Six Transportation Cabinet highway workers disciplined for abusive behavior in Lee County

bestep@herald-leader.comMarch 4, 2014 

Six state Transportation Cabinet employees received disciplinary notices after an investigation found abusive behavior at the Lee County highway garage, including crew members repeatedly being hit in the testicles.

A supervisor, Kevin McIntosh, received a notice that he would be suspended without pay for five days, demoted and transferred to another garage, according to records released to the Herald-Leader.

Another manager received a five-day suspension after cabinet officials decided that he hadn't properly acted to stop the behavior, and four workers received five-day or 10-day suspensions.

The incidents came to light last September, when James Best, an equipment operator, complained to a cabinet officer that McIntosh and others had hit him.

Best said that in one case in May 2013, McIntosh and other workers spun him on a merry-go-round at a park, and then McIntosh hit him hard in the groin, causing him to fall to the ground, shaking in pain, as he nearly threw up, according to the report of an internal investigation.

Best said that in another instance, a co-worker picked him up and squeezed him so hard that one of his ribs cracked, and that on another occasion, another man hit him in the face with a traffic cone, causing swelling and bruising.

Other witnesses told cabinet investigators it was routine for people on the crew to hit each other in the testicles or throw rocks at each other, raising welts at times.

Josh Warner told investigators he often had been wrestled to the ground by other employees and hit in the groin dozens of times in three years, most often by McIntosh.

At a hearing in November, McIntosh disputed the severity of the allegations against him.

McIntosh acknowledged that he and others had taken part in horseplay and that he shouldn't have let such behavior go on. But he said he thought that crew members, including Best and Warner, took part willingly, and that no one had asked him to stop the behavior.

"I thought we was just one big family," McIntosh said. Crew members hunted and fished together, and he attended church with Warner, he said at the time.

McIntosh said he had been hit just like everyone else on his crew.

McIntosh also argued that the allegations against him were exaggerated. He said that Best climbed on the merry-go-round willingly and that Best didn't fall on the ground in pain after McIntosh hit him by accident.

McIntosh said he had started work for the Highway Department soon after finishing high school in 1996. He said he had been a good employee, never missing a call-out to deal with blocked roads, snow removal and other emergencies.

"I've given half my life to the state," McIntosh told a panel of cabinet officials. "I feel like I deserve a second chance. Road work's all I know."

Tresa Straw, identified as an appointing authority at the cabinet, told McIntosh that she had planned to fire him for failing to maintain a safe workplace and other violations, but she decided on a lesser punishment after the hearing.

Straw notified McIntosh in December that he would be suspended, transferred from Lee County to Owsley County, and demoted, with a cut in pay from $18.94 an hour to $17.21.

McIntosh has asked the state Personnel Board to overturn Straw's decision, reinstate him to his old job and pay, and wipe his record clean.

He said in an appeal form that he thought his punishment was too harsh.

McIntosh also said he knew of "stuff a lot worse" that has gone on among Highway Department employees, including theft, people claiming time they didn't work, and truck drivers with drunken-driving convictions.

The Personnel Board has scheduled a hearing on his appeal in August.

Mark A. Sipek, executive director of the board, said the other five Highway Department employees sanctioned in the case have not filed appeals.

Those employees were Warner, who in addition to getting hit had hit other people and helped spin Best on the merry-go-round; supervisor Aaron Gay; Brandon Marshall, who spun Best on the merry-go-round; Kenneth R. Morris, who squeezed Best's ribs and took part in rock-throwing and other incidents, according to state records; and Chester D. Deaton, who records say admitted kicking Marshall in the thumb and taking part in other improper behavior.

Straw suspended Warner, Marshall and Gay five days and suspended Morris and Deaton for 10 days.

Straw deferred the suspensions until later this month or in April for different employees because of the need to maintain full staffing during snowy weather.

The allegations of abuse at the Lee County garage also are at issue in a federal lawsuit.

Attorneys for Best filed a lawsuit Feb. 13 against McIntosh, Morris, Deaton and Elizabeth Miller, a cabinet official, arguing that Best had been subjected to a "bizarre series of physical and sexual attacks" and had been denied a transfer.

Attorneys added Warner to the lawsuit March 1.

The complaint seeks an unspecified amount of damages and attorney fees.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.

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