HSEMA Director Chris Rodriguez speaks from behind a lectern at Food and Friends in March 2020.
HSEMA Director Chris Rodriguez at a March 2020 press briefing

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In the intense, early days of the pandemic, Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency Director Chris Rodriguez was a regular at Mayor Muriel Bowser’s daily briefings. Bowser turned to Rodriguez for questions on D.C.’s COVID operations center, food supplies and “panic buying,” and coordination with the National Guard.

Even as the pandemic stretched into its second year, various agency heads cycled through the daily briefings, but Rodriguez remained alongside Bowser and DC Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt as a core piece of the District’s response team.

And then last fall he wasn’t. A senior Bowser administration official told City Paper in January that Rodriguez was taking some personal time. It was the same explanation Bowser gave for Nesbitt’s month-long disappearance from the public spotlight. Coordinating the government response to a global pandemic takes its toll, after all.

But City Paper contributor Tom Sherwood reported on Twitter that Rodriguez “was disappeared” from his appearances at the semi-regular briefings while a personnel review was underway and Bowser considered whether to fire him or improve his management style.

That consideration came at a critical time for emergency management overall, but also for the larger cluster of D.C. public safety agencies. The Office of Unified Communications, Department of Corrections, Metropolitan Police Department, and Department of Forensic Sciences have all seen changes in top leadership in the past two years.

Bowser appointed Rodriguez as HSEMA director in 2017, and the Council voted unanimously to approve him. He had previously worked as the director of New Jersey’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness under Gov. Chris Christie. Prior to that, Rodriguez managed a branch of the CIA that examined global economic and energy security and cyber threats, according to his resume.

HSEMA’s annual oversight hearing on Feb. 2 offered a peek into what’s happening behind the agency’s closed doors.

A public witness, Charles Sharp, chair and CEO of the nonprofit Black Emergency Managers Association International, described a “workplace climate assessment survey” that D.C.’s Department of Human Resources conducted in June 2021. Sharp said the catalyst for the survey was an April 2021 letter from a former high-level HSEMA executive that contained allegations of age and racial discrimination.

Sharp said HSEMA staff members believed the details of the assessment would be made public, but DCHR “reclassified and sealed” it. He asked the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, which has oversight of HSEMA, to release the findings and use them to develop a plan to address concerns about Rodriguez’s leadership.

In his own testimony, Rodriguez acknowledged the DCHR probe but said he had not seen the results. He referred questions from Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who chairs the public safety committee, to DCHR. Rodriguez also said HSEMA was in the midst of its own racial equity survey of employees—the second such survey in recent months—and that he intended to use the data to “implement any necessary changes.” He also reported that he’d established HSEMA’s “first ever racial equity team” and was in the process of hiring a chief equity and inclusion officer. The job has yet to be posted online.

In a back-and-forth with Allen, Rodriguez said the racial equity team was established as part of a pilot initiative in the Mayor’s Office of Racial Equity. The surveys, he said, were proactive steps he took “to understand what the concerns of employees are and … make sure we have firm understanding of any changes that are recommended.”

But the timing is certainly convenient.

The April 2021 letter Sharp mentioned in his testimony was filed as an equal employment opportunity complaint. In it, the former HSEMA executive lays out several allegations of hostility toward older, Black employees, as well as mistreatment they say they personally received from Rodriguez.

In their letter, which City Paper reviewed, the employee describes a March 2021 meeting with Rodriguez in which he “outlined a series of grievances that he had with me, several of which had nothing to do with my work performance and were purely personal.”

Rodriguez was upset the employee was quoted in a local news article and “angrily stated, ‘Why do I have to get a phone call from John Falcicchio with a whole lot of F-bombs over that F-ing’” article? Falcicchio is Bowser’s chief of staff and deputy mayor for planning and economic development. A Bowser administration official, speaking on background in order to discuss a personnel matter, denied that the call ever happened.

