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New records show relations soured before Oregon Health Authority equity director’s firing

Leann Johnson criticized top agency leaders and filed formal complaints against them claiming discrimination and retaliation. In firing her, Director Sejal Hathi cited a backlog of unresolved civil rights complaints that equity managers attributed to understaffing
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Oregon Health Authority Sejal Hathi addressed agency employees in a video on her first day, Jan. 16, 2024 | SCREENSHOT FROM OHA VIDEO
July 2, 2024
This article has been updated and expanded to incorporate a state comment received after deadline.

Newly obtained records show how in four months Oregon Health Authority Director Sejal Hathi went from praising her agency’s longtime equity director to pushing Leann Johnson out the door. 

Hathi’s abrupt firing of Johnson on June 21, two days after the Juneteenth holiday, has sparked questions externally as well as morale issues and open dissension among agency employees. The fallout from the situation now poses new challenges for Hathi as she pursues health reforms and makes a focus of the agency’s goal of eliminating health disparities by the year 2030. 

The documents show Johnson repeatedly questioned or criticized managers —including at the agency’s highest levels—when she felt their actions were contributing to inequities or discrimination. Records and other reporting by Oggys Online also show that at the time of her firing, Johnson had filed at least two complaints alleging retaliation or discrimination by top officials at the agency—including against Hathi herself.

The records also show Hathi and an agency personnel official expressed alarm at delays by Johnson’s division that had resulted in a backlog of incomplete employee civil rights investigations

While the basis for firings are typically kept confidential, a record obtained by Oggys Online shows that Hathi cited the investigations backlog in a letter to HR director Jennifer Midkiff that was apparently sent shortly before the firing. Hathi wrote that the delayed civil rights investigations resulted in an “erosion of trust and confidence” in Johnson. She also wrote that the way Johnson navigated disagreements internally “hindered effective collaboration, and undermined trust and morale on the agency leadership team.” 

“I was carrying out my responsibility as a public employee as determined by the Oregon Health Authority and state policy.”

In the letter, Hathi said she considered whether coaching Johnson would improve things, but concluded it would not. Hathi said Johnson had shown an “inability, or unwillingness” to receive feedback. 

In an interview, Johnson challenged Hathi’s reasoning. She told Oggys Online the backlog of complaints was “an agency problem” caused by a lack of resources, echoing what another manager had said in an email regarding the backlog. Johnson also described Hathi’s portrayals of her as vague and lacking basis, adding that she was not given a chance to respond to the claims in the letter and wasn’t offered coaching.

In an apparent reference to state whistleblower protection law, Johnson added that the letter appears to reference whistleblower complaints she filed against top agency managers. 

“OHA Director Hathi’s undated letter about the reasons for my termination also contains what I consider to be an odd reference to my protected whistleblower complaints, which is even more suspicious given that I had recently filed a protected retaliation complaint against Director Hathi herself,” wrote Johnson. 

As for her outspokenness, Johnson said in an interview she was doing her job. “I was carrying out my responsibility as a public employee as determined by the Oregon Health Authority and state policy,” she said. 

Hathi, through a spokesperson, declined to be interviewed. A state spokesperson sent a comment after an initial version of this article published: “Director Hathi had no knowledge or record of any HR complaint or complaints against her by Ms. Johnson, until after Ms. Johnson’s termination.”

The firing of Johnson has sparked internal and external questions about the future of the agency’s equity efforts and whether Johnson’s unit will be dismantled or its powers limited. Asked about her plans, Hathi had a spokesperson issue a statement on her behalf reiterating her commitment to equity, saying progress requires a “whole-agency and whole-systems approach.”

While the Equity and Inclusion Division “must lead in this,” Hathi said, according to the statement, “every division must be equipped, resourced, and supported to take greater responsibility and leadership to ensure equity is woven into every corner of our work.”

Trust, transparency and praise

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OREGON HEALTH AUTHORITY

Hathi, a 32-year-old Ivy League—educated former Biden administration advisor who is the daughter of Indian-American immigrants, began at the Oregon Health Authority on January 16, 2024.

Johnson, a 61-year-old Black woman, had been head of the health authority’s Equity and Inclusion Division for nearly a decade. Her unit and division had flourished under previous directors, roughly quadrupling in size. She oversaw an annual budget of about $26 million and 86 employees who worked on a wide variety of programs including health care interpreters and internal workplace complaints.

Records and interviews show that Hathi, who’d stressed equity upon taking the job, soon encountered Johnson and her role as a strong voice within the agency.

