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Former UI lab director files suit to regain post

Zack Kucharski

The Gazette

January 6, 2007

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, 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 Gazette.]

  IOWA CITY — Former University of Iowa Hygienic Lab director Mary Gilchrist claims UI Interim President Gary Fethke and UI Vice President for Research Meredith Hay violated the law when they fired her Oct. 3 and has filed a lawsuit seeking her job back.

  In a lawsuit filed in Johnson County District Court late Thursday, Gilchrist claims neither Fethke nor Hay could legally prohibit her from contacting public officials about ‘‘reasonable beliefs about mismanagement and substantial and specific dangers to public health and safety.’’

  Gilchrist, lab director for 11 years, is seeking ‘‘nominal compensatory and punitive damages’’ as well as back pay and benefits and wants Hay and Fethke to respect her efforts to educate the Legislature and Board of Regents about threats to the health of Iowans, the lawsuit states.

  UI officials have not publicly explained Gilchrist’s firing, saying it was an internal personnel issue. The lawsuit states Gilchrist and Hay had major conflicts over the design of the new lab and how to cope with a $3.8 million budget shortfall for the new building. The suit refers to several e-mail exchanges Gilchrist and Hay had.

  Hay cut 12,000 square feet from the building before it was sent to the regents for approval despite Gilchrist’s objections, the lawsuit states, and ordered Gilchrist and other lab staff not to express any concerns at a September meeting in which the regents were to approve the new building, the lawsuit states.

  Gilchrist claims Hay repeatedly restricted her ability to independently contact the Board of Regents, governor or state or federal legislators about the building and began demanding in April 2005 that she clear with Hay all communication with lawmakers and regents staff.

  Gilchrist told both Fethke and Hay she could not do her job if she was unable to contact public officials, the lawsuit states. A Sept. 11 letter detailed both the financial and health reasons why she opposed cutting space from the lab and directly told Fethke that Hay had threatened Gilchrist’s job for contacting public officials, the lawsuit states.

  After her Oct. 3 firing, Fethke and Gilchrist had a phone conversation in which 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,’’ the lawsuit states. When Gilchrist told Fethke it was her job to inform people about health risks, Fethke responded, ‘‘Yes, but it doesn’t specify that you inform by creating a sense of non-performance and a sense of hysteria . . . You spoke your mind repeatedly. You spoke your mind to a large number of people because it came back to me.’’ University of Iowa spokesman Steve Parrott said the UI — including Fethke and Hay — would not comment on the pending lawsuit.