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Former city staffer claims 'policy of discrimination'

July 11, 2012
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Fired Colorado Springs city employee Terri Velasquez is lodging explosive new allegations about Mayor Steve Bach and a high-ranking member of his executive team in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court.

Velasquez claims Steve Cox, the city’s former fire chief and now the mayor’s chief of economic vitality and innovation, instituted a “policy of discrimination” against older female employees when he became interim city manager in 2010.

Velasquez also claims the alleged discriminatory policy was “sanctioned, approved, and otherwise ratified” by other city officials, including Bach when he took office last year.

“The City has shed itself of numerous well-qualified female employees over the age of 40 years who have substantial experience and service with the City of Colorado Springs,” the 18-page lawsuit states. “Other older employees are presently being threatened with loss of position or termination as part of this pattern and practice.”

“The City thoroughly investigated the termination of Ms. Velasquez employment in 2011, as well as each of her complaints and accusations against the City and Mr. Cox," City Attorney Chris Melcher said in an email response. "The investigation affirmed conclusively that Ms. Velasquez’s termination was handled appropriately, and that her allegations are without merit.  The City plans to defend itself vigorously against this baseless complaint, and is confident that it will be fully exonerated if this matter goes to trial.” 

Velasquez’s Evergreen-based attorney, William Finger, declined to comment.

While the mayor has hired several women to high-level posts, including Chief of Staff Laura Neumann and Chief Communications Officer Cindy Aubrey, he also has let go of a handful of others, including Velasquez, former City Attorney Patricia Kelly and former Budget Manager Lisa Bigelow.

The Gazette is requesting from the city the ages of all the women who have been hired or left the city since 2010, which is when Velasquez is alleging the “policy of discrimination” toward older employees, particularly female employees, was instituted.

Velasquez previously filed a $1 million claim against the city. The claim, called a government immunity notice, was rejected by the city.

In the lawsuit, Velasquez, who is claiming gender and age discrimination, reiterated many of the allegations she had made in the claim, including that her firing came after she unmasked a series of illegal or improper fiscal policies and practices at the city.

The city hired a law firm to investigate Velasquez’s claims of financial wrongdoing. The months-long investigation found her allegations to be without merit.

The lawsuit raises new allegations, including that various unnamed City Council members had orchestrated a plan to rid the city of older employees.

“This information was communicated” to former City Manager Penelope Culbreth-Graft, the lawsuit states.

In March 2010, Culbreth-Graft “obtained information that gave the appearance that (Cox) was being favored for selection to replace her when she retired and that one or more qualified females were being overlooked,” the lawsuit states.

Culbreth-Graft took the information to former Human Resources Director Ann Crossey, who said it could “expose the City to liability in future personnel matters,” it states.

Culbreth-Graft informed Kelly, the former city attorney, but “no actions were taken by the City Attorney’s Office or the City to stem the illegal employment practices that had been articulated and demonstrated,” the lawsuit states. Following Culbreth-Graft’s “outcry,” the council selected Cox, a white man, as interim city manager, it states.

The lawsuit notes that Cox was the former fire chief and alleges that the fire department had a “poor record of hiring and promoting females.” It also alleges that Cox, at the time of his promotion, “had been sued along with the fire department for illegal gender discriminatory employment practices by one or more females” in the department.

“Mr. Cox embraced a sexist attitude toward females stemming from his duties, responsibilities and operation as Chief of the Fire Department,” the lawsuit states. “Mr. Cox held views that females should be subservient and always agree with his decisions, whether right or wrong.”

Velasquez had been the city's chief financial officer until she was demoted by Cox to director of finance and administrative services. She claims the demotion came shortly after she and her team "discovered and reported an overpayment to Mr. Cox of nearly $5,000."

Cox repaid the money after the overpayment was discovered.

To read earlier stories about Velasquez, click on the following links:

City official says she was fired for reporting financial improprieties

Velasquez files $1 million claim against city

Velasquez claims of financial wrongdoing without merit, city rules

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