Fired worker claims state employees shopped online, watched videos at desks

By: - September 21, 2022 12:03 pm

The office of the First Judicial District Department of Correctional Services in Waterloo, Iowa. (Photo by Google Earth)

A former state employee says she was unfairly fired by the Iowa Department of Correctional Services, where workers routinely shopped, watched videos and livestreamed sporting events at their desks.

The fired worker also alleges a supervisor pressured her employees to use their state computers to shop the supervisor’s online boutique during the workday.

Kristen Johnson of Waterloo is suing the First Judicial District Department of Correctional Services in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa. Before being fired in August 2020, Johnson worked for DCS for 10 years, most recently as a residential officer, in the Waterloo Women’s Center for Change.

State records indicate Johnson was fired for allegedly sharing confidential offender information with one of her clients who resided at the center. Johnson told her superiors she had used her computer to look up information about the father of her client’s infant child since there was some question about the impact the relationship would have on her client’s well-being.

As for the information she shared with her client, Johnson told her superiors she merely informed her client of the criminal charges the man was facing – information that is public by statute and which, under agency rules, could be shared with anyone.

In her lawsuit, she alleges she was fired for pretextual reasons and that the true reason for her dismissal was her gender and for her alcoholism – a condition that is considered a protected disability under the Iowa Civil Rights Act and for which she was treated in 2019.

In the written complaint Johnson filed with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission before filing her lawsuit, Johnson alleged that after seeking treatment in 2019, the DOC “targeted” her and held her to a different standard than her male counterparts, some of whom remained employed after committing violent crimes.

“There were multiple male employees in the Department of Correctional Services who were allowed to engage in various behaviors, such as having OWIs, domestic abuse assault convictions and other serious matters,” Johnson alleged.

Ken Kolthoff is director of the First Judicial District Department of Correctional Services. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Department of Correctional Services)

When she first challenged her dismissal, Johnson sent a letter to First Judicial District Director Ken Kolthoff, asking for a formal review hearing. In her letter, she stated that during her 10 years of employment with the agency it was common for employees to use their work computers to shop, check their stock prices, livestream sporting events, watch YouTube and engage in many other personal activities.

She asserted that if her actions warranted termination, even a cursory review of computer use by DCS workers would result in dozens of disciplinary hearings and potential terminations.

In her letter to Kolthoff, Johnson also stated that her own supervisor had, on multiple occasions, asked her and other employees to shop the supervisor’s online boutique store during work hours using their work computers.

“When she did this, she stood in my workspace while I browsed her website,” Johnson wrote. “Feeling pressured, I made one purchase which I have no use for.”

Later, the supervisor directed Johnson to post a positive online review of the store, again during work hours, Johnson alleged. Some of the workers’ online reviews were still accessible and could be read on the supervisor’s website, Johnson told Kolthoff.

State records indicate Kolthoff approved Johnson’s request for a hearing and later affirmed her dismissal. His written decision did not address the points raised by Johnson regarding other employees’ conduct.

The Department of Correctional Services has denied the lawsuit’s claims of discrimination, civil rights violations and retaliation. A trial date has yet to be scheduled.

With regard to the workplace issues Johnson raised with his office at the time she was fired, Kolthoff said Wednesday he could not comment. “Obviously it’s a personnel matter and it’s a confidential matter,” Kolthoff told the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

The First Judicial District Department of Correctional Services is a public agency that provides community-based correctional services to 11 counties in northeast Iowa’s First Judicial District.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.