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Ex-workers say culture at health district marked by sexual impropriety, voodoo

Pool regulation in Southern Nevada might have gone off the deep end.

Three former employees of the Southern Nevada Health District are suing the agency, alleging they were fired for exposing incompetent management of the district’s swimming pool review program. And that’s not all.

They’re accusing health district administrators of cultivating a bizarre work environment in which sexual impropriety and voodoo dolls were the norm and professionalism resulted in punishment.

Lawyers for Valerie Hirata, Whitnie Taylor and Angela Jones filed the lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court. Defendants named in the lawsuit include the district, former Chief Health Officer Lawrence Sands, former Environmental Health Director Glenn Savage and several other agency employees.

Attorney Andre Lagomarsino, who represents the plaintiffs, said the agency’s administration retaliated against his clients for complaining about public pools being licensed and approved without meeting state codes and regulations.

Lagomarsino said the pool program at the agency was divided into two parts: employees who licensed and inspected pool plans, and employees who enforced codes and regulations. His clients, who worked in enforcement, noticed that employees approved plans without reviewing them or approved plans that didn’t meet code.

“Some people in licensing didn’t know what they were doing when they approved these pools,” he said. “Enforcement comes out a year later to check these pools that had already been approved by the health district, and they needed thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands in repairs to get them up to code.”

District spokeswoman Stephanie Bethel said that she hadn’t seen the lawsuit. Also, the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation, she said.

The permits were rushed because of a huge backlog, a practice encouraged by Savage and other supervisors, the lawsuit said. Employees were required to approve 20 pools a week, an impossible task in a 40-hour work week, the lawsuit said. When that couldn’t be accomplished, Lagomarsino’s clients were disciplined and forced to resign last year, the lawsuit said.

The health district regulates all public and commercial pools in Clark County, including pools at Strip resorts.

Several resort pools were incorrectly built and — to this day — don’t meet the Nevada administrative code, the lawsuit said. Those resorts were not named but will be disclosed in discovery, according to the lawsuit.

His clients filed a union grievance, but their claims were ignored by Sands, and they were later punished by Savage, the lawsuit said. All of his clients and several other employees who filed grievances were forced to resign, Lagomarsino said.

Sands and Savage no longer work at the district. They could not be reached for comment.

The lawsuit also alleged odd behavior of the plaintiff’s co-workers.

One of the licensing employees, Lorraine Forston, created voodoo dolls of the plaintiffs and brought them to work, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit included photos of the voodoo dolls.

“She was approving swimming pool plans without inspecting them, and she was angry at my clients for pointing that out,” Lagomarsino said. “That was the reason for the dolls.”

Forston was demoted for referring business to people she was regulating, the lawsuit said, but she denied the allegations when reached by phone Wednesday.

“I didn’t make voodoo dolls. That’s what they ascertained,” she said. “There’s way more to the story, which they’re not telling.”

She also disputed the reasons the lawsuit said she was demoted.

“That never happened. I had requested a transfer and wanted to take a demotion to get away from these people,” she said.

Forston declined to expand on her point, citing the district’s policy that its employees don’t speak to the media.

The lawsuit also accused Savage, who managed the pool program, of promoting several women with whom he had been romantically involved. The women loyal to Savage were called “honey badgers” and received office perks, the lawsuit said.

Lagomarsino said his clients have moved on and don’t want their jobs back.

“My clients .. had a lot invested as public employees, in the PERS system, which eventually pays off in the end. But they were shown the door for trying to do the right thing.”

 

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