In February Hathi began a series of town hall meetings with staff while sending all-staff emails stressing themes of trust. On Feb. 29 she sent an all-staff email stressing the need for transparency and noting concerns raised over the agency’s decision not to publish a report on alcohol prices and consultation.

The same day, Johnson emailed top health authority leaders raising concerns that because of racial impacts of drug laws, the drug recriminalization measure House Bill 4002 moving through the Legislature was “creating deep angst, fear and emotion” for employees of color, and top managers should check in with their legislative teams for an “agency wide response.”

The email apparently reflected staff members’ concerns about how the agency was engaging with lawmakers in Salem over the bill. Shawna McDermott, interim health systems director, chimed in, writing that staff had raised concerns “regarding the disconnect between the experience in legislative session, particularly around HB 4002, and the timing of your email, Sejal, on Trust.”

Hathi wrote that she didn’t understand McDermott’s point. But she added, “I’m eager to learn.”

In a March 2 email, Hathi praised Johnson and other managers for drafting “incredibly well done” strategy plans.

Later in March, Johnson emailed two managers about some “very concerning things” she’d heard about health equity incentives for the state’s regional Medicaid insurers. Johnson forwarded the email to Hathi and Dave Baden, the agency’s deputy director and a close ally of Hathi. 

“Cool,” responded Baden, who wrote that he had heard concerns but hadn’t discussed them. 

“Thanks, and it is really not that cool,” responded Johnson.

Baden apologized for the word choice. 

“These complaints range from gender and racial discrimination to sexual harassment. As you can imagine, this lack of closure and response has opened the Agency to a great deal of risk from a legal perspective.”

Workplace complaints lagged for years 

On March 29, Billy Martin, an HR manager, wrote to Johnson and Janice Kim, an equity and inclusion manager, that an Oregon State Hospital employee had hand-delivered an attached packet. 

Its contents regarded a complaint the employee had brought to the Equity and Inclusion Division in February 2021.Martin wrote that the complainant had been unable to get a response from the Equity and Inclusion Division team on their case status.

A separate complaint, he wrote, had been filed against the division “regarding at least two sexual harassment complaints that remained open for well over a year and not being brought to closure.” Martin added that he had a “tracker” on Equity and Inclusion investigations showing several other unresolved Oregon State Hospital cases, some of which were nearly two years old.  

“These complaints range from gender and racial discrimination to sexual harassment,” he wrote. “As you can imagine, this lack of closure and response has opened the Agency to a great deal of risk from a legal perspective.” He included Hathi in the email. 

Hathi responded calling the agency’s lack of response “extremely concerning and disappointing.” She added that she was even more concerned about the unaddressed complaints still before the Equity and Inclusion Division. 

“I want every member of the leadership team to feel like they have each other’s backs, and we’re in this together. And I’m not sure that we are there right now.”

In the email thread, Kim responded that she was planning to respond to the person with the unresolved complaint. 

“This unfortunately is a matter that went to a civil rights investigator whom I removed from trial service due to poor performance and I took this matter and others from that removed investigator to close them out,” she wrote.

Kim noted that Martin hadn’t brought up the matters during the monthly check-ins between Equity and Inclusion and HR. Kim also wrote that Equity and Inclusion's investigations unit was facing “higher-than-ever caseloads (and) short-staffing.”  

“I am hopeful that this is an opportunity for true partnership and candor to address issues that have contributed to this situation,” she wrote.

The next day she added that the Equity and Inclusion Division had for years raised concerns about the contributing factors to the backlog, and it usually resulted in little or no improvement.

Johnson and Kim requested meetings to discuss the matter. Hathi instead asked them for their plan “to resolve and close this specific case, as well as understanding the full extent of the cited backlog in other E&I investigations, so we can determine how to address those in an appropriately timely manner.”

Johnson told Oggys Online in an interview that the complaint regarding the state hospital employee was resolved and there was “no further action related to the conduct of (Equity and Inclusion).” 

Dueling concerns

In April and May of this year, Johson continued to raise concerns about agency leadership’s work, including the choices of a new agency logo design  and the name ”Operation Clean Sweep” used for a project to clean out and reorganize the agency’s headquarters building. 

