To read the 2019 interactions between Maggie Keenan, Cuyahoga County’s terminated director of the Office of Budget and Management (OBM), and the office of Human Resources is to witness the recurring perils competent women face when they work for crabby, substandard men.
As the county administration and the county jail were scrutinized through 2018 and 2019 as part of a sweeping corruption probe, Keenan’s work life on the third floor of county headquarters was handicapped by top officials who were threatened and annoyed by her. They didn’t like that she asked hard questions. They didn’t approve of her tone. They resented that she sent so many emails and that she checked her phone during meetings. They felt that despite her unquestioned talent and intellect, she didn’t embody the professionalism her leadership role demanded.
And then, last month, they fired her, one day after county council approved the budget for 2020-2021. She was terminated by Armond Budish’s chief of staff Bill Mason, for reasons that remain unspecified. A spokesperson has said only that the administration wanted to move “in a different direction.”
Scene obtained emails and human resources documents via public records requests that shed light on Keenan’s tumultuous final years at the county.
While Keenan may have perturbed her superiors, she was held in high regard by her own staff. One former county employee who worked under Keenan described her as a “professional, efficient and awesome” boss.
“She was demanding and expected people to get necessary work done,” the former employee told Scene. “She did not suffer fools lightly, but she was professional, honest, intelligent and well-liked outside of the [county] building.”
She was also, crucially, willing to call out bad or illegal decision-making. This made her a whistleblower, almost by default, as flamboyant mismanagement within the county jail and the IT department all but begged for a criminal investigation. Keenan warned county executive Armond Budish and other top leaders about a critical nursing shortage at the jail before the first of eight deaths there in 2018. She was also sharply critical of inexperienced IT leaders, including the subpoenaed director Scot Rouke, who was fired in October after 19 months of unpaid leave. Through 2018, Keenan repeatedly expressed concern that top IT personnel were botching a costly overhaul of the county’s IT systems and doing so via a dazzling array of illegal maneuvers.
Like Gary Brack, the county jail nurse who was fired immediately after he blew the whistle on county jail operations at a council meeting in May 2018, Keenan suffered the fate of those who question or criticize Armond Budish or publicize deficiencies that the administration would prefer to keep quiet.
“This administration doesn’t like whistleblowers,” Keenan wrote in an email to Cleveland.com on the day of her firing.
Recent evidence suggests that Keenan is just as correct in this assessment as she has been in others. And yet, the picture painted by her regular interactions with HR, a department that continually would not or could not substantiate her allegations against top leaders, is not of a whistleblower being mistreated by vindictive bosses, but of an accomplished woman working at a high level beset by mediocre white male managers whose skin she got under.
A woman in Keenan’s position had few avenues of recourse other than HR, and she found the office to be entirely unhelpful.
“Despite statements to the contrary, HR has provided no support for my repeated complaints about a hostile, toxic and retaliatory work environment on the third floor,” she wrote in an email this fall. “Attempts should have been made to address the issues, mediate differences, and assure a safe, supported, comfortable working environment for all involved. I’m disappointed that hasn’t happened in the past six months. My repeated requests to HR and the former Interim Chief of Staff for assistance have gone without a response.
“That’s not quite true,” she added. “[Former chief of staff Matt Carroll] laughed at me and said my concern was ‘excessive.'”
Through multiple complaints that she filed in 2019, and in responses to complaints filed against her in 2018, Keenan reveals herself to be a committed, knowledgeable, if exasperated, public servant. The documents expose a county government in disarray at the highest levels, a government managed by leaders who are fearful of critique, hostile to dissent and punitive toward employees who call out wrongdoing on behalf of the county residents they serve.
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The primary source of Keenan’s daily antagonism was former fiscal officer Dennis Kennedy. So untenable was their professional relationship by the beginning of 2019 that Keenan proposed excising the Office of Budget and Management from the county executive’s organizational purview. She suggested creating an independent office of strategy and budget that would be moved to a new location due to what she described as Kennedy’s toxic influence on her staff’s morale.
