There’s a wide gap between a 90-day suspension and losing one’s job, and one state employee again finds herself saddled with the latter after an Illinois appellate panel said the state agency that employed her was right to fire her for allegedly authorizing state aid for friends and relatives, and using those benefits to pay for purchases for herself, and a Sangamon County judge was wrong to order her punishment reduced.
The Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services fired Toria N. Jones in March 2012 after reviewing an investigation into her conduct in 2008 while she worked for the Department of Human Services, a job she held from April 2001 to December 2009. Jones then requested a Civil Service Commission hearing, but an administrative law judge hearing the case for the Commission determined the termination was warranted.
In November 2012, Jones filed a complaint for administrative review in Sangamon County Circuit Court. In that action, Sangamon County Judge John P. Schmidt upheld the Commission’s finding of misconduct, but he also deemed the firing too severe a penalty. He remanded the issue back to the Commission for imposition of a lesser sanction. In July 2014, the Commission issued a 90-day suspension; Schmidt upheld that penalty the following September.
DHFS appealed the suspension to the Springfield-based Fourth Appellate District, which vacated the suspension and reinstated the termination. Justice Lisa Holder White wrote the opinion, with justices John W. Turner and James A. Knecht concurring. White noted the Civil Service Commission and its members were not parties to the appeal.
According to the background in the opinion, Jones’ January 2012 transfer from Human Services to Healthcare and Family Services was fueled by “ongoing issues” with her Human Services supervisor Gayle Strickland, who was the subject of several complaints filed by Jones. But at the time, “the Illinois State Police and the Office of the Executive Inspector General were investigating whether Jones engaged in misconduct while employed by Human Services,” court documents said.
The opinion cited Jones’ misconduct as detailed in a Statement of Discipline. Part of her job was determining eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the programs that provide Link cards for food purchases and cash benefits, respectively. She was found to have “improperly authorized benefits for friends and/or relatives,” and “using the Link cards of those friends or relatives for personal use,” specifically the relatives of the two people she’d listed as emergency contacts on her employment paperwork.
In all, she allegedly approved monthly benefits for at least eight people with whom she had a personal connection, in varying amounts from $109 to $1,825. She also failed to keep case records or seek appropriate supervisory approval and violated several employee handbook clauses. In one instance she used a Link card she approved for an emergency contact’s daughter to buy cookie cakes for a Human Services office party the same morning she authorized the benefits, then lied about the timing of the purchase, the court documents said.
The appellate judges based their decision on the Commission’s determination the charges levied against Jones were credible, quoting the administrative law judge’s characterization that “the evidence adduced at hearing revealed an intelligent individual willing to manipulate a system in violation of the rules to benefit herself and her friends” and that her losing her job “was not arbitrary or unreasonable. Moreover, Jones’ willingness to violate departmental policies could easily transfer to her current position,” which negated her claim the termination from the DHFS job was unrelated to conduct as a DHS employee.
The appellate opinion reinstated the Commission’s original order terminating Jones’ employment with the state.
Jones was represented by attorney Carl Draper, of the firm of Feldman Wasser, of Springfield.
The state agencies were represented by attorneys from the Illinois Attorney General’s office.