Suit alleges abuse, racism
A former employee alleges racism and retaliation in a wrongful termination suit filed against the City of Port Arthur.
Debra Ambroise filed the suit Feb. 1 in federal court, naming the city of Port Arthur as a defendant.
Ambroise, who is also on the Port Arthur Independent School District school board, was hired by the city in 2008 as a water utility manager and fired in June 2016.
In the suit, Ambroise details a series of events leading to her termination and claims a hostile work environment led to an illness and extended leave in April 2016. The lawsuit cites a meeting April 15, 2016, between Ambroise, Transit General Manager Ron McElhose and others, during which the transit director allegedly yelled at Ambroise.
The lawsuit states, “As plaintiff was asking McElhose for instruction on how to satisfy McDougal’s concern, McElhose escalated the hostility further and began screaming at plaintiff, pointing fingers at plaintiff, and yelling ‘shut up, you shut up, shut your mouth right now, and get the hell out of my office.’”
According to the lawsuit, Ambroise then reported the incident and “threats of intimidation” to City Manager Brian McDougal and assistant city manager, Jimmie Johnson, despite warnings that doing so would cost Ambroise her job. The suit states that McDougal said he was “offended” by her complaint, and she was chastised for complaining. Because of the alleged hostile work environment, Ambroise filed for a Family Medical Leave Act request in order to take time off. She was granted the request.
It was during Ambroise’s leave that McDougal checked personnel records and timecards, discovering a timekeeping discrepancy that led to criminal charges being filed against Ambroise and her dismissal.
According to the lawsuit, McElhose “hand delivered” news of the discrepancy to McDougal and, without any further proof and after 15 minutes of thought, McDougal called the police and asked Lt. Bubba Blitch to investigate. The lawsuit goes on to say that McDougal fired Ambroise after the police alerted him that she would be arrested but before police could offer any evidence of wrongdoing to McDougal. According to the lawsuit, Ambroise learned she was fired via text message on June 12, 2016. In addition, the lawsuit alleges, “McDougal is on record admitting (he) gave plaintiff no notice of any question of a time discrepancy nor an opportunity to explain any questions of a discrepancy.”
Ambroise was arrested on July 19, 2016 and charged with aggregate theft by a public servant and five counts of tampering with a government record, both felony charges stemming from allegations that she falsified timecards.
In December 2016, the district attorney’s office decided not to pursue an indictment. Cory Kneeland, intake chief with the DA’s office, said at the time that exculpatory evidence came to light in mid-December that influenced the decision. That evidence included a transcript from an internal city hearing during which one of Ambroise’s supervisor cleared her of wrongdoing, stating “No, she didn’t intend to steal,” Kneeland said.
The lawsuit concludes that the falsified records were a pretext for termination and that Ambroise was really fired because she complained about harassment at work and because of her extended medical absence.
The city’s attorney did not return a call for comment and McDougal and Johnson declined to comment. McElhose, however, did speak briefly at his office until McDougal and Johnson arrived and ended the interview.
McElhose said he does believe the time records were forged with malice. However, he said in the initial hearing, Ambroise’s lawyer asked him whether the data had been flawed due to an accident or error, he said anything is possible.
“Her attorney was asking me if it was possible if I thought she did this by accident, and my response was it was possible and not probable,” McElhose said. “He asked the question about five times and each time I stuck with that answer: ‘it was possible and not probable.’”
He said it was common practice for employees to fill out their own time cards and that Ambroise allegedly reported as working some days she was off sick and at one point she took two vacation days and only reported one.
However, McElhose said the actual cost to the city “wasn’t much,” adding that he liked Ambroise. “I didn’t want her to go to jail,” he said.
The office of Larry Taylor, Ambroise’s attorney, said no court date has yet been set.