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RI agency chief accused of firing employee for refusing to misspend money

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The head of a Rhode Island state agency is facing an unusual whistleblower and defamation lawsuit at the same time she’s being considered for a promotion with far more responsibilities and financial oversight, Target 12 has learned.

Rose Amoros Jones, director of the R.I. Office of Healthy Aging, and the state were sued last August by Jones’s former financial management administrator, Kathleen McNamara. She accuses Jones of unlawfully firing and defaming her after a dispute in 2020 involving McNamara’s refusal to make what she claims were “improper and illegal” personnel and financial decisions.

McNamara — who declined to comment for this story — claims in her R.I. Superior Court complaint that Jones demanded she unlawfully allocate personnel costs to federal grant awards, then punished her for failing to do so.

“This was not a failure … but a knowing refusal to commit fraud,” McNamara’s attorney, Joseph Daigle, wrote in the complaint.

In a statement, Daigle told Target 12 the evidence is on his client’s side.

“There is overwhelming evidence that Kathleen McNamara was fired from her job for refusing to engage in fraudulent reporting practices at the Office of Healthy Aging,” he said. “We look forward to our day in court.”

In response to the complaint, special assistant attorney general Shannon Haibon mostly denied McNamara’s allegations, arguing instead that “the actions of the State Defendants were reasonable, proper and legal.” (The attorney general’s office typically represents the state’s executive branch in certain legal matters.)

Jones declined to be interviewed for this story. “All I can share is that we do not comment on pending litigation,” her spokesperson, Kerri White, said in an email.

Jones’ management record is coming under new scrutiny as Gov. Dan McKee’s administration considers whether to give her a promotion. Target 12 has learned the governor and his advisers are considering nominating Jones to be the new director of the R.I. Department of Human Services, a position that became vacant earlier this month when Courtney Hawkins stepped down.

Asked about the lawsuit Thursday, McKee told 12 News his administration is looking into it and talking with Jones about the allegations, while expressing some skepticism.

“You’re innocent until proven guilty,” McKee said. “Allegations are allegations.”

“If there is some level of misconduct, we’ll deal with it appropriately, but we’re not going to jump to any conclusions and the people of Rhode Island shouldn’t jump to any conclusions,” he said.

If picked for the job and confirmed by the Senate, Jones’s annual budget would increase from $30 million at the aging office to $635 million at DHS, according to McKee’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021-22. Her staff would likewise grow from about 30 full-time employees to nearly 1,000.

McNamara “was not the only employee subjected to Jones’ abuse – she treated all the executive staff and many other staff members similarly,” Daigle wrote in the complaint. “Ms. McNamara made it known that she did not approve of Defendant Jones’ poor treatment of her fellow employees or the unhealthy, hostile work environment.”

McNamara also claimed that “numerous employees” left the agency under Jones’s leadership, a charge that Target 12 has independently verified. At least 12 of the agency’s roughly 27 employees — or 44% of its personnel — either left state government, retired or transferred to other departments since she took over, according to data provided by the R.I. Department of Administration.

By comparison, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services reported only 8% turnover among its roughly 3,296 employees during that same time period. (The Office of Healthy Aging is one of the agencies that are part of EOHHS.)

Questions about Jones’s qualifications were also raised in the legal complaint by McNamara, who joined the Office of Healthy Aging after serving for several years as a senior auditor in the R.I. Office of the Auditor General.  

“Despite being the director of an agency with a $22 million budget, Defendant Jones claimed she was unable to read spreadsheets,” Daigle wrote. “As a result, Defendant Jones would require Ms. McNamara to explain the same concept multiple times, and to provide narratives or summaries of her work rather than learn how to read and/or understand the relevant spreadsheets”

Jones has worked for several state agencies over the years, mostly specializing in communications and marketing. She worked on some of the state’s most controversial issues during that time, including the botched rollouts of the Unified Health Infrastructure Project computer system and the infamous “Cooler and Warmer” tourism campaign.

In 2015, when Jones was leading communications for the R.I. Department of Transportation, her effectiveness as a state employee was publicly questioned by The Valley Breeze, which criticized her for being “aloof and disengaged like few public employees we’ve ever seen.”

“As I tweeted last week, the office today is ‘a perfect example of Rhode Island taking something that’s working really well and breaking it,'” wrote Ethan Shorey, who has since become the newspaper’s editor-in-chief.

But Jones has also received support and praise from many of the state’s top leaders, including most recently for her willingness to oversee various projects tied to the state’s COVID-19 response effort. When choosing her as director of the aging office in 2019, then-Gov. Gina Raimondo described Jones as “a valued member of my team since day one,” and the Senate confirmed her unanimously.

“We like Rose,” McKee said Thursday, adding that he worked closely with her on the Long Term Care Coordinating Council during his time as lieutenant governor. “She’s done a great job there in terms of the job that’s she’s done.”

Multiple state officials told Target 12 that the whistleblower aspect of McNamara’s complaint is not uncommon in state government, particularly when harassment is being charged, but the defamation allegation is far more unusual.

At the center of their dispute is an alleged Jan. 27, 2020, meeting between McNamara and Jones that became heated. The two met to discuss the state agency’s budget, which was running a deficit, according to the lawsuit. McNamara claims Jones continued to push her to make improper financial decisions, which eventually led McNamara to use inappropriate language.

The interaction later became Jones’s rationale for placing McNamara on administrative leave, citing her for being “insubordinate,” according to court documents and multiple interviews with people familiar with the meeting.

Jones claimed several weeks later McNamara also yelled at her and intimidated her during that same meeting in January, which was then cited as part of the basis for McNamara’s firing, according to the complaint.

In the complaint, Daigle called those allegations “lies,” saying they have since hurt her reputation and economic well-being.

“As a direct result of the Defendants’ actions, [McNamara] has been wrongfully terminated and likely barred from future employment with the State of Rhode Island,” Daigle wrote, adding that McNamara “has also had a difficult time in obtaining employment from third parties and has suffered through the indignity of explaining the prospective employers how Defendant Jones’ lies led to her termination.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is an investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 managing editor and chief investigative reporter at 12 News, and the host of Newsmakers. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.

Kim Kalunian contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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