A lady with initials JH said that she had heard about a conversation with my boss, and wanted to talk to me about it. She gave no indication of her real purpose. I thought, great; she wants to help my boss and me reconcile. An appointment was set up for a couple of days later. She would hear my side, I presumed, then hear his side, and then help us work out an agreeable resolution. I was all for that. Let's come to an understanding and make peace, then proceed with our work.
A trusted colleague also found a copy of a document called "Guidelines on Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace" posted on another NASA center's website, along with "Questions and Answers: Religious Discrimination in the Workplace". These were very interesting documents. I didn't believe ID was religious, of course, but since my boss did, he should have respected my right of expression. The guidelines seemed to clearly justify what I had done as within my rights--even to the point of "proselytizing" (however that is defined). For instance, it states:
Many religions strongly encourage their adherents to spread the faith by persuasion and example at every opportunity, a duty that can extend to the adherents' workplace. As a general matter, proselytizing is entitled to the same constitutional protection as any other form of speech. Therefore, in the governmental workplace, proselytizing should not be singled out because of its content for harsher treatment than nonreligious expression. (Bold added.)
The guidelines, written in 1997 to clarify existing law, clearly err on the side of freedom of expression. Sharing a DVD about ID, therefore, even if deemed religious, should have been protected activity. I want to discuss this document more later. It became a key focus of legal wrangling about whether JPL was obliged to follow these guidelines. (Note: I found that the NASA Glenn Research Center has since removed this document from their website. Was it because of my case?)
So I came to the HR meeting prepared, I thought, to show that sharing DVDs on ID was within my rights. I was greeted by a middle-aged black lady with initials JH, who welcomed me into a small conference room. Once again, she only stated she had heard about the conversation with my boss and wanted to ask me some questions. Still under the impression this was a reconciliation meeting, I laid it all out on the table, talking with her for about an hour, showing my materials and describing what had happened. I offered her the chance to watch the DVDs and see whether they contained a religious message. She looked at them but did not take them. I showed her the lending log, my other papers, and explained clearly how I thought my boss had violated my civil rights by restricting my speech.
Mostly quiet and expressionless, JH dutifully took notes on a pad of paper and asked a few more questions. For instance, she wanted to know if I had ever talked to co-workers about politics. I racked my brain, and did think of some rare instances. A couple of times, I told her, I had looked up judges on the ballot and offered a few nearby co-workers information about them. They appreciated it, I said, because most people know nothing about judge candidates. I told her I had passed out a few flyers on California Proposition 8 (the marriage initiative now before the Supreme Court) before the 2008 election. I said I had one respectful conversation with a co-worker BE who disagreed with my position, but got into an argument with another co-worker SE when he started criticizing my position after I gave him the flyer and briefly described it. I told her how the next day I had returned to SE and apologized for allowing the discussion to become heated. even though it had been a mutual exchange, with neither of us making personal attacks or insults-- it was just a strong disagreement about the facts and arguments about the proposition. When I apologized, he spontaneously stood up and shook my hand. That should have been the end of it. I never brought up the subject with him since. That argument, I would later learn, became a key piece of evidence used against me.
Let this be a warning to all about answering questions truthfully. I learned this the hard way, especially in depositions. There are wise and foolish ways to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If I had known that JH was investigating me on harassment charges, that would have changed the complexion of our meeting dramatically. I would have realized that I have the presumption of innocence, and the burden of proof was on HR to prove otherwise. Thinking that she was there to help me reconcile with my boss, being the transparent kind of guy I am, with nothing to hide, I volunteered all kinds of details about things unrelated to her questions. When you are being accused of something, realize that simple, truthful answers are all that is required. Let the investigator do the work. Answer: (1) Yes, (2) No, (3) I don't know, or (4) I don't remember. Answer only the amount of detail that is asked. If a question seems too probing, or you don't understand it, or it is vague or ambiguous, ask for clarification before answering it.
Policies and Procedures
The next day, though, I started having some worries about that interview. I emailed JH and requested 3 things: (1) a copy of GC's account of the March 2 meeting, (2) a copy of the JPL "procedure for conflict resolution, of which yesterday's meeting was a part," and (3) a statement whether JPL follows the same Guidelines on Religious Expression that I had found on the NASA-Glenn website. She called back and said she couldn't give me GC's version, but that she would get back to me on the others. Soon she emailed me the link to JPL's "Problem Resolution Policy," but said she would have to do further research on #3.
What happened next gave me real concern. I waited and waited, and still did not hear anything. A simple reconciliation between two parties should have been a quick process. Twelve days after the interview, I asked if she had any news for me. No response. I stopped in my group supervisor's office to see if he knew what was going on. He opened his eyes wide and said that JH was "talking to a lot of people about you." I was stunned. Something was going on that was bigger than I realized. When I asked for more information, I was informed that when JH finishes her investigation, I would find out.
I also noticed that my boss GC had been acting especially cool toward me. Perhaps that's understandable after his tirade, but I was still Team Lead and had to interact with him daily on work-related matters. It seemed that whenever I offered a suggestion, he would rebuff it with answers like, "Why do we need that?" I offered a tutorial on a technical subject for anyone interested but he disputed its value. Then I got my annual review on April 1, and noticed, for the first time, he had written several paragraphs of negative comments about my presumed inability to get along with people.
