BURLINGTON — Former Coffey County dispatcher and volunteer firefighter Michaela Divoll was certain she landed a dream job providing emergency communications training to first responders across Kansas.
It was a role she felt equipped to handle and a mission that resonated with her sense that Kansas needed an interlocking radio network for police officers, medical personnel, disaster managers and other public safety officials drawn together in moments of crisis.
“I was making a difference. I really was,” Divoll said.
One month after accepting the civilian position within the Kansas Adjutant General’s Department in Topeka, Divoll’s supervisor appeared to reward her enthusiasm by recommending she accompany him to a professional training conference in Georgia. Divoll said Kansas Office of Emergency Communications supervisor Jason Bryant, working out of Wichita, also promised she was in line to become his backup as coordinator of the statewide communications interoperability plan.
The business trip in December 2013, Divoll said, took on a different tone when Bryant broached an unexpected subject during the flight to Brunswick, Ga. He suggested they engage in a sexual tryst at the conference hosted by the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, Divoll said.
Divoll recalled it this way: “He said, ‘Hey, we are out of state. We’re away from the office. We’re both single. If we want to be adults and have some fun, we can. I am your supervisor and anything we do can’t come back with us.’ ”
She said Bryant, who had unbuckled his seat belt to face her from an aisle seat in the aircraft, spoke in a low, conspiratorial voice about an ulterior motive for bringing her to the conference. She said her boss leaned toward her while emphasizing their intimacy would end as soon as wheels lifted off the tarmac on the way home. Divoll, who was estranged from her previous husband at the time, said Bryant insisted no one in Kansas know about any hotel liaison.
“I said, ‘No, thank you,’” Divoll said. “I didn’t think there would be any repercussions because it was just kind of tossed out there.”
Not the last word
In documents submitted to the adjutant general’s department, the Kansas Human Rights Commission and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and in multiple interviews, Divoll said her decision to rebuff Bryant was impetus for more than two years of workplace conflict in the Kansas Office of Emergency Communications.
Divoll authored a federal EEOC complaint alleging she encountered “retaliation, harassing and hostile working conditions and an extremely negative working environment” after rejecting Bryant. She said events leading to her firing in 2016 demonstrated, in her mind, willingness of some people affiliated with the adjutant general’s department to target individuals who rocked the boat.
Divoll offered no proof Bryant propositioned her and Bryant denied Divoll’s allegation he asked her for sex.
“It’s complete baloney,” Bryant said. “The allegations against myself were dropped.”
Bryant said it would be “generally” unacceptable for a civilian supervisor to be romantically involved with a junior employee in the adjutant general’s department.
Documents obtained by The Topeka Capital-Journal showed Kansas Air National Guard Col. Chris Stratmann, Bryant’s supervisor and the Kansas Guard’s top information technology officer, played an active role in handling Divoll’s complaints. Stratmann presided as Divoll was placed on administrative leave, transferred to a job as mailroom clerk and, ultimately, fired.
In March 2015, however, a formal settlement of Divoll’s EEOC complaint required Stratmann to reinstate Divoll to her previous communications training job. In addition to ending her mailroom assignment, the agreement mandated the adjutant general’s department pay her legal fees of $4,000. The deal extended to Divoll the option of using 320 hours of administrative leave during the upcoming year.
It ordered Bryant and Stephanie Burdett, a state human resources officer with the adjutant general’s office involved in Divoll’s case, to take workplace sexual harassment and equal employment training within 30 days.
Katie Horner, spokeswoman for Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli, who leads the Kansas Adjutant General’s Department and the Kansas National Guard, said in a statement Sunday that laws, regulations and policies prohibited comment on certain personnel matters. Tafanelli has commanded 7,500 soldiers and airmen of the Kansas Guard since 2011 and held responsibility for the communications training program since 2013.
“Our policy supports fair, impartial resolution and investigation methods,” Horner said. “This depends heavily on the willingness of reporting personnel to engage in the process. If misconduct is founded, appropriate disciplinary and corrective actions may result.”
