Press-Republican

February 21, 2013

DOT engineer forced out for talking to press

BY LOHR McKINSTRY
Press-Republican

---- — ELIZABETHTOWN — Michael Fayette says his bosses at the State Department of Transportation tried to fire him from his job as Essex County resident engineer for talking to the news media without their permission.

He ended up retiring earlier this month to settle the misconduct charges leveled against him.

“The end result is I got screwed,” Fayette said. “Hugely screwed. At the end of the day the taxpayers of the state lose, too.”

INTERVIEWED FOR STORY

Fayette said his troubles started in August 2012, after he gave an interview to a reporter for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise of Saranac Lake.

As resident engineer, he was in charge of all New York State DOT operations within Essex County.

Fayette said he first told the reporter to call DOT public information in Albany but then relented and gave an interview for a Tropical Storm Irene one-year anniversary story.

“I thought the DOT was going to get another black eye (for refusing to talk). I talked to him. He thanked me.”

LETTER FROM DOT

A month later, Fayette received a certified-mail letter ordering him to go to Albany for a meeting with top DOT brass.

“I got blistered at that meeting, all about (the Enterprise) article. It was a positive article. A month later, I got another certified letter to tell me I’m to be immediately terminated as a result of that article.”

DOT Employee Relations Acting Director Amelia Dilella wrote the letter to Fayette on Sept. 14, 2012, charging him with a disciplinary violation of State Civil Service Law Section 75.

“You disobeyed a written directive … not to speak directly with the Adirondack Daily Enterprise newspaper concerning the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Irene,” she wrote. “Your actions disrupted the commissioner’s intent to conduct the interview herself.”

The DOT commissioner referred to is Joan McDonald.

But, Fayette said he’d already spoken with the reporter by the time the email directive was issued.

“If you (Fayette) are found guilty of the charge brought against you, the penalty exacted against you will consist of termination,” Dilella wrote.

DISCIPLINED EARLIER

The letter from Dilella said a notice of discipline that Fayette received in early 2011 would also be taken into account, but Fayette said the DOT’s own rules prohibit that.

The reference stemmed from his relationship with a woman he worked with at the agency’s Essex County headquarters in Elizabethtown, Fayette said.

He was suspended for 10 days without pay for using state equipment and work time for the personal relationship.

“Since it’s an unrelated action, and since it took place over a year prior to this situation, NYSDOT rules stipulate that it cannot be cited,” he told the Press-Republican. “For me personally, it was an embarrassing moment in my career. Rather than fight it, I accepted what probably were excessively harsh charges. I just wanted it to be over with. Never would have thought that it would be used to hammer me.”

ALLOWED TO RETIRE

At that point, Fayette got an attorney, and he said DOT finally relented and agreed to allow him to retire instead of being fired.

He resigned and activated his retirement, effective Feb. 8, 2013, to settle the charges.

“I chose to retire because I had no other alternative,” Fayette said. “I was forced into a corner, not of my doing, by the DOT.”

SPOKE AT MEETING

Before his retirement date arrived, Fayette made a presentation about his radio-watch program at the November 2012 meeting of the Essex County Board of Supervisors Public Works Committee. The program was his effort to have someone take calls and dispatch trucks 24 hours a day during snow season.

He said his appearance at the meeting was pre-approved by his supervisor, but when the Press-Republican covered the meeting and quoted him, Fayette got another certified letter, dated Jan. 7, telling him he’d been told not to speak to the press.

This time, the letter was from DOT Employee Relations Director Raymond LaMarco.

“You are hereby suspended effective immediately for acts of insubordination and failure to comply with settlement terms previously agreed upon and in lieu of disciplinary termination charges,” LaMarco wrote. “You shall remain suspended until your official resignation date.”

‘WITCH HUNT’

Fayette then had to use his accumulated vacation time, which he’d plan to cash in when he left, so his health insurance and other benefits would continue.

“This was a witch hunt for nothing,” he said. “I was forced to retire well before I wanted to. It’s so far over the top it’s not funny.”

In response to a Press-Republican call, DOT spokeswoman Carol Breen said she could not discuss Fayette’s situation.

“We don’t comment on personnel issues.”

SAYS OTHERS FEARFUL

Fayette said the whole situation was a nightmare for him.

“I’ve had a whole lot of sleepless nights. I was just doing my job. I don’t know why they singled me out.”

His case is unusual, Fayette said, because DOT management-level employees often talk to the press and nothing happens to them.

“To my knowledge, no one has been charged with official misconduct for speaking to the media. I have copies of numerous newspaper articles in which DOT personnel from around the state have been quoted in newspapers. None that I know of have been charged with anything.”

He said he has since heard from some of his colleagues that they are also wary of irritating DOT leadership and ending up like Fayette.

“We are scared of everything we do now,” he said. “There’s a level of fear within the DOT.”

CALLED ACCESSIBLE

A U.S. Army veteran who served as a combat engineer, Fayette had worked for DOT since 1983 and had been resident engineer for Essex County since 2004.

He lived in Port Kent during the week, commuting to his house in Alexandria Bay on his days off.

Essex County Board of Supervisors Chairman Randy Douglas (D-Jay) praised Fayette, saying he always did his best to aid them during disasters.

“I had a great working relationship with him. He was accessible, and he was accessible during storms and disasters. I can only speak highly of Mr. Fayette.”

Douglas said Fayette will be missed by those who worked with him.

“I wish him the best in his retirement.”

‘TOTALLY PROFESSIONAL’

Ted Luck, president of Luck Brothers, a Plattsburgh-based construction company, said by email that he was astonished to hear of Fayette’s problems with DOT.

“We have worked with Mr. Fayette on many occasions since he has been in charge in Essex County since 2004 and have nothing but compliments for him and his crew. He is a complete gentleman and has always been totally professional in all our dealings.

“He was a huge attribute to the North Country and will be sorely missed,” Luck continued. “The Essex County (DOT) Residency was much better off with Mike in command.”

WANTS JOB BACK

Fayette, whose salary was about $99,000 before he retired, said he’s speaking out in the hope someone in state government will take up his cause and get him his job back.

“Retiring when I did was completely involuntary, but it was the best option available to me. Ultimately, I would like to be reinstated. I’d like to be made whole. A serious wrong has been done to me.”

Email Lohr McKinstry: lmckinstry@pressrepublican.com