Shortly before he went to Duzyk, Hartnett discovered additional conflict-of-interest issues. He discovered that Merrill is married to the director of human resources at the Office of Education, Michele Fort-Merrill. According to Hartnett’s attorney, Barry Vrevich, only after Merrill’s wife took control of the human resources department did Best, Best, and Krieger, the second-highest-paid firm on the county education office’s panel, start receiving cases.
“The further I went, the more corruption I discovered,” Hartnett said.
Earlier that year, in January 2006, Hartnett misplaced a set of keys. His girlfriend suggested he try to picture the last time he had had them. Nothing came to mind. Hartnett’s girlfriend, a speech pathologist, asked him to spell a three-syllable word. Then she asked him to spell it backwards. Hartnett couldn’t. He wasn’t surprised; he says he assumed he was “dumb” and had a poor memory. As a college student in St. Louis, he’d been forced to take off a semester due to poor grades. Playing basketball in high school, he couldn’t remember how the coach drew up plays. He had never passed the bar exam, failing the multiple-choice part four times. His girlfriend asked him if he had ever been tested for a learning disability. Hartnett had not. She recommended the Lindamood-Bell Learning Center in Del Mar, and a few weeks later, after a series of tests, specialists confirmed that Hartnett suffered from visual processing impairment. His scores revealed that his reading comprehension was at a sixth-grade level.
Hartnett sent an email to Crosier informing her of his condition. He explained that the visual processing impairment affected his work. He would forget emails; anything visual would not stick, or as he explains it: “It affected my ability to do my job. Your mind acts like a camera. My brain doesn’t have a camera — or there’s no film in the camera. I have to paint by numbers.”
In June 2006, Hartnett asked for financial assistance to help pay for the $5000 corrective training at the Lindamood-Bell Institute. His request was denied. “I was a little pissed off,” said Hartnett, before laughing. “If I would have lost my arm, there would have been some help, some accommodation.”
He was, however, allowed to use his vacation and sick leave for his five-week training program to help him cope with the disability. Every day for five weeks, Hartnett left the office at 2:30 p.m. and drove to Del Mar for a two-hour training session. Most of the exercises consisted of reading a paragraph and then describing what he’d read. During his training, no one at the Office of Education commented on his disability, though shortly after beginning the training, Crosier stripped away Hartnett’s supervisory duties.
By the time the five weeks were up, Hartnett had gone from a 6th-grade reading-comprehension level to a 12th-grade level. A couple of months later, Crosier restored his supervisory duties, but he had only one person to supervise. “She took away my investigator and my secretary. It was a violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. They are not supposed to discriminate against you because of a disability.”
The following summer, in June 2007, Hartnett sent an email using the office’s email account to a Los Angeles lawyer, one he had known for years, asking his opinion on a class-action lawsuit his boss had accused him of mishandling and overpaying for. He attached a copy of the closing report on the case. Hartnett later mailed the lawyer a copy of the original lawsuit at his own expense. The lawyer did not charge any fees for reviewing the matter.
A few weeks later, Crosier called Hartnett into her office. She asked him whether he had used county resources to consult with the lawyer. He had not. She asked him whether he had used the county email system to send the document. He says he forgot that he had sent it using his county email address and he told her no.
“I didn’t remember doing it,” said Hartnett. “That’s the basis for the dishonesty. Knowing all the while that I have a visual processing impairment that affects my ability to remember visual events. They knew that.”
On October 5, 2007, Hartnett was terminated. Seventeen months after that, on March 27, 2009, San Diego superior court judge Steven Denton granted the writ that ordered the San Diego County Office of Education to reinstate Hartnett and award him back pay for the time he was out of work. In October, the office’s appeal was dismissed. On November 30, Hartnett reported to work, the first time in two years, only to be handed a letter that stated he was being placed on paid administrative leave and ordering him not to speak to any school district representatives.
Hartnett says the county must have hired someone else to do his job, meaning taxpayers are paying not only Hartnett’s salary but also the salary of whoever is replacing him. In addition, Hartnett claims the county is not following the court order to send him back pay for the past two years. In early December he received two checks for back pay; the gross amount was $46,000, not the $300,000 he was owed.
According to Jim Esterbrooks, public information officer for the Office of Education, the office will not comment on Hartnett’s case. The office also refused to provide its legal costs associated with Hartnett’s termination suit.
The San Diego County Office of Education “continues to request Shinoff and Winet,” wrote Esterbrooks in an email. “Both are extremely experienced and successful in their work on behalf of school districts. That’s why school districts request them. SDCOE continues to use Best, Best & Krieger, where Merrill works.”
Hartnett estimates that the cost of fighting the wrongful termination suit and of paying him to stay home is approaching the million-dollar mark.
“These are public funds,” Harnett says. “This isn’t corporate greed; this is public money we are talking about.”
On December 15, Hartnett received a letter notifying him that once again the Office of Education recommended that he be terminated. He is appealing.