Scott Gessler Didn't Mistreat Ex-CFO, Say Secretary of State's Office Employees
Earlier this week, we shared the story of Heather Lizotte, the former chief financial officer for Secretary of State Scott Gessler's office. Lizotte, who still works there but in a demoted position, has accused Gessler of harassing and retaliating against her after she "began to push back on the financial mismanagement" she reportedly saw in the office.
Scott Gessler in a photo from his Facebook page.
Since we published the story, we've heard from one current employee and one former employee who both say that Lizotte's version of events isn't true. They never saw Gessler harass her, they say. Instead, they believe Lizotte was demoted because of her work performance.
As we recounted in our original post, Lizotte was demoted in June. She claims that her demotion was the result of gender discrimination and retaliation for testifying before the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission and a Denver grand jury about Gessler's use of the office's discretionary fund, and for concerns she raised about how the office was using federal grant funds.
But a document signed by Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert gives different reasons, including that Lizotte abruptly left the office in December 2013 on sick leave without giving her staff any direction. Lizotte claims that she left because Gessler treated her "so aggressively that she became frightened and seriously ill" and that she did brief her staff on how to handle the meetings scheduled during her absence.
The document also mentions several concerns with Lizotte's work performance, including that she inaccurately reported financial data, improperly allocated revenue, allowed an important contract to expire and failed to track grant spending.
In early 2014, Staiert hired the accounting firm Clifton Larsen Allen to review some of Lizotte's work. (Staiert was designated to handle an investigation after Lizotte filed a workplace violence complaint against Gessler and his chief of staff. The Mountain States Employers Council investigated Lizotte's claim and found no wrongdoing on the part of Gessler or his staff.) The accounting firm issued a report in March that said, among other things, that Lizotte "offered no written explanation" for an approximately $2 million difference in annual projected revenue between October and December 2013. Lizotte, meanwhile, claims that it's not uncommon for her department to revise the yearly budget as more information becomes available.
But Ryan Moyle, who worked for Lizotte from April 2011 until he left the department in November 2013, says that it seemed to him that Lizotte was in over her head. "In my experience, we were doing a lot of her work," says Moyle, who was a budget analyst.
A screen capture of Suzanne Staiert on television.
Moyle says he never saw Gessler mistreat Lizotte; instead, he was "supportive" and "patient" with her. However, Moyle recalls Lizotte saying things that made it clear she didn't see things the same way. "She would always make comments about how it was a boys' club and the men didn't respect her," Moyle says.
Moyle says those comments contributed to him leaving the office. "It created this environment that me being a man, if she took anything I said out of context, I was fair game for her to think I was discriminating against her," he says. "As a result, I would never question her. I always kept the peace."
Moyle says he's speaking out because he questioned Lizotte's claims against Gessler. "I read the article (published on this blog on Tuesday) and didn't think the allegations were true," he says. "That is not what I saw."
Deana Wiedemann, an account tech who worked under Lizotte for eight years, agrees. "It's been a rough road to work with her," Wiedemann says in a conversation facilitated by Gessler's office. "Nothing has been consistent with how she makes decisions."
Wiedemann says Lizotte's leadership style caused a tense environment, and she questions Lizotte's competency: "At one point, she had a very strong staff and I felt she was using her accountants and budget analysts to do her work."
Heather Lizotte in an image from Facebook.
Like Moyle, Wiedemann says she never saw Gessler harass Lizotte. "She's been treated well," Wiedemann says. However, she adds that Lizotte "would often comment after meetings that nobody was listening to her because she's a woman."
Staiert, the deputy secretary of state, also spoke with us after Tuesday's story was published. She says after having filed a sexual harassment complaint herself at her previous job as Littleton city attorney, she would not tolerate anything similar in her current position. "We do not discriminate in this office," Staiert says. "I have spent my entire career stopping that kind of behavior."
Furthermore, she says the decision to demote Lizotte was not retaliatory. "She wasn't a whistleblower," Staiert says; the demotion was based entirely on concerns with Lizotte's work performance, including those addressed in the third-party accounting firm's review.
"We promote an environment where people are comfortable," Staiert says of Gessler's office, "not an environment where people are fearful."
Laura Schwartz, one of Lizotte's attorneys, says that Lizotte disagrees with the statements made by the other employees but does not want to comment on them further. Adds Schwartz: "These people who are coming out against Heather are the very people who want to stay in touch with a powerful person. And Gessler is."