By Shereen Siewert

A complaint by a former Marathon County Public Library employee that prompted an outside investigation and two resignations details years of abusive behavior and a hostile working environment that went unchecked by county human resources officials.

The complaint, written by former library support services manager Matthew Derpinghaus, led to the resignation of former Director Ralph Illick and business Manager Tom O’Neill, both of whom were placed on leave May 19 following a closed session meeting of the Marathon County Library Board of Trustees. But the complaint also led to Derpinghaus’ dismissal after investigators determined that his own behavior contributed to the “toxic and hostile work environment” at the library, Corporation Counsel Michael Puerner said, in an email to Wausau Pilot & Review.

In his Feb. 25 complaint, Derpinghaus details harassment that began in February 2016, around the time he was hired. The list includes alleged instances in which Illick verbally accosted Derpinghaus, punched a door with his fist and forced Derpinghaus to take sensitivity training. In another example, Derpinghaus wrote, Illick forced him to watch a video, then “went on to queue up and repeat various scenes ending with one in which one man is made to perform fellatio on another man’s strap-on dildo,” Derpinghaus’ letter states.

“This made me extremely uncomfortable, but I felt I could not say anything for fear of further bullying,” Derpinghaus wrote.

Investigators say Derpinghaus in October called then-Employee Resources Director Frank Matel directly asking for help. Four days later, when Mattel responded to Derpinghaus’ call, Matel allegedly said there was “nothing he could do since the responsibility resides with the Library Board.”

“[Matel] said he would talk with (Marathon County Administrator) Lance Leonhard about it and give me an update,” Derpinghaus wrote in his letter. “I have not yet received this call back. I am surprised given the potential liability of ignoring this type of complaint.”

Matel has since retired.

In the wake of Derpinghaus’ February letter, the Library Board authorized an outside investigation into the allegations by an outside law firm. In March, Milwaukee-based von Briesen and Roper prepared the report, a small portion of which was released to Wausau Pilot & Review as part of an open records request. Just five of the 38 pages included in the report were provided in response to the newspaper’s request.

In the report, von Briesen and Roper conclude that all three employees – Derpinghaus, Illick and O’Neill – failed to uphold all of Marathon County’s Core Values, failed to  meet Ethics Policy requirements, failed to abide by the county’s work rules and failed to fulfill all the duties and responsibilities required of their respective positions.

A ‘culture of fear’

Investigators interviewed both current and former MCPL employees who corroborated Derpinghaus’ allegation of a toxic and hostile work environment, directly attributable to conduct by Illick and O’Neill.

“Many former employees said they  left MCPL—notwithstanding their positive relationships with other coworkers—because of the ‘culture of fear’ created by R. Illick and T. O’Neill and the manner in which they criticized and devalued the performance and contributions made by MCPL staff,” the report reads. Staff members also told investigators that when they raised concerns about their positions, they were regularly belittled by Illick and O’Neill “as though every staff member was easily replaceable and would not be missed if they resigned.”

Investigators also concluded that employees were regularly disciplined or “forced out” by Illick and O’Neill due to “even the  smallest of perceived performance issues or acts by which staff were perceived to be unnecessarily willful.” For that reason, investigators said, employees who were interviewed said they were afraid to ever complain about the workplace environment for fear of harassment and retaliation.

In addition, interviewees credibly established that Derpinghaus was part of the problem, “repeatedly making inappropriate comments to female employees,  without being properly disciplined.” One employee terminated her position with MCPL due to Derpinghaus’ inappropriate comments and the manner in which they were handled. That employee’s supervisor later terminated her own employment with MCPL for similar reasons.

“These are just two examples of the failure of M. Derpinghaus  to refrain from the repeated use of inappropriate language and the failure of R. Illick to address  and resolve the use of such language by M. Derpinghaus,” the report concludes.

Illick resigned on May 27, while O’Neill resigned and Derpinghaus was fired in June. No legal action has been filed by any party in connection with the investigation as of Aug. 10.

Corporation Counsel Michael Puerner said the Library Board of Trustees is working with the Marathon County Employee Resources Department to review policies and procedures for employee grievances.

“Additionally, education has been provided to library staff to clarify workplace
expectations,” Puerner said.

Board president Sharon Hunter did not immediately respond to an email that asks for specific action the board is taking to ensure no such issues arise in the future, or if any new checks and balances have been implemented to protect employees moving forward.