The name bore connotations of “redlining, gentrification, sweeping of the houseless and genocide,” she wrote. She also said an apology issued by Baden to tribal representatives for not briefing them in advance of a hiring panel they were on did not go far enough. In addition, she urged agency leadership to apologize for an agency press release that she said offended and stigmatized the LGBTQ+ community, 

Meanwhile, Hathi continued to look into concerns over backlogs in Johnson’s division. On April 16, Hathi wrote to Kim and Johnson asking for an update on the case HR had flagged earlier. She continued that she was discussing what to do about the broader backlog through “parallel channels.”

Johnson responded that she was awaiting a meeting request from Hathi’s office. But Hathi said she wanted a response within the next two days. On April 19, Kim wrote in an email to Hathi that the delayed investigation had been closed. 

“And for those asking if this is true, it is. Effective immediately.”

‘Have each other’s backs’

In May, Hathi made comments during a meeting of the Oregon Health Policy Board that many interpreted at the time as referring to Johnson. Hathi appeared to indicate that managers who did not play well with her team might be replaced with people from outside the agency.

“I want every member of the leadership team to feel like they have each other’s backs, and we’re in this together,” Hathi told the board. “And I’m not sure that we are there right now.”

Hathi added that she was hopeful that agency leadership would have a more trusting culture after bringing in “new individuals that may not have the local trauma of serving here over the last several years.”

Trauma had been a frequent talking point for Johnson. Moreover, Hathi’s discussion of the need for trust among the leadership team came as the state continued to investigate at least one civil rights complaint Johnson had filed against the agency’s top leadership.

Specifically, records show that Johnson filed a civil rights complaint with the Bureau of Labor and Industries in December 2023. She alleged that top health authority leaders had tried to undermine her leadership, treated employees differently based on race and frozen her out of disciplinary proceedings regarding an employee she had reported for racial discrimination. 

One month after Hathi made her remarks to the board, she reached out to Johnson to schedule an in-person meeting on Tuesday, June 18, in an email with the subject line “E&I Confer.” 

Records obtained by Oggys Online showed that Hathi that morning had completed her memo that laid out the basis for Johnson’s firing. 

The meeting with Johnson was pushed back to Friday because of scheduling conflicts. Johnson requested they meet virtually because she would be finishing up another meeting. Hathi agreed, but noted that there were “a couple agenda items that are more amenable to an in- person discussion, if possible.”

When Johnson asked what the agenda items for the meeting were, Hathi responded, “A couple things related to reflections on my first 6 months and my vision for the next.”

Immediately following the meeting, Johnson sent out an email to staff letting them know she had been fired.

“My email is about to be cut off” Johnson wrote at 10:20 a.m. At 10:38 a.m., she added, “And for those asking if this is true, it is. Effective immediately.”

The health authority immediately shut down her email account. It still has no automated reply for people trying to reach her or the equity division, and emails to her are met with replies of “message blocked” or “delivery has failed.”

Staff left with questions

On June 25, OHA managers organized a virtual drop-in and listening session for employees to share their feelings and ask questions. The agency did not record the meeting or maintain a transcript. However, a chat log for the meeting shows skepticism and dismay on the part of some employees.

One asked if Johnson’s firing was because of  “HR/performance issues” or because of a “change in strategic direction that Leann wasn't willing to implement?” Another asked if the firing was done at Gov. Tina Kotek’s behest.

One asked if ageism played a role in the firing by Hathi. Another asked if Hathi’s contention that health equity should be spread throughout the agency could mean “a watering down (by) spreading the work and closing E&I as a division.”

One staff member asked if there were any efforts to sign an electronic card for Johnson, saying “I’d like to share my gratitude.”

Another chimed in, “Yes, definitely feel like rug pulled out.”


You can reach Jake Thomas at [email protected] or via Twitter @jthomasreports

Comments

Submitted by Sher Griffin on Wed, 07/03/2024 - 10:06 Permalink

I'm relieved that Hathi has begun to uncover the corrupt power dynamics at play, manipulating human lives for selfish gain. However, it extends far beyond just Johnson. The issue is systemic, deeply rooted in structures and institutions that perpetuate inequality and injustice.

Regarding the notion of disseminating DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) work, it's almost a no-brainer. This is precisely how it should have always been. DEI initiatives are meant to be inclusive and widespread, empowering everyone to participate and benefit. When DEI efforts are monopolized by a select few, it undermines the entire purpose. DEI should be a collective effort, integrated into every aspect of our communities and organizations, to truly drive meaningful and sustainable change. Hoarding DEI within the hands of a few not only contradicts its fundamental principles but also hampers the progress towards a just and equitable society.