The Olympian, Olympia Washington
Thursday, August 7, 2003
Rights panel picks interim chief
Troubled commision taps staffer to help get it back on track
BRAD SHANNON THE OLYMPIAN
The state's embattled Human Rights Commission has a new interim leader, an Iranian-born man who says his experience of surviving religious persecution in his homeland has given him valuable perspective for the job.
"Some people think I don't have any experience in justice. But I remember the day they came to burn our house and kill us," Dariush Khaleghi said Wednesday in an interview at his Olympia office.
He was speaking of the Iranian religious revolutionaries who took over the country in the late-1970s and who subjected members of the minority Baha'i faith, such as Khaleghi's family, to attacks.
"We had to smuggle our sister, because she would be raped, through the back of our house and the neighbor's yard. A couple neighbors helped us out," Khaleghi said, adding that his family at one despairing moment sat in a bath tub and "prayed for our lives."
Khaleghi, who was the No. 2 manager at the Human Rights Commission until Executive Director Susan Jordan quit under fire last month, was named to the interim position recently by the five-member citizen commission.
A nationwide search for a permanent executive leader is just getting under way with help from the Department of Personnel and could take six months.
Until joining the commission's staff in September, Khaleghi had no direct experience in U.S. human rights issues, although the one-time political refugee holds a master's degree in psychology and a master's in business administration. He worked the previous eight years in training, operations and planning positions at the Oregon and DuPont offices of Intel, the computer firm.
The union that represents more than 30 of the agency's roughly 50 staff members staged a vote of no-confidence in Jordan's administration last year, but it's looking forward to a fresh start under Khaleghi, said Tim Welch, spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees.
"Now, with kind of a clean slate, he certainly has the capacity to work with employees," Welch said, noting that Khaleghi had been seen by some employees as being very loyal to Jordan.
"We're looking forward to wiping the slate clean and getting off on the right foot with him," Welch said.
Commission Chairwoman Pro Tem Charlotte Coker of Spokane said Wednesday that the citizen commission now wants to bring stability to as much of the agency as possible, ending disruptions of the workplace that have dogged it the past couple of years.
The Human Rights Commission is the state's primary investigative and enforcement agency for stopping illegal discrimination in the workplace and housing.
Khaleghi got the job because, "No. 1, he was already on board and knows the inner workings," Coker said. "We wanted to give him the opportunity to continue to help us get the commission back on track. My vision right now is to unite and solidify the commissioners and work together as a team."
Jordan, a veteran civil rights lawyer with a strong record of reducing the agency's case backlogs, left her position formally July 11, a month after announcing her resignation. Two weeks later, Commission Chairman Rudy Vasquez, who had been her staunch defender, also resigned, citing the demands of his private-sector job.
Coker, a commission member from Spokane, has taken on the role of chairman pro tem. Gov. Gary Locke reappointed her in June to a new five-year term.
Khaleghi, 41, may have a lot of employee relationships to repair.
Jordan said a lot of her problems stemmed from backlash against her efforts to reduce case backlogs, increase the output from laggard employees and cut agency costs by shifting personnel to less expensive office space. But a consultant's investigation into hostile-workplace allegations against Jordan found earlier this year that Jordan had acted in questionable ways.
Although her acts did not meet the legal definition of sexual harassment, Jordan was faulted by the investigator and by commissioners for describing certain male employees as "gorgeous," "cute" and "perky." Her alleged touches caused one employee anxiety.
When introducing staff members, Jordan allegedly referred to one as "our Native American" and another as the agency's "little receptionist," according to a report by investigator Mark Busto, a Bellevue-based lawyer. Witnesses said Jordan also described gays and lesbians as "10 percenters," an apparent reference to their preponderance in the population.
"I think what we are going through right now is a healing process," Khaleghi said. "I think we are making progress."
Khaleghi said he has taken several steps to improve the agency's workings.
One was to bring an orderly process to agency expenses that lets him look at all expense requests before they're approved. In a nod to Jordan's contributions, he said he worked with her to change middle managers and create a union-management team that has the authority to act on employee suggestions.
He also has created a customer service position and started surveying people whose cases were handled by the agency.
Les Smith, whose complaints about Jordan's alleged hostile treatment triggered the outside investigation, said Wednesday: "Things are fine. We're moving in the right direction. That's all I have to say right now."
Brad Shannon is political editor for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-753-1688 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
©Copyright 2003, The Olympian (Olympia, WA, USA)
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