But Kennedy was not the only man against whom Keenan leveled allegations. In a formal complaint filed on May 5, 2019, she alleged that Dennis Kennedy, Matt Carroll and Armond Budish himself were all engaging in a pattern of conduct that created a hostile work environment for her.
That conduct included, among other things, failure to respond to emails, failure to provide requested support, making comments that undermined Keenan’s credibility and reputation, sending rude or unprofessional emails, and denying salary increase requests for her and her staff. Keenan alleged, moreover, that the conduct was discriminatory. She said that she was paid less than male counterparts with fewer qualifications and less responsibility and that she had been subjected to discipline for conduct that similarly situated male employees were not disciplined for.
After the complaint, a specialist in the HR office conducted an investigation and was unable to substantiate Keenan’s complaints. He closed the case on June 18.
One week later, chief talent officer Douglas Dykes — who resigned on Monday after revelations about a potential forged check — asked HR to re-investigate the claims. HR then reviewed the specialist’s initial work, interviewed additional witnesses identified by Keenan and reviewed emails submitted by both Keenan and Kennedy. This additional investigation was likewise unable to substantiate Keenan’s claims.
The inability to substantiate stemmed almost exclusively from refutations by Kennedy and Carroll themselves.
The three witnesses identified by Keenan corroborated much of what she alleged. One of the witnesses said that former county auditor Cory Swaisgood had told him/her that one of Kennedy’s conditions for returning to his post after medical leave was that Keenan be fired. The witness speculated that Kennedy did not like to be questioned by female employees. Two of the three witnesses said that Kennedy was only friendly with “white, male, Republican” OBM employees. One of them said that Keenan would frequently have to “chase down” Kennedy for responses. Another said that tension between Kennedy and Keenan had been ongoing, and that Kennedy would delay the approval of debt payments, presumably to frustrate Keenan.
The relationship between Keenan and Kennedy “had people walking on eggshells,” one witness’ comments were described in the HR investigative summary, “because they worry anything they say or do could be used against Keenan.”
Keenan’s emails provided further evidence of discrimination. In one, she showed that she was paid less than county council’s budget liaison, even though she had more qualifications and more responsibility. She also forwarded “unprofessional” emails from Kenenedy, including one exchange in which Kennedy, referencing a recent Keenan message, wrote, “another email response with a spiteful comment. Surprise.”
But interviews with Carroll and Kennedy were sufficient to discredit this material. Carroll denied that he had slandered or retaliated against Keenan and denied that she was treated differently because of her gender. Kennedy denied Keenan’s allegations as well. He described Keenan as “very smart, but lacking in people skills,” and described at length her volume of emails, which he said made it difficult to respond to messages. He denied stipulating that his return to the county after medical leave was contingent on Keenan’s firing.
In its analysis, the HR office concluded that Keenan had been neither harassed nor bullied, per the county code of conduct. Their findings suggested other “reasonable explanations” for her treatment: “disagreements on facts and conclusions, differences in professional judgement, personality clashes, poor communication, and a lack of professionalism.” Keenan was not the victim of bullying, the report found, because the various instances of slander and ridicule she documented were neither “egregious or repeated.”
While the report did not substantiate Keenan’s complaints, it did note that it had uncovered “significant evidence of an unproductive working relationship” between Keenan and Kennedy, and a “lack of confidence” by Keenan in Carroll and Budish. The report recommended that the county engage the services of an external, neutral mediator.
That never happened. The immediate result of the complaint was an escalation in tension. Keenan reported getting the silent treatment from Armond Budish.
In a June 2019 email to HR, Keenan asked an investigator to note that since she’d filed her complaint, Budish had ceased all contact with her. “Won’t respond to texts, emails, requests for meetings,” she wrote. “This goes beyond hostile. This feels an awful lot like retaliation.”