JPL has an extensive online library of Policies and Procedures called JPL Rules. On April 9, I decided to read the "Problem Resolution Policy" JH had sent and realized there was a serious misunderstanding. That policy was dependent on an employee filing a complaint. I wrote her,
Thank you for the link to the "Problem Resolution" document #27052. I'm a little confused, though, after reading it. It seems to refer to grievances instigated by the employee. I never filed a grievance. As far as I know, this matter was elevated
to HR by [GC]. Are we working through the grievance process, or some other process? If it's this one, rm not sure what stage we are in. If you can help me out, I would appreciate it. Also, did you have a chance to find the answer to my earlier question #3?
Notice how I was very concerned about the process she was following. Way back on March 5, JH should have known that. I had asked for JPL's "procedure for conflict resolution, of which yesterday's meeting was a part," making it clear I wanted to know what she was doing; I figured something this important would have a documented procedure. She had sent me an unrelated document that had nothing to do with her activity! She made that very clear in a voice mail later that afternoon:
Hi David, this is [JH]; I received your email this afternoon and I wanted to respond to you, that when you initially asked for a conflict resolution procedure, the only thing we have even similarly close to conflict resolution is Problem Resolution, which was given to you I believe by myself and also [WH] gave you the information as well, so as I have been told, but no; it does not have anything to do with the Investigation that has taken place based upon the issue that was brought to our attention by [GC]. So they're two totally separate things, and maybe I misread the email and got a little bit confused, but whatever the case may be, I wanted to clarify so there won't be any misunderstanding, that they are two totally separate
issues. If you have any further questions, by all means, give me a call. I'll be leaving in just a little bit from here and also, I believe you had another question; I'm not sure what it was, I don't have the email in front of me, but anywho, if you have any other questions give me a call back. Thanks, bye. (Bold added.)
This was the first time I heard HR use the word "investigation." I was being accused when I thought this was about reconciliation and defending my civil rights. Notice how vague JH was: she mentioned "the investigation that has taken place" based on "the issue that was brought to our attention" by my boss. What issue? An investigation into what? I was never told I was being investigated for harassment--a serious charge! Notice also how she cared nothing about my civil rights. One would think a black person would appreciate the seriousness of that. Four times I had asked her if JPL abides by the Guidelines on Religious Expression, and here a month later she couldn't even remember the question!
An Unusual Invitation
That morning (April 9), I had received an unusual meeting invitation from my Section Manager, KK. It was rare for me to see him at all, but a couple of years prior, we had hit it off well in a one-on-one "get acquainted" meeting when he came on board. I noticed he included his Deputy and my Group Supervisor in the meeting request for April 13. I accepted, but asked what it was regarding. He sent this evasive answer: "We're following up with you regarding your recent discussions with HR." This lit off sirens in my mind. I wanted to know what on earth was going on!
This meeting came up on short notice (one workday beforehand). I would like to ask It be delayed till I can review the documentation on the investigation because at this time (1) I have been given no specific information about what exactly this meeting is about, and (2) If there are some kind of charges or accusations being brought against me, I have not even been informed what they are, nor have I been given any JPL policies and procedures that cover these kinds of investigations. I cannot adequately prepare for a meeting about these matters If I do not even know this fundamental information that I feel I have a right to know.
In this regard, I have requested documentation of the procedures being followed In this investigation. I never received that information. I also asked (twice} whether the policies on the following NASA link apply at JPL, but never received an answer: [link]
If this meeting Is in fact about an investigation instigated by my office manager, it Involves a very sensitive Issue. I know you will want to ensure it is being conducted according to written policy and that the rights of an employee are being protected. Therefore I am again asklng three things be provided me before we meet together: (1) a written copy of the findings by HR, including any accusations being made against me and the evidence for them, (2) a written statement of the official JPL policy and procedure for investigating employees, of which this Investigation Is an example, and (3) copies of any and all JPL policies covering religious expression by employees at JPL. Upon receipt of this material and sufficient time to review it, I will be willing to reschedule the meeting. I would appreciate a response by email.
David F. Coppedge (Bold added.)
He left me a voice mail stating that "all these things would be supplied to me at the meeting." I agreed to come, but tried one last time to get some information:
Hello KK,· .
Thank you for your call, but in reflecting on It, I still think that at least item #2 is a reasonable thing to have before the meeting: what is the process being followed? Surely there Is a written policy on investigating employees, perhaps on JPL Rules or somewhere, that can tell me what exactly is going on. Can.you just send me a !Ink to the document?
David F. Coppedge
No answer. With an HR investigation underway, a serious meeting coming up with management, and everyone giving me the runaround, it was time to call Alliance Defending Freedom.
In this episode, you've seen how this affair looked from my "naive" perspective, how I was kept in the dark, how I became increasingly suspicious. My suspicions were confirmed -- and then some -- when I found out how HR really works, policy/process be hanged. In the next episode, you will hear about what was going on in the background at HR, based on document discovery and oral testimony: blatant disregard for JPL's own written policies, and a complete lack of due process for the accused.
Lesson to the naive: HR does not exist to protect your rights. It exists to protect the institution and its management.