In January, The Capital-Journal published an article about a separate investigation conducted by Kansas Guard officers from 2013 to 2015. That inquiry produced evidence of enlistment forgery, racist behavior, sexual assault, manipulation of promotions and impermissible troop fraternization. The Kansas Guard’s report said confidential information about the probe was leaked within the Kansas Guard to soldiers under scrutiny, and retaliation occurred against individuals assisting investigators.
A Kansas Guard one-star general and a lieutenant colonel separately concluded the Kansas Guard was being damaged by “toxic” leadership. Both officers urged Tafanelli, the state’s adjutant general, to reform a culture that protected wrongdoers and to demonstrate fair treatment was accessible to all in the organization.
Following printing of the January story, Tafanelli requested the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va., review the Kansas Guard’s response to findings of its own investigation. Results of that outsider assessment of the Kansas Guard have not been made public.
In a series of interviews, Divoll said Bryant’s conduct was enabled by Col. Stratmann, who declined to be interviewed for this story. Divoll said she was slow to appreciate personnel under the supervision of Tafanelli, as well as staff in the Kansas Department of Administration within the jurisdiction of Gov. Sam Brownback, might not consider her case with impartiality.
“They could literally do anything they wanted to me,” Divoll said. “Instead of helping you, they turn on you. I had a whole circle of people working against me. Toxic leadership, to me, really can’t be one person. It’s a group.”
In Divoll’s opinion, the workplace relationship between herself and Bryant deteriorated from collegial to confrontational immediately upon return from the Georgia conference. Divoll said Bryant’s offer to expand the scope of her job responsibilities was jettisoned. She said Bryant stopped responding to many of her telephone calls and emails. She was singled out for special scrutiny of routine daily tasks, she said.
Bryant said in an interview Divoll made the false claim of sexual harassment only after he began documenting her poor work habits in 2014. He said reasons for Divoll’s dismissal included her allegations against him, misuse of state resources and failure to show at work assignments.
Divoll said Bryant didn’t write her up for disciplinary shortcomings and failed to complete annual evaluations of her during the 2 1/2 years she spent in the adjutant general’s department.
She said she asked Stratmann multiple times to help bring to a close the clash with Bryant. She said Stratmann replied on one occasion, saying, “Oh, is that still happening? I asked him to stop.”
Divoll said Stratmann set up a meeting in June 2014 originally intended as a face-to-face clearing of the air between Divoll and Bryant. Instead, it evolved into an inquisition on Divoll’s personal life.
Burdett, state human resources director in the adjutant general’s department, pivoted to questions about who Divoll was dating at that time. Divoll had recently started seeing Craig Divoll, a peer in the communications training department who would later become her husband. Their relationship violated no policy, Divoll said.
“(Burdett) said, ‘When was your first date?’ I told her, because it was just a month before that,” Divoll said. “She goes, ‘We’ve already checked with legal, and if you admitted to dating him before you were actually divorced, we were going to fire you.’ ”
Divoll said during a separate meeting that Burdett dismissed her claims about Bryant, stating: “He’s not harassing you.”
In October 2014, Divoll said she refused to sign a time sheet presented to her by Bryant. She argued the document included inaccurate information. Bryant responded by transferring Divoll from an office in Wichita to an office in Topeka, which she had left months before to be closer to her home in Winfield.
Divoll filed her initial EEOC complaint in November 2014. She was subsequently placed on paid leave. A document informing her of this time away from work stated the decision was in “no way a disciplinary action.”
Stratmann moved in December 2014 to reinstate Divoll, but did so while transferring her to a newly created full-time post in the mailroom at the Kansas Guard’s joint forces headquarters in Topeka.
“I requested this action because I didn’t think … what was occurring was productive for anybody,” Stratmann said in a recording made of a conversation with Divoll about the mailroom transfer. “Obviously, you have a lot going on and whatnot. You will need time to meet with your attorney and things like that.”
