Dallas County Sheriff Chad Leonard fired an employee, allegedly in retaliation for the worker’s whistleblower complaint about the potential spread of COVID-19 in the jail, and then falsely claimed the man had voluntarily resigned, according to an Iowa judge’s ruling.
Sheriff Leonard declined to comment on the case Monday, saying, “We still have some stuff coming up on that, and you being a reporter and everything, I don’t know if I should make a comment.”
Iowa Workforce Development and Polk County District Court records indicate the jailer, Dustin Robbins, was fired by Leonard on May 5.
Three days earlier, Leonard’s office administrator had sent an email to the jail staff stating “we have had a positive COVID-19 test in our jail. At this time, the staff member is not symptomatic and will be returning to work with precautions.”
Robbins was concerned that although the worker was known to be positive for COVID-19 the sheriff was allowing the staffer to report for work, a move that would create additional risks for co-workers and for inmates. When the sheriff did not reconsider the decision, Robbins contacted the Iowa Department of Corrections and voiced his concerns.
After Robbins’ call, the DOC emailed the Dallas County sheriff to notify him of the complaint. Within an hour, Jail Administrator Doug Lande sent an email to the jail staff, stating that although Dallas County Public Health had indicated the employee who tested positive could come back to work with precautions in place, the sheriff and the jail administrator had decided to reverse their position and the individual would not be reporting for work.
Sheriff Leonard then called a staff meeting regarding the situation, and Robbins voiced his concerns to the sheriff. Leonard took issue with Robbins speaking out during the meeting and accused him of going to the media and to public health officials with his complaint.
After the meeting, Leonard summoned Robbins to his office. According to court records and IWD records, which are based on a transcript of an alleged recording of the meeting, Leonard chastised Robbins for “going over my head” about the COVID-19 issue, yelled at Robbins, called him a “little bitch” and told him to “man the f— up” and “grow some balls.” He allegedly yelled at Robbins, ““When you’re in the military and you’ve got a problem, you call China?”
At the end of the meeting, Leonard allegedly told Robbins, “Leave, get out!” and “Don’t you ever come back.” Robbins asked Leonard if he was fired; Leonard allegedly told Robbins he was on leave.
The next day, Leonard, Lande and others at the jail allegedly exchanged messages through a group-chat messaging service. According to the IWD records, they noted that Robbins’ security card had been turned off and his computer password changed and the staff had been told not to allow him into the jail. Lande allegedly asked Sheriff Leonard, “What are we to instruct Robbins to do if he shows up at 3 o’clock?” Sheriff Leonard allegedly responded, “I’ll come over and tell him he quit.”
On May 12, Dallas County officials sent Robbins an email informing him that he had “voluntarily quit” because he had missed three scheduled shifts without providing notice, in violation of work rules.
Robbins sued the county, alleging wrongful termination and violations of Iowa’s whistleblower law. As part of that litigation, Dallas County officials claimed Robbins had voluntarily resigned by not reporting for work.
County officials then challenged Robbins’ attempts to collect unemployment benefits, but did not testify or present any evidence at a hearing on the matter. Administrative Law Judge Ben Humphrey ruled in Robbins’ favor, finding that the sheriff’s claims were a “pretext” and that Robbins had, in fact, been fired. Robbins was awarded benefits, with the judge adding that “there is no indication in the evidence that Robbins contacted any public health officials or members of the news media” with his concerns.
Robbins’ lawsuit against the county, which alleges wrongful termination and violations of the state whistleblower law, is pending. The county has denied any wrongdoing and a trial has been scheduled for March 2022.