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Gilchrist sues Fethke, Hay

Ex-Hygienic Lab director wants job back

Mike McWilliams

Iowa City Press-Citizen

January 5, 2007

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

Former University of Iowa Hygienic Lab director Mary Gilchrist is suing UI interim president Gary Fethke and UI vice president for research Meredith Hay to get her old job back.

Filed Thursday in Johnson County District Court, Gilchrist wants a judge to order Fethke and Hay to reinstate her with back pay, benefits and "to respect Ms. Gilchrist's efforts to educate the legislature and the Regents about threats to the health of Iowans."

Gilchrist also seeks "nominal" compensatory and punitive damages.

"There's principle, there's her job, which she really loved and I think everyone agreed she was good at," said Gilchrist's lawyer, Pat Ingram of Iowa City. "Those are the reasons I think why she's doing it."

According to the lawsuit, Gilchrist alleges Fethke and Hay violated state law by trying to prevent her from contacting public officials regarding mismanagement of the lab by Fethke and Hay, which presented, "a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety."

In addition, Gilchrist claims Fethke and Hay broke the law when they fired her for disclosing that information to public officials.

Gilchrist declined to comment about the lawsuit Thursday evening, but said she has not been employed since she was fired Oct. 3.

UI officials have not publicly disclosed why they fired Gilchrist. However, Gilchrist claimed the issue was the buildout for the new Hygienic Lab that had been redesigned and was smaller because of a $3.8 million shortfall. The new design would impede lab functions, Gilchrist said, and she proposed following the original specs and holding off on purchasing furniture and equipment, which would cover the $3.8 million.

Gilchrist has said she had been in a position where UI was trying to limit resources to the lab and she could not look to outside sources to generate funds. She also was told she could not speak to anyone about it.

Gilchrist said she also sought a change in governing structure for the rapid testing program for infectious diseases called Iowa Vanguard -- Protecting Your Health.

The lawsuit references several e-mail exchanges between Hay and Gilchrist. In one from September 2005, Hay requested all of Gilchrist's correspondence to the Iowa state Board of Regents, its staff or any state official to first go through Hay, Gilchrist says in the lawsuit. Hay also asked Gilchrist not to lobby legislators or the private sector to fund the project, Gilchrist says in the suit.

The lawsuit also references phone conversations between Fethke and Gilchrist. On the day Gilchrist was fired, Fethke allegedly told Gilchrist, "You stuck your neck out for what you believed in and, and we just can't, we can't live with it."

Hay and Fethke did not return phone messages or e-mails seeking comment Thursday.

After her firing, UI immediately named Christopher G. Atchison, a UI professor of health management and policy and former director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, as the lab's interim director.

UI spokesman Steve Parrott declined to comment on the lawsuit.

"When there's litigation, we are going to reserve any comment for in the courts, which is the appropriate place," Parrott said.