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Friday, August 14, 2020

Ethics adviser steps down after ethics violation

By Zoe Deal

A Western employee has been fined after a Washington State Executive Ethics Board investigation found she used her position to secure special privileges in the hiring of an employee, according to the stipulation.

The hiring process in question began in late December 2017, when Assistant Vice President for Human Resources. and former Western Ethics Adviser Chyerl Wolfe-Lee became invested in hiring the replacement for the position of wellness director. The stipulation stated that Wolfe-Lee pushed to hire the sister of the departing employee to expedite the process.  

The Ethics Board fined Wolfe-Lee $250 on Sept. 14 after finding she had violated the Ethics in Public Service Act. Western’s Office of Internal Audit completed an investigation on April 3 and provided their findings to the board.

When President Sabah Randhawa sought to remove Wolfe-Lee from the role of Ethics Adviser in May, Wolfe-Lee requested to be removed permanently, according to the stipulation.

The Board stated in the stipulation that it is a mitigating factor that the violation by Wolfe-Lee was unintentional. A mitigating factor is anything that lessens the severity of an act.

“I do regret choices I made regarding the hiring of a new person in the position of Wellness Administrator,” Wolfe-Lee said in an email response to the Western Front. “In retrospect, I simply was too close to the program to exercise the necessary detachment during the hiring process, and as a result was provided a valuable learning opportunity that will enable me to better serve the campus community.”

The role of ethics adviser has been shifted to Internal Audit Director Antonia Allen.

Wolfe-Lee was hired as the director of human resources in 2008 and was later appointed as the Western’s ethics adviser. In 2012, she was promoted to assistant vice president for human resources.

Previous Wellness Director Kaylee Lovelady resigned in early December of 2017. Lovelady requested to train her replacement by mid-February, and due to the short notice, suggested her sister Darcie Hill as a candidate for the position, according to the stipulation.

In an email to Vice President for Enrollment and Student Services Melynda Huskey, Wolfe-Lee clarified her interest in the hiring of Hill. In the email, Wolfe-Lee noted that she saw no ethical issue with the hiring of Hill because Lovelady was not involved in the hiring process, according to the stipulation.

Wolfe-Lee continued to be actively involved in all parts of Hill’s appointment, including the pursuit of an Appointment of Opportunity, which accelerates the hiring process.

In an email to Wolfe-Lee sent on Jan. 11, Lovelady wrote, “I feel like the [Faculty and Staff Wellness Program] has come full circle, and of course it is back to you helping get things done, and again, setting the wellness program up for success. I am beyond grateful for the time spent on this.”

Vice Provost for Equal Opportunity and Employment Diversity, Title IX Sue Guenter-Schlesinger told the Ethics Board that she had questioned Wolfe-Lee as to why she was involved in the hiring process. Wolfe-Lee reportedly claimed that her involvement was due to the program and position being “her baby” due to her role in developing both. She was worried that the program would suffer if there was any delay in the hiring process.

Still concerned, Guenter-Schlesinger asked Wolfe-Lee again whether she felt comfortable being so involved, especially due to her role as ethics adviser. Wolfe-Lee confirmed that she did, according to the stipulation.

In a statement to the Western Front, Wolfe-Lee reflected on her actions.

“I was concerned about the importance of a seamless transition of this program to a new wellness administrator without significant delay, so I became more involved than I should have been,” she said.

Not long after the Appointment of Opportunity was approved, the OIA received two complaints, acting as a catalyst for an investigation.

However, Wolfe-Lee’s supervisor Rich Van Den Hul and Director of Campus Recreation Adam Leonard expressed their belief that Wolfe-Lee had acted appropriately.

In an email to the ethics board, current Ethics Adviser Antonia Allen said,“[Wolfe-Lee] used her position to inappropriately influence the hiring process by overinflating the importance of the position, making false claims that the position could not be filled by a qualified internal candidate within the desired timeframe and encouraging senior management to approve the direct appointment of an external candidate.”

Randhawa said in an email to Board staff that he believes the appointment of Hill was an ethics violation. Randhawa noted that Wolfe-Lee expressed remorse when presented with his letter of reprimand.

According to the stipulation, the sanctions for a civil penalty under RCW 42.52.480 can be up to $5,000 for each violation found.

RCW 42.52.070 states: Except as required to perform duties within the scope of employment, no state officer or state employee may use his or her position to secure special privileges or exemptions for himself or herself, or his or her spouse, child, parents, or other persons.

Director of Communications and Marketing Paul Cocke said the situation will be reviewed to ensure future compliance with the state ethics legal requirements. Hill remains in the position of wellness administrator.

 

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