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On August 16, less than one full month after the investigation into the May complaint was closed, Keenan filed another complaint. This one was focused fully on Dennis Kennedy and his conduct.
The complaint followed an August 15 meeting which, according to Keenan, Kennedy had stormed out of after being asked if the fiscal office would consider taking a budget cut. The fiscal office enjoyed a significant surplus at the time, as it had in years past, but Kennedy refused to take a cut. Keenan and Kennedy began arguing about whether or not Keenan had appropriately communicated the financial status of the fiscal department, and Kennedy walked out in a huff.
“I told Armond, ‘This is what I have to deal with every day,'” Keenan wrote in her complaint. “Dennis replied, ‘What she has to deal with,’ and walked out of the meeting.”
Keenan went on to describe a number of specific and general behaviors by Kennedy that had created a toxic work environment. She framed her complaint in the context of the county’s employee handbook, referencing language to argue that, contra the HR office’s decision one month prior, she was the victim of harassment, discrimination and retaliation.
According to Keenan, Kennedy didn’t look at her when he spoke with her and held that it was not possible to discriminate against women as a class. He regularly criticized her in front of her superiors and criticized her behind her back to members of her own staff.
Under the bullying section of her complaint, Keenan described the scene when Kennedy returned from medical leave.
“He walked in the office without saying good morning. I communicated this to my superiors, wanting to indicate that a tone had been set,” Keenan wrote. [Witnesses had mentioned this encounter in HR interviews. They testified that Kennedy had said good morning to everyone except Keenan.] “An hour later, Dennis passed by my office and shouted, “Good morning, Maggie” in a way that could only be described as sarcastic. He did the same thing the following two mornings and one day accompanied it with pounding on my window. I had no fewer than half a dozen employees ask about that. This is bullying and intimidation.”
Keenan mentioned that, earlier in 2019, she had proposed to move the Office of Budget and Management from the county’s third floor in order to operate as an independent body and had received no response. She said that when Kennedy was made aware of complaints about him, he retaliated by refusing to communicate with her unless asked repeatedly and directly for responses. Furthermore, he refused to grant raises and professional development to her staff.
“Nearly everyone is aware that there is a split between Dennis and me,” Keenan wrote. “Everyone is aware that he doesn’t like me and that he does not have confidence in me. This is defamation. Equally important, this creates divisions and distractions that do nothing to help the county meet its goals and objectives. I’m trying to do my part to ensure elected officials have the information they need to make, literally, life and death decisions. It is unconscionable that in doing my job I must deal with a man getting up and storming out of a meeting because he ‘doesn’t have to deal with this’ from me.
“I have offered proposed solutions to HR and the Administration. I am open to other options, but to not address this is unacceptable. This Administration has aggressively dealt with me when male employees have complained about me; to not aggressively respond to unprofessional behavior on the part of male leadership in the county is unacceptable.”
An investigation into Keenan’s claims were conducted on Sept. 9 and 10 which included interviews with Kennedy and nine OBM staffers. On Sept. 17, the investigation was closed. None of Keenan’s allegations were substantiated.
Less than one month later, Dennis Kennedy resigned to become the University Heights finance director. Three months after that, Keenan was fired.
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Keenan’s 2019 complaints came on the heels of HR investigations in 2018 in which she was the accused. Several employees had notified HR that they were alarmed by Keenan’s workplace conduct. In a summary of allegations, an HR report notified Keenan that she had been accused of engaging in “rude and inappropriate conduct” and “displays of barely controlled anger.” Employees had alleged that she’d used profanity and would regularly send texts and emails during meetings.
Many of the allegations came from the county’s IT staff, who were at that time fumbling through the design and implementation of a costly project to overhaul the county’s IT system. This was referred to as the Enterprise Resource Planning, or ERP, project. (The project is ongoing and remains a disaster: Council heard an update from the consultants on the project in September and were advised that final implementation would be delayed another six months, and that the total cost was now projected to be $35 million, nearly $10 million more than originally budgeted.) Employees in the IT department alleged that Keenan had “openly threatened IT staff with making negative reports to County Council” about the ERP project.