The letter says Rodriguez also accused the employee of creating a hostile work environment and removed them from their leadership role while the agency conducted an internal investigation. Rodriguez did not offer specific details, the former employee writes in the letter, and “was rude, condescending, and disrespectful.” The employee, who is Black, resigned the following day, writing that they believe they were discriminated against due to their ethnicity.

The former employee declined to comment and asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation.

In June 2021, DCHR conducted a workplace climate assessment of HSEMA. DCHR declined to release the assessment and related interview recordings, emails, and exhibits in response to City Paper’s Freedom of Information Act request. DCHR claims many of the records are protected under the “deliberative and pre-decisional” exemption. Other materials are protected by attorney-client privilege and the personal privacy exemption, DCHR claims.

And according to Rodriguez’s testimony during the oversight hearing, HSEMA’s internal employee surveys started in the fall of 2021. The second survey was ongoing at the time of the February hearing.

Rodriguez declined to be interviewed for this article and did not respond to a detailed list of questions City Paper provided over email.

The letter from the former HSEMA employee describes several ways in which Rodriguez allegedly sought to force older, mostly Black people out of roles at HSEMA in favor of younger, White colleagues.

The letter writer claims that on multiple occasions Rodriguez would say in front of senior staff that some of his older Black employees were not “worth the money we pay” them, and openly questioned how he could get rid of them. About one employee, Rodriguez stated, “I only keep her around because the mayor asked me to,” according to the letter.

Rodriguez allegedly pressured the former employee to give negative performance evaluations to minority staff members with the explicit purpose to “perform people out” of the agency.

The letter describes a Nov. 4, 2020 phone call in which Rodriguez instructed the former employee to redo performance evaluations because they were too favorable. “He instructed me to re-evaluate an entire segment of my team that is predominantly minority,” the former employee writes in their letter.

The letter also says Rodriguez added four annual evaluation periods on top of the two already in place.

“The evaluation process was not established to remediate underperforming staff or to improve the overall quality of work,” the letter says. “It was made clear that these were opportunities for [the senior leadership team] and managers to document underperformance in pursuit of removal.”

The letter also describes the former employee’s conversation with another Black employee, who had an estimated 10 years worth of experience at the agency but who had been passed over for a promotion in favor of a White colleague. “Black people cannot move up in this agency anymore since Chris Rodriguez got here,” the employee with 10 years of experience said according to the letter.

Another former senior HSEMA employee corroborates much of what’s in the letter. This former employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, describes how they perceived that Rodriguez generally favored younger employees and disregarded older employees, many of whom are Black.

The former employee says supervisors were heavily encouraged to use performance evaluations as a tool to fire older people. “I was never told to change [an evaluation],” the former employee says. “But it was emphasized to me that I needed to be stronger in how I evaluated people, specifically older people as they were looking to have justification to fire them or hope to push them to retire or leave.”

A third former employee of Rodriguez describes similar tactics during his time in New Jersey. That former employee says Rodriguez asked them to change performance evaluations for older employees. “They had no performance issues, but Chris, with no knowledge of them, said [the evaluations] were too high,” says the former New Jersey employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Another former employee in New Jersey claimed in a lawsuit he was fired based on his age. In 2016, Drew Lieb sued Rodriguez in New Jersey state court, accusing him of  “a long-standing pattern and practice of age discrimination.” The suit says Lieb was replaced as deputy director by a 29-year-old woman “with significantly less credentials.” The case settled out of court in 2019, two years after Rodriguez was installed as director in D.C.

Bowser said in early February that she was aware of the lawsuit when she nominated Rodriguez and that he was “properly vetted.”

“I’m also frequently giving human resources support to all agencies,” she said in response to a question from NBC4 reporter Mark Segraves about the DCHR assessments of HSEMA. “If we have a question that’s credible for one of our employees, it’s my obligation as their boss to look into it.”

“He still has your full faith and confidence?” Segraves asked.

“Absolutely,” Bowser said.