PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The fired former deputy director of the Providence Department of Public Works has sent a required 40-day notice to the city that he may file a wrongful termination lawsuit and claims under Rhode Island’s Whistleblower Protection Act.
Michael McKenna, who was fired after seeking documents and text messages from city officials in his ongoing lawsuit against Councilman Michael Correia, is claiming his firing was in retaliation for the suit, according to the letter he sent the city Wednesday.
The city has never disclosed why McKenna was fired in May of this year, but said it occurred following a human resources investigation.
In the letter giving notice of a potential lawsuit, McKenna’s attorney Jeremy Rix said McKenna was initially placed on unpaid suspension in February based on “a thinly-veiled pretext involving a flimsy allegation.” He later received the letter of termination, which did not indicate a reason for his firing.
A city spokesperson said Wednesday she was checking with human resources and the legal department before responding to the letter.
McKenna is separately asking to withdraw his name from an ethics complaint he filed against Correia, which his attorney says the Providence Ethics Commission has been “sitting on” since it was filed 15 months ago.
Rix told Target 12 recent developments in the related lawsuit — including discovery materials provided by the city — indicate a “larger picture” to the story that goes beyond the scope of the Ethics Commission.
McKenna had filed both the ethics complaint and the lawsuit against Correia on the same day in August 2019, claiming Correia was trying to get McKenna demoted by eliminating his position during the city budget process.
The two complaints were based in part on text messages between Correia and the DPW highway superintendent, referencing “McKenna’s demotion” as he asked for waste pickups in his ward.
During tense budget negotiations between the City Council and Mayor Jorge Elorza’s administration in 2019, Elorza said at a news conference the discussion of demoting McKenna was based on a “personal problem” between a councilperson and the deputy director.
Correia, who said at the time he advocated to eliminate the position because he thought the city didn’t need a deputy director, filed a counterclaim against McKenna’s suit. He said McKenna had been trying to “intentionally and systemically sabotage” him.
McKenna also claimed Correia used his position as chair of the Public Works Committee to circumvent the proper channels to get DPW work done in his ward.
In pursuit of discovery materials related to the lawsuit, McKenna and Correia’s lawyers in February jointly filed a motion to compel the city to turn over emails and text messages they had declined to provide when subpoenaed.
McKenna was placed on leave “within one week” of filing that motion, his attorney wrote in the letter on Wednesday.
He later added the city as a defendant in the suit, claiming he was “indemnified” from any actions Correia claims he took, as all actions as deputy DPW director were at the direction of his superiors in the city.
In his letter giving notice of a potential wrongful termination suit, McKenna says he had initially complained about Correia’s actions internally, and was encouraged by Chief Operating Officer Sabrina Solares-Hand to file an ethics complaint against the councilman.
It’s not clear whether McKenna withdrawing his name from the ethics complaint will have any effect on the ongoing investigation into Correia’s actions. The Ethics Commission voted to investigate the matter in October 2019, and the city’s law department hired outside attorney Gerald Coyne to lead the probe. No findings by Coyne have been publicly released.
“Councilman Correia has always maintained that he’s done nothing wrong,” Correia’s attorney Artin Coloian told Target 12. “We believe that Mr. Mckenna has taken a step in the right direction.”
Correia is separately the subject of a human resources investigation involving “multiple complaints” against the councilman, including some comments captured on audio recordings in the council office.