But her conclusion is clear, Fry said.
“Chief Operating Officer [Gilbert] Davidson’s decision to allow Mr. Seth to resign in February of 2018 was based on legitimate, non-retaliatory business reasons entirely unrelated to the unfounded allegations of age discrimination,” he said.
In her report, Lee wrote ADOA hired a private law firm – Jackson White – to investigate Seth’s allegations of age discrimination after he filed the 2017 memo. Investigators from the firm reported that after interviewing seven employees and reviewing numerous documents they did not find evidence of unlawful discrimination or harassment.
The law firm also reported Seth and Donnellan’s disagreements did not stem from Seth’s age but rather, “differences of opinion and business judgement.” Seth had accused Donnellan of “mismanagement, abuse of authority, a gross waste of monies and a violation of laws” on top of allegations of age discrimination.
The report went on to say that during the Personnel Board hearing, the former ADOA General Counsel also gave credible testimony that Seth was dismissed in Feb. 2018 for reasons related to his work performance. The report cites a February 2018 note that Gilbert Davidson, Ducey’s chief of operations and Interim ADOA Director, sent to a human resources administrator within the department listing the reasons he planned to immediately remove Seth from his position.
The note lists previous audits of the Procurement Office by the Auditor General highlighting procedural and operational deficiencies within the department. It also lists that some state entities serviced by the Procurement Office raised concerns about management of the office.
Because much of the hearing officer’s recommendation delved into Seth’s job performance and claims of harassment and age discrimination, her recommendation to the Personnel Board did not go into depth on allegations Seth made that he was forced out because he highlighted “corrupt” spending practices that misused taxpayer dollars.
Seth previously alleged the Procurement Office unnecessarily settled some contract disputes at a cost to taxpayers and overpaid on other contracts, pointing to the state’s contract with Amazon Web Services, among others.
Seth alleged the Procurement Office was paying more than necessary in contracts or contract disputes at the behest of Donnellan so the Governor’s Office could maintain strong relationships with those companies.
The Personnel Board spent less than five minutes on Seth’s case Monday. Members of the board did not rehash details of Seth’s case and quickly voted on the matter.