Head of jail union suspended for writing satiric interview

WEST BOYLSTON, MA &#8211 The president of the correction officers union at the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction is being suspended for 30 work days, ending what had publicly been a honeymoon with the sheriff who took office in January.

Warren H. Lohnes, New England Police Benevolent Association Local 550 president, is suspended beginning Sunday after he posted a satiric “fictitious interview” Nov. 14 aimed at Rebecca J. Pellegrino, the jail’s director of administration and finance, and other administrators. The union president was notified yesterday of the decision by Superintendent Shawn P. Jenkins, who presided over the third of three hearings on Officer Lohnes’ actions.

Officer Lohnes said the union will appeal the suspension to an arbitrator.

Mr. Jenkins said in a Dec. 16 letter to Officer Lohnes the discipline is because the posting on three union bulletin boards at the jail was done only “to attempt to publicly humiliate” Ms. Pellegrino. The superintendent said Officer Lohnes mocks her qualifications, denigrates her work history and “you make sexist references by referring to her as Ms. Roberta Palmolive.”

Mr. Jenkins said, “I find none of these writings to be ‘bona fide union activities.’ ”

The suspension is based on alleged violations of the collective bargaining agreement section and on five sections of the sheriff’s standards of conduct, one of which reads, “Officers/personnel shall not make any statements to intentionally discredit any officer/personnel of the Worcester County Sheriffs Office, whether the statements uttered are true or false.”

The superintendent said even more troubling to him was that Officer Lohnes was not remorseful about how Ms. Pellegrino was made to feel, nor conciliatory or respectful in a Dec. 15 hearing, but rather mocked the standards of conduct and called them unenforceable.

Officer Lohnes said in an interview that he is not remorseful. While his purpose was to educate the correction officers and sergeants at the jail, “Frankly, I don’t care how she takes it. That is not my concern. If she felt uncomfortable by reading that and it caused her to review her actions then that would be a benefit,” he said.

Officer Lohnes said Ms. Pellegrino was painting any officer who took sick time — even those who have barely used any sick time — as possible abusers if they called in sick during the October snowstorm, and threatened to take away personal days if they did not produce an acceptable medical excuse, which he said is not permitted.

In one section of the fictitious interviews, “Local 550” asks “Isn’t it illegal for you to forcibly take benefit time from an officer’s books without their permission?”

An administrator it calls “Roberta Palmolive” answers “My experience as a treasurer in the metropolis of Barre leads me to believe otherwise.”

550: The extent of you(r) experience is based on your working as a full time treasurer in Barre?

RP: Part-time treasurer. But yes, I am highly qualified.

550: Uh, okay. But none of this seems right. I mean, you’re illegally taking time from officer’s books for calling in during a major snowstorm. What’s next? Docking them if they call in on any sunny days?

RP: By George, I never thought of that! That would help with sick time too! Have you ever thought of applying for the position of Director of Administration?

550: You can apply for that position?

RP: No, I’m just kidding. It’s one of Sheriff Eva(n)gelizer’s political appointee positions. So put that out of your tiny correctional mind.

Ms. Pellegrino declined to comment to the Telegram & Gazette.

The union president called the prohibition on discrediting personnel of the sheriff’s office “impossible to comply with and it is impossible to enforce. It’s unconstitutional. It’s vague and I would contend that it infringes on the right of free speech.”

Chief Deputy Sheriff David H. Tuttle said Ms. Pellegrino had been “questioning him (Officer Lohnes) on his attendance and asking him to come to work” and the posting of the interview was retaliation.

Officer Lohnes denied that, saying “I never met with Director Pellegrino for anything other than labor management meetings” at which his own work habits were not discussed.

Chief Deputy Tuttle said that 99 percent of the work force is complying with Sheriff Lewis G. Evangelidis’ efforts to raise the standards at the jail. “Unfortunately we have 1 percent of the employees who feel that they shouldn’t have to live up to these standards, and Private Lohnes is one of them.”

Officer Lohnes used 15 sick days in 2011, according to information the Telegram & Gazette received through a freedom of information request. Chief Deputy Tuttle said Officer Lohnes has been away from jail 1-1/4 years over the past five years through use of sick time, vacation time, comp time, union business time and personal time.

Officer Lohnes said, “the fact that I take any contractual benefit time has nothing to do with the fact that my right to free speech is clearly being violated,” and he said “this is dirty politics.” He added that he has a documented medical condition that is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act of which the jail is aware.

The union president said in his 13 years, he has received only one verbal warning and, in August, a one-day suspension over sick leave, and that is under appeal. He said, “every evaluation that I’ve ever had has been above average and numerous times I’ve been recommended by my supervisor for promotion.”

Chief Deputy Tuttle said that Ms. Pellegrino earned a master’s degree in business administration from Anna Maria College in 1997 and was manager of provider relations for three health insurance organizations: Tufts Associate Health Plans, Central Massachusetts Health Care and Blue Cross Blue Shield.

From The Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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