Divoll was forbidden to participate in training of emergency responders. It obligated her to a 160-mile daily commute, a burden since she previously wasn’t expected to be in Topeka each day due to regular travel for training sessions. As a staff member in the mailroom, she said there was rarely more than a few hours of work each day.
Divoll said she interpreted Stratmann’s decision to isolate her as an attempt to “silence me.” However, Stratmann said in a March 2015 letter to Divoll the reassignment was inspired by her pending claim of a hostile work environment and allegation of sexual harassment. The colonel’s memorandum said she was removed from an “environment you affirmed was distressful.”
Through the formal mediation involving EEOC and adjutant general’s department, Divoll was restored to her communications training job in April 2015. Stratmann assigned her a new supervisor. He chose Chief Warrant Officer Stacie Hajney, who was in his chain of command.
“I believe Chief Hajney was chosen by Colonel Stratmann to be my supervisor for the purpose of creating working conditions so hostile that I would quit,” Divoll said.
In 2015, Divoll said she was responsible for scheduling or providing training for about 800 of the 1,100 people who received instruction on the state’s emergency communication systems, which involves the use of towers or mobile equipment to better link city, county, state or federal agencies.
Bottom falls out
Divoll provided documents indicating she was reprimanded by administrators while working for the adjutant general’s department.
One involved her attendance in August 2015 at a state communications committee meeting as a visitor while on an approved day off work. Bryant had forbid her to be at these public meetings as a representative of the emergency training program, but Divoll decided to drop by that gathering of communications network officials after completing a family obligation that was the basis for taking time off. She was accused of insubordination for allegedly misleading supervisors about her reason for requesting the day away from the office.
She also was written up by superiors for failure to follow instructions on completion of a training plan schedule and on authorization of overtime.
About one month before she was fired, Divoll said she was summoned by Hajney, her replacement supervisor, to discuss why Divoll had sought a couple of hours overtime pay. Hajney said the request was out of line, but Divoll disagreed. Portions of the conversation were cordial, according to the transcript of a recording from that meeting, but the dialogue also illustrated rising tension in the relationship.
“Is there anything that I am doing right?” Divoll asked Hajney. “Because we don’t talk about that. Never.”
“I would love to say that you are doing things right, Michaela,” Hajney said. “And, if we have less situations like this, we would have time for that.”
“I don’t like you insinuating that I am always doing something wrong,” Divoll said.
“I get five to 20 emails from you a day. A day, Michaela,” Hajney replied.
“No, you don’t,” Divoll said. “And, if you get emails from me, it’s because I have questions, and when you repeatedly don’t answer those questions, I still have questions.”
“The problem responding to your emails, Michaela, is that we have to choose our words carefully,” Hajney said. “You put us in a position where we have to choose everything we say carefully.”
“Why?” Divoll asked.
“Because it turns out that you use our words and our emails against us,” Hajney said.
Sixteen months ago, Stratmann and state human resources director Alice Burney arrived at Divoll’s office to personally deliver her dismissal notice.
The officials presented Divoll with a prepared letter of resignation, but she refused to sign.
While the state of Kansas challenged her unemployment claim, Divoll submitted supplemental EEOC complaints. In September 2016, an EEOC investigator notified her a review of available information didn’t establish violations of federal statute by employees in the adjutant general’s department. The EEOC also said the finding didn’t declare the department in compliance with U.S. law and left open the possibility of Divoll filing a lawsuit.
“I could have quit after a month or two months, but I stayed,” Divoll said. “I took everything they did to me, and they fired me anyway. Not only is it toxic, it’s like they circle around each other, protect each other.”
Divoll said, as far as she knows, Bryant endured no disciplinary action based on her allegation he sought sexual favors from a subordinate.
“The only way to handle this, to use an old farm term, is to cut the head off the snake,” Divoll said. “You have to stop it when it happens. You have to stop it on a case-by-case basis. You have to address that particular incident. Who did it. How they did it. Why they did it. And help that person. They have rules in place to do that, but they’re just not following them.”