Complaints filed with the state and internally at LIPA describe a culture of fear and intimidation among some employees in the high-pressure months following the disastrous Tropical Storm Isaias last year, according to interviews, emails and documents shown to Newsday.
One anonymous complaint to an internal Long Island Power Authority ethics line known as Ethics Point led to an investigation of claims that a top LIPA officer was engaged in "harassment and bullying" of four to five employees starting in 2020. The officer "yelled, screamed at and harassed" staffers, and led one to reduce his schedule to part time due to "some of the inappropriate behavior," according to a copy of the complaint shown to Newsday.
"Most employees are scared to say anything," according to the internal complaint, which describes an "intimidating workplace."
A follow-up complaint by that employee in February said the "humiliation is exhausting," accusing the LIPA official of steering work away from LIPA employees to outside contractors.
LIPA in a statement to Newsday said it would be "inappropriate to comment on individual personnel matters. All complaints submitted anonymously to LIPA are reviewed in detail."
LIPA's statement confirmed the authority had "recently completed an internal review in July 2021 of an anonymous employee complaint. The review found the complaint to be unsubstantiated and without merit." It said it spent six months investigating the claims.
The full scope of the complaints is unclear. Most of the eight staffers, current and former, contacted by Newsday declined to speak, some citing a nondisclosure required as a result of a severance agreement, and one said he had not experienced harassment. Three told of an environment of intimidation.
Newsday was first alerted to the allegations through an email that, according to sender, had previously been sent to LIPA's board. Copies of the complaints and emails were shared with Newsday by an employee who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. Newsday also reached out to others who shared the views of what some called a hostile work environment. All requested anonymity.
One LIPA employee complaint with the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics indicated the initial complaint had been referred to LIPA’s general counsel, who forwarded the information to LIPA’s human resources department. Ultimately, the employee reported to the state, "I have been advised that being screamed at and cursed at is not a hostile work environment, nor is contact micro managing a sign of harassing behavior."
JCOPE spokesman Walter McClure said, "Under the law, I can’t comment on anything that is or might be an investigative matter."
JCOPE appointments are controlled by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who also controls the LIPA board through his five appointments.
PSEG Long Island, which operates the electric grid for LIPA, came under intense criticism in the wake of the Aug. 4, 2020, storm, which saw more than 645,000 outages affecting 535,000 customers, who were frustrated by an inability to contact the utility and receive accurate restoration times. The problem has been blamed on a failed computer system.
In the months after the storm, LIPA aggressively cataloged PSEG’s missteps in a series of task force reports while ratcheting up public criticism of its contract. In its new contract with PSEG, LIPA has put considerably more dollars — some $40 million — at risk if PSEG fails to meet the new set of metrics. LIPA trustees are scheduled to vote on the new contract in August.
LIPA’s acting chairman, Mark Fischl, said he is aware of the complaint and investigation and said he’d been briefed on the authority’s handling of it. He declined to discuss it as an internal personnel matter, but acknowledged that for all impacted businesses, not just LIPA, the post-Isaias period during the worst of COVID-19 has created a "really tough time for people" and "destroyed the line between work and home and made for a really tough environment for a lot of people."
He also said LIPA is changing and demanding more of its employees. "It’s no longer the patronage mill it was," Fischl said. "There are high expectations, as there should be, of all employees of the authority."
In an email to Newsday describing the atmosphere, the employee who complained to the state said the hostile work environment included threats of poor performance reviews and "late-night phone calls berating people on their own time" as a utility task force prepared reports documenting PSEG’s failures following Isaias.
The employee also accused LIPA of having foreknowledge of computer problems that ultimately torpedoed PSEG’s response to the storm. Emails shown to Newsday indicate LIPA staffers and officials in April of 2020 — well ahead of the storm — discussed workaround messages to customers as they pondered the need to analyze the estimated restoration times for a spring 2020 storm.
LIPA said those emails were "unrelated" to the bigger computer problems that led to the failures during Isaias.
State Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport), who has been critical of LIPA’s oversight role since the storm and authored legislation to increase it, called for the allegations to be "thoroughly reviewed by the proper authorities."
"If there are people on the inside of LIPA who want to come forward, we need to make sure that they can come forward as freely as possible," Gaughran said.
Two people who provided testimony for the investigation said the more fundamental problem in LIPA’s oversight role is that the performance targets to which LIPA holds PSEG are "too easy." Employees were told not to challenge the old metrics, but new metrics in LIPA's pending PSEG contract are more challenging, with $40 million at risk for failing to meet them.
Two other people interviewed for the internal investigation expressed frustration and concern for the changed culture of LIPA. One of the people interviewed confirmed the portrayal of the environment as worsening and added the perception is "not isolated."
"There are a lot of people that feel that way," the person said.
LIPA said those who discussed their complaints about the culture constituted 5% of its workforce, while noting that anonymous surveys of its employees showed a "high" and increasing level of employee satisfaction.
LIPA added it does "occasionally have employees that do not meet expectations and that are asked to depart."