Keenan sent a narrative response to the HR office in March 2018, addressing the allegations. She said that while she did regularly notify the ERP team when their actions would require council approval, she denied doing so threateningly.
“It is my responsibility as the county’s Budget Director to ensure that agencies, departments and projects are operating within budget,” she wrote.
With that in mind, her advice on the ERP project was often stern. She admitted that she communicated her concern about the project’s management, though she denied calling IT director Scot Rourke and Cindy Nappi, who’d been hired to oversee the ERP project, “fucking idiots.”
Her concern, she said, was for the county and its coffers.
“The county is investing $25 million to implement a system that is going to be in operation for many many years. This is an extremely large and complicated project and it is critically important to County operations that it is done correctly.”
Keenan said she communicated her concerns about Rourke and Nappi regularly to her direct supervisor — at that time, fiscal officer Dennis Kennedy — and to Budish. She was worried because neither Rourke nor Nappi had public sector experience, and she believed that they “did not appreciate dissent.”
She included extensive examples of what she viewed as poor decision-making — the decision to award no-bid contracts to vendors, for example, or making budget changes without the legal authority to do so — and said she did express concern about Rourke and Nappi’s performance but denied that she did so unprofessionally.
As to the other, miscellaneous charges of unprofessionalism, Keenan made some concessions. She admitted that she sometimes texted during meetings, for example.
“There are a lot of meetings and it is impossible to attend them all and still meet the expectation of OBM,” she wrote. “Yes, I have expressed frustration, usually when it is not the first time I have raised the concern … And yes, I speak loudly.”
She noted, for the record, that she was “wholly supportive” of the ERP project. “I would like to be clear, though, that being supportive does not — and cannot — necessarily mean going along with every decision the ERP Team makes.”
In concluding remarks, she restated her position. “I recognize to some I am considered to be too critical and not accommodating, but I have a responsibility, both professionally and personally, to act in accordance with the law and to make what I feel are the best decisions for OBM, the Fiscal Office, and this County.”
Unlike her superiors the following year, Keenan’s denials and generous explanations were not sufficient to discredit the allegations against her. In an April 2018 memo from Ed Morales, then the county’s HR director, Keenan was told that many of the allegations (except for the use of profanity) had been corroborated by witnesses.
Furthermore, Morales told Keenan that one of her own emails was corroborative of the allegations. In a Jan. 25 message, she had written, “I apologize if I was in any way unprofessional this afternoon.”
Morales told Keenan that she was guilty of minor infractions of unbecoming conduct as outlined in the County Policies and Procedures Manual. “The behavior complained of falls squarely within this rule,” Morales wrote.
Later in 2018, additional complaints were filed against Keenan that hewed closely to these allegations of unprofessionalism. One woman on the IT staff characterized her behavior as “antics” and said every time she encountered Keenan, “it is negative.”
In another complaint, a new male hire said he was “shocked” by the unprofessionalism he saw on display at a county Board of Control meeting, when the ERP project was being discussed.
“When I began to explain to Mr. Budish the work that was being done, a woman, unknown to me, raised her voice toward me and said that REA funds cannot be used for this project and that Dennis Kennedy knows nothing about the contract …” the written complaint read. “The next item presented to Mr. Budish was also from IT. [Kennedy] read the item and again the person sitting next to Budish became aggressive about REA funds and Dennis Kenndy’s ignorance about the contract. When I attempted to clarify that I agreed and provided reasons why the funds should come from the ERP budget, the same confrontational woman said the money should come from Public Works Storm and Sanitary.”
Morales sent Keenan an email in December saying that HR had investigated the matter and that no violations of policy were found. However, Morales advised Keenan at length about workplace conduct, even recommending that she take an online course entitled “Respect in the Workplace – It’s not Just Sexual Harassment.”
