Former Hillsborough County employee files lawsuit alleging corruption and harassment by officials

Former Hillsborough County employee files lawsuit alleging corruption and harassment by officials
Posted at 3:32 PM, Oct 20, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-20 15:32:43-04

A former Hillsborough County Human Resources employee has accused district leaders and other School Board members of firing her because she did not go along with a corruption scheme. 

RELATED: I-Team: Ethics complaint targets Hillsborough board member

Stephanie Woodford filed a lawsuit on Wednesday which claims she was fired because of her refusal to sanction the hire of an unqualified teaching candidate. The complaint also says she was asked to cover up that hiring in a state ethics case and pushed by a board member to revise an evaluation of superintendent Jeff Eakins. 

The candidate was Ms. Miguel Torena, a personal friend and the campaign manager of School Board member Susan Valdes, who was hired in June, 2015. Ms. Woodford said Ms. Torena should not have been hired because she didn't have the required teaching certification and blocked the hiring in July, 2015. Ms. Torena was hired in July, 2016.  

In September, 2016, Ms. Torena's job status came under fire after Laurie Rodriguez, a teacher, filed an ethics complaint with the State of Florida Department of Education. Ms. Rodriguez alleged Ms. Valdes used her position as a board member to get Ms. Torena hired. The ethics complaint was filed against Ms. Torena and Superintendent Jeff Eakins. The complaint said Mr. Eakins allowed the hiring of Ms. Torena even after he'd been notified she was not qualified. 

An investigation was launched by the Chief of Staff Dr. Alberto Vazquez Matos and Superintendent attorney Jeff Gibson. According to Woodford's lawsuit, Dr. Vazquez attempted to "cover up" the hiring of Ms. Torena by instructing Ms. Woodford, via memo, to describe the hiring as a "Human Resources error." When Ms. Woodford tried to discuss the memo with Dr. Vazquez, on three separate occasions, he supposedly told her to "throw the memo away." 

Ms. Woodford said she was told by Dr. Vazquez an investigation into the ethics complaint was completed and the allegations were determined to be false. Ms. Woodford said she knew of no investigation and would not sign off on a statement.

When the union called Ms. Woodford to tell her they would be filing a grievance against the hiring, she supposedly spoke to a supervisor on how they were going to handle it. Ms. Woodford, according to the complaint, was told they "would lie" to cover up for Ms. Valdes. 

Ms. Valdes and Ms. Woodford later met for a separate issue and Ms. Woodford was supposedly instructed in a meeting, by Ms. Valdes, to "not **** with me." Ms. Woodford wrote down what happened and met with Mr. Eakins in January of this year. The memo said illegal actions were taken by the school district in the hiring of Ms. Torena. After that letter, Ms. Woodford said there was a conscious effort by Mr. Eakins, Dr. Vazquez, and another School Board members to "embarrass, humiliate, and harass," her. 

Afterward, Ms. Woodford had lunch with her predecessor, Dan Valdez, at a local restaurant. Upon learning of this, Chief of Staff Vazquez said he was not happy about her lunch meeting and directed Ms. Woodford to "tell on [her]self to the Mr. Eakins. Ms. Woodford purportedly apologized to a number of school board members and was instructed to never speak to Mr. Valdez again. 

Later in the year, the Human Resources department was handling an evaluation of the Superintendent. The first time board members are supposed to see each others' evaluation is when the information was released. In April, Ms. Woodford notified by School Board Chair Cindy Stuart that she had a copy of another person's evaluation and was upset at its contents. 

Ms. Stuart wanted the members evaluation changed. Ms. Woodford took her concerns on the violation of policy to Chief of Staff Vazquez and instructed Ms. Stuart not to speak with the member personally and that he would have School Board attorney Jim Porter to contact the person to get them to change the evaluation. 

Ms. Woodford told Dr. Vazquez that his behavior wasn't ethical, but Dr. Vazquez rebuffed the comments about the Superintendent were "mean." Ms. Woodford would later receive a call from the author of the offending comment and told her he would make changes to the evaluation. 

On April 27, 2017, Dr. Vazquez requested Ms. Woodford's resignation and she refused twice. She was told her refusal to resign would result in her termination. According to the complain, Ms. Woodford asked Dr. Vazquez the reason for her termination and was told it was unknown, but that a determination would need to be made and a letter would be sent the next day with cause. 

The lawsuit filed by Ms. Woodford said her termination was a result of failing to "participate in a sham investigation" and "for her refusal to sign off on a false document to the Florida Department of Edcuation."