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Report: PUD interim manager spied, hid files

John Nguyen was hired back with mixed reviews amid investigations

A 2014 investigation asserts the Columbia River People’s Utility District’s interim general manager previously accessed private data, destroyed records and used his position to spy on coworkers to collect evidence for his case against the district.

NGUYEN John Nguyen was a former IT manager for the Columbia River PUD who was fired in 2013. Under new, albeit temporary management, and a reconfigured board of directors, Nguyen was rehired in 2015 and tapped to oversee the district on an interim basis. He has since been given a year-long contract.

Before he was rehired, Nguyen had filed two complaints against the PUD with the state’s Bureau of Labor and Industries, alleging illegal employment practices.

He first filed a complaint in 2013, claiming salary data used by the PUD to calculate wages was inaccurate and likely compromised due to the district’s software program, which he believed negatively influenced the pay scale for his position, and possibly others. He also alleged bias, discrimination and retaliation from the PUD’s general manager at the time, Kevin Owens.

In response to the complaint, the PUD put Nguyen on paid leave and commissioned two internal investigations into Nguyen’s allegations. Findings from the investigations were recently leaked to the Spotlight.

Manager tapped private data to build case

After reviewing evidence, including findings from a separate, independent IT audit, an investigator with law firm Ater Wynne concluded Nguyen “secretly used his position and access to PUD systems and data to amass evidence to prove his case, and continued to do so throughout the year.”

In doing so, the report indicates Nguyen scanned his former manager’s emails and tracked the web activity of then-human resources manager, Valarie Koss, in addition to using the PUD’s security cameras to photograph her working late at the office.

Milliman, the salary survey software company, eventually admitted to a glitch in the program that caused problems with data accuracy, but Nguyen claimed the discrepancies were due in-part to Koss’ inattention to his complaints, according to the report.

While investigators were trying to determine whether PUD managers actually wronged Nguyen and made critical omissions in a salary survey, they noted Nguyen allegedly tapped into confidential PUD systems and kept secret files on managers he named in his complaint, while deleting other data that was necessary to properly investigate his claims, the report indicates.

“In the process of auditing IT functions and implementing the litigation hold, the PUD discovered numerous security breaches and performance deficiencies by Nguyen, serious enough to preclude consideration of his return to work,” the report states, adding, “over the last year, Nguyen systematically destroyed evidence directly relevant to his claims against the PUD.”

An independent IT audit, which was ordered by the PUD’s insurance company, revealed Nguyen had deleted logs of Internet activity on devices and software programs he used, most likely to cover up his own activity, the report asserts, while he had an active complaint against the district.

“On May 4, Nguyen uploaded a document entitled ‘Val’s web detail 2-4-2013’ to his Box.net account,” the report indicates. That same month, Nguyen ran a scan of quarantined emails and uncovered a private email Owens sent to his son, in which he included an email sent to him from a customer who included private information, including his account details.

Nguyen reported the email to the board as a potential violation of district policies, but it’s unclear why the email was ever accessed.

“Nguyen, in fact, had never been authorized to review quarantined emails because no one on the Management Team was aware it was even possible,” the Ater Wynne report states.

Retaliation feared after claims reported to board

While Nguyen was lodging complaints against his manager and the human resources director, he reached out to PUD Board Directors Jake Carter and Richard Simpson.

The investigation surmises that Carter and Nguyen communicated privately, without the rest of the board’s knowledge. Carter denied that level of correspondence with Nguyen, the report states.

Amid launching a complaint with BOLI, Nguyen emailed Carter, who is now president of the board, saying he was concerned about retaliation from the general manager for being a whistleblower.

According to the report’s findings, Nguyen was disciplined by his former manager for being combative and, at times, belligerent during staff meetings when questioned about IT security policies and access to documents.

“Nguyen’s behavior is toxic,” the report concluded, recommending Nguyen not be brought back to work at the PUD.

He was terminated in March 2014 and his position was filled. At the time, he was 56, two years away from the PUD’s retirement age.

He filed another complaint with BOLI, alleging illegal employment practices and wrongful termination. He later filed tort claims in March 2015 seeking $1.88 million from the district.

Investigators with BOLI, who also reviewed the PUD’s previous investigative reports, determined there was 'substantial evidence' to support Nguyen’s claims of retaliation for being a whistleblower.

Philip Griffin, left, attorney for Columbia River PUD, sits in on a meeting with Directors Jake Carter, Dave Baker, Craig Melton and Richard Simpson in August 2015. The board had mixed feelings about bringing back its current interim general manager in the wake of contrasting investigations.

PUD paid settlement, created new job for Nguyen

Fifteen months later, the current PUD board offered Nguyen a $270,000 settlement and created a new special projects IT position for him with an annual salary range between $87,860 to $125,260, before giving him a year-long, at-will contract to manage the district.

“BOLI had reviewed all the facts in my case, interviewed many witnesses, and after a long year of investigation, the BOLI findings were in my favor,” Nguyen noted.

Director Craig Melton, who is the target of a current recall initiative, said he never saw the report from Ater Wynne prior to voting to settle a lawsuit with Nguyen, which stipulated Nguyen was to be rehired as a PUD employee. Instead, Melton said relied on advice from the PUD’s newly-hired attorney, Philip Griffin, along with initial findings from the BOLI investigations, which seemed to support Nguyen.

“It never was privy to us, to the best of my knowledge,” Melton said of the investigation. “We based our decision upon our attorney’s comments.”

Melton noted Griffin told the board “this case has teeth” when briefing them on Nguyen’s pending lawsuit.

“Some of those investigations might have been tainted,” Melton added.

Director Dave Baker, who voted in favor of settling with Nguyen, despite apprehension, said before the board hired Nguyen back to work, he tried to bring up the summary results of the investigation with other PUD directors and the attorney.

“I asked the attorney about it,” Baker said. “He said [the investigations] could be construed as tainted because the PUD paid for it. These were paid for by the PUD, but these were done by independent investigators. How can you not take that into consideration?”

Baker wasn’t the only one with concerns about bringing back a disgruntled employee.

When the report was completed, Director Richard Simpson was board president.

He said the findings led him to vote against hiring Nguyen back to the PUD.

“I voted no,” Simpson said. “A day or so later, he called me up and asked me why I voted no. I said I didn’t think it was right.”

Director Carter didn’t respond to requests for comments.

Board challenged investigations

The findings regarding Nguyen’s complaints aren’t the first time PUD directors have dismissed the results of an independent investigation into allegations against Owens and Koss.

In fall 2014, the district retained another independent investigator to look into a complaint filed with the PUD board by Libby Calnon, the district’s communications manager. Calnon also worked on the campaigns of PUD Directors Craig Melton and Harry Price.

Calnon alleged she was harassed, slandered and badgered by Owens and Koss, out of retaliation for assisting with the Melton and Price campaigns.

The investigator concluded Calnon’s allegations couldn’t be substantiated. Board directors accepted the report, but in March, Melton and Carter tried to unaccept the findings in the report. They were outvoted, so the investigation stood.

Less than a month after Nguyen was appointed interim general manager, he fired four PUD department managers, including Koss.

Nguyen’s contract and temporary position have not been reevaluated since August.

“From my perspective, this case was closed once I settled and [returned] to work for the PUD,” Nguyen said. “I put the past behind me and moved forward. Since being appointed interim GM, my focus has been to move the PUD forward in a positive way, which I believe I have done.”

While Nguyen has received praise from employees since he began overseeing district operations, directors have taken heat for failing to scout out a permanent general manager.

Simpson and Baker said there have been no recent discussions about the issue among the board.