“Maggie,” he concluded, “you hold a key position in the organization and have significant influence. People in key leadership positions are looked upon as role models. Our culture should be characterized by respect and courteous treatment of others, even in disagreement or frustration. This can be difficult, but needs to be.”
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Maggie Keenan is now making good on her threat to “sue the shit out of” the county. She told Cleveland.com in an email blast on the day of her termination that she was fired only two days after she spoke with chief of staff Bill Mason about retaliation. Keenan’s lawyer, Chris Thorman, has alleged that her dismissal was a direct result of her willingness to speak out against corruption.
“Without question, this is retaliation,” Thorman told Scene in December. “She stood up to corruption in its many forms and lost her job because of it.”
Managing the county’s budget gave Keenan unique insight into the operations of the county and its many departments. She was regarded as a key witness in the investigation of the county’s chief talent officer Douglas Dykes, for example. According to prosecutors, it was “well known within the County Administration Building” that Keenan believed Dykes had broken the law.
(Dykes has been charged with theft in office for converting moving expenses into a “signing bonus” for IT hire Jim Hay. Cleveland.com reported last week that Dykes personally repaid the balance, roughly $10,000 via cashier’s check on Jan. 14, even though Hay was repaying the county in monthly installments. “Dykes’ payment in the middle of his criminal case could open the door for prosecutors to argue at trial that it was proof that Dykes had a guilty conscience,” Cleveland.com reported. Dykes resigned Monday in the wake of these revelations.)
But for now, Keenan joins a slew of other employees named in this piece who no longer work for the county. Dennis Kennedy, as previously mentioned, took a substantial pay cut to work in the more serene municipal waters of University Heights.
Scot Rourke was officially fired in October, after 19 months of unpaid leave (the salary and benefits of which he’s hoping to recover in a current lawsuit). Rourke was booted after county council pressured Budish about Rourke’s purgatorial status and the lack of a replacement in a cabinet-level position for upwards of a year-and-a-half. Cindy Nappi, who’d been brought on to run the ERP project, was transferred to HR.
Bill Mason, who fired Keenan, is by all accounts running the show at county HQ. He’s certainly being credited with staunching the bleeding at the jail. On the day of Keenan’s firing, he tacitly denied that Keenan had made formal complaints about jail conditions in 2018. Her April 2018 email to Budish and other top leaders, attached to a court filing in the Dykes case, confirms that she did indeed formally warn leaders.
Mason has taken the reins from Matt Carroll, who became the interim chief of staff following the resignation of former Shaker Heights mayor Earl Leiken, who had replaced Sharon Sobol Jordan, the chief of staff who skedaddled on the day she was subpoenaed and became the CEO of the Unify Project, a baffling high-tech nonprofit startup that appears to be on its last legs.
Budish is doing all he can to escape his term in one piece, though he’ll be lucky to ever see a dime from his vaunted roster of Democratic donors ever again. He has been responsible for an administration more calamitous than anything the county has witnessed since Dennis Kucinich’s turbulent mayoral term in Cleveland in the late 1970s.
The news on the ERP project has been one disaster after another. It’s now expected to cost $35 million, more than $9 million over budget, and will arrive at least two years late. Its implementation is expected to last through 2020, though given its track record, that timeline should be taken with a grain of salt.
“I think we’re just frustrated — constantly bailing out, constantly trying to correct what we’ve witnessed as being a project that’s been deficient,” councilwoman Sunny Simon said in October.
Maggie Keenan, of course, felt the same way. As the director of the county’s budget office, she was in a position to watch the ERP disaster fall off the rails in real time. But the concerns she voiced and the confrontations she instigated were perceived as “unprofessional.”
If the past three years of Armond Budish’s train-wreck administration have taught us anything, it’s that internal confrontation is required. County residents should be thankful that Keenan was calling out the most egregious examples of ignorance and mismanagement; and they should be alarmed that “professionalism,” under Budish, connotes a commitment to remaining silent about these offenses.