Alaska correctional officer, union president sues DOC bosses

thanlon@adn.comJanuary 29, 2014 

The president of the Alaska Correctional Officers Association filed a lawsuit against top officials at the Department of Corrections Tuesday alleging repeated harassment.

Randall McLellan's lawsuit targets DOC Commissioner Joe Schmidt and Director of Institutions Bryan Brandenburg and says the men punished him in retaliation for his union advocacy.

McLellan is asking for more than $100,000 in damages, plus attorney fees and related expenses, in the lawsuit filed Tuesday in Alaska Superior Court.

McLellan, who represents more than 900 correctional officers, has often acted as spokesman for a union long entrenched in battles with administrators over issues like staffing levels and safety.

The lawsuit alleges a series of conflicts starting in 2008 after the union issued a vote of no confidence in Schmidt, who spearheaded staffing cuts.

Shortly after the vote, the department started "a secret monitoring file" on McLellan and asked officers to "watch" him, the 13-page lawsuit says.

"The file included reports of such trivial matters as failure to say good morning, a failure to verbally respond to a comment and a failure to wear his name tag," the lawsuit says. "The file was created in an apparent effort to find grounds for subjecting McLellan to discipline."

In April 2008, Brandenburg directed McLellan to speak to the media about an infectious bacterial disease that had worried DOC. McLellan told reporters he was also concerned about a lack of clean linens and prisoner clothing at the Mat-Su Pretrial Facility where he worked, the lawsuit says.

Schmidt then rebutted McLellan's claims on a radio talk show, slamming him as "the one responsible for the problem and he characterized him as a union member who was spreading hate and fear through false statements about a clothing shortage that did not exist," according to the lawsuit.

Brandenburg instructed McLellan and his shift to conduct an "intense and thorough sanitation" of the Mat-Su Pretrial Facility, which the lawsuit called a "punishment and retaliation for McLellan's exercise of his First Amendment rights of free speech and association."

The lawsuit goes on to list instances over more than five years when McLellan was unfairly disciplined, like a seven-day suspension for failing to pick up outgoing inmate mail. He was also denied business leave, the opportunity to work overtime and assignment to positions in favor of officers with less seniority, the lawsuit says.

"It is a repeated joke among staff at the Mat-Su Pretrial Facility that you should not stand too close to McLellan because he has a target on his back and they might miss and hit you," it says.

Four days after a labor arbitrator ruled in favor of the union in a case against the DOC, McLellan was allegedly ordered to appear for an investigatory interview.

The interview on April 24, 2013 concerned an incident on March 2 where McLellan pepper-sprayed an inmate described as a "violent offender" so he could close the cell door, says the lawsuit.

He was placed on administrative leave on May 10 and escorted out of the Mat-Su Pretrial Facility.

McLellan was ultimately demoted on June 12 from sergeant to correctional officer II. The lawsuit says the demotion letter accused him of repeatedly disregarding polices, procedures and management directives, but no evidence of misconduct was presented at the disciplinary hearing.

He and his shift had to undergo "retraining" which included being pepper-sprayed in the face. McLellan had already been pepper-sprayed once as part of training and the lawsuit says there was "no justification" for it to happen again.

Kaci Schroeder, DOC spokeswoman, said people are "periodically retrained if there's an issue," but that information is contained in personal files. She could not say if anyone had been pepper-sprayed twice in the past.

Schroeder declined to comment on any of the allegations in the lawsuit. She confirmed that McLellan currently works as a correctional officer at the Mat-Su Pretrial Facility.

"It's really soon, it was just filed," she said. "So we haven't had the chance to figure out if there's comment or no comment or what's going on."

McLellan's attorney, David Shoup, said he could not comment outside of what's in the lawsuit.

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