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Tuesday, May 2, 2000

Federal suit
targets Rodrigues

Defamation and breach of
contract claimed in the suit
by a fired UPW official

By Ian Lind


A former high-level employee of the United Public Workers says he was fired from the union in 1998 because he was suspected of leaking information to the Star-Bulletin for a series of investigative stories critical of UPW state director Gary Rodrigues, according to a federal court lawsuit.

John Witeck, then-assistant director of the union's Oahu Division, was fired after Rodrigues "became fearful that plaintiff's continued employment by (UPW) would lead to exposure of the wrongful and illegal conduct," the suit alleges.

The suit seeks unspecified damages for defamation, discrimination, invasion of privacy, breach of contract and other violations.

Witeck, a 26-year union veteran and one-time candidate for state director, had been publicly praised by the union as late as 1994, when Rodrigues called him "a dynamic, caring and committed individual of high integrity," and for his "high standards, loyalty, and commitment towards public service," the suit contends.

PGMA story was a trigger

Witeck was fired without notice on June 10, 1998, less than two years before he would have been eligible to retire with full benefits. He was threatened with further legal action "in the event there is public or media disclosure of your termination from employment with the UPW."

According to the suit filed yesterday, Rodrigues "became extremely angry and upset" about a January 1998 Star-Bulletin news story that disclosed that a company owned by Rodrigues' daughter was a consultant to the union's former health insurance carrier, Pacific Group Medical Association. The consulting contract was revealed in court records after PGMA became insolvent and was seized by insurance regulators in March 1997.

Thousands of union members were affected when the insurer failed, leaving behind an estimated $19 million to $26 million in unpaid claims and other debts.

At the time, Witeck was the union's representative on the board of trustees of the Public Employees Health Fund, and was suspected of questioning the financial health of PGMA, the suit alleges.

Rodrigues could not be reached for comment yesterday. He has refused to answer questions from the Star-Bulletin concerning PGMA and related matters for two years.

The receptionist at UPW headquarters hung up yesterday afternoon when the Star-Bulletin sought comment from the union.

Witeck's suit charges the union with age and race discrimination, as well as violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a "right to sue" letter to Witeck last month, in response to a 1999 discrimination complaint.

Efforts for deaf stir trouble

According to the suit, Witeck first ran into trouble at the union due to his efforts to obtain sign language interpreters for several deaf union members, which drew "hostility and animosity" from Rodrigues. The EEOC filed suit against the union in mid-1997 and charged that the union's refusal to provide interpreters was a violation of federal law.

That case was settled last year after the union agreed to pay damages to two UPW members, and to institute a training program and other internal reforms.

"Rodrigues made racist and demeaning comments" about Witeck "during staff meetings, in hallways, and around the union hall," which are cited in the suit as evidence of race discrimination. Rodrigues referred to him as "the haole," Witeck told the Star-Bulletin earlier.

The suit also claims Witeck was personally attacked and defamed by statements published in the union newsletter, "Malama Pono."

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