By Dan Gephart, May 15, 2019

The Phillies were hitting the stuffing out of the ball, the Sixers were engaged in a physical playoff series with the Brooklyn Nets, and the Eagles were preparing for the NFL Draft. So when I turned on a Philadelphia sports radio station last month, I was shocked to hear fans talking about, um … Kate Smith.

The Songbird of the South was once a good luck charm for the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team. When Kate Smith sang “God Bless America” before games, the Flyers more likely than not won, especially during their back-to-back Stanley Cup seasons in the mid-1970s. Her final public performance was actually before a Flyers game — Game 2 of the 1985 Stanley Cup finals to be exact. Smith was so beloved that the Flyers organization built a statue of her outside their arena.

Kate Smith’s iconic mid-song figure was a fixture in South Philly for years, until the Flyers suddenly covered the statue last month. Days later, it was gone. The organization had “discovered” the racist lyrics to other tunes in the singer’s canon, songs like “Pickaninny Heaven” and the 1931 hit “That’s Why the Darkies Were Born.”  (It was actually the New York Yankees who first cut their connection to the deceased singer a day before the Flyers, announcing they would no longer play Smith’s version of “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch.)

Irate sports fans were shocked, and they called into sports radio stations en masse to share their displeasure with the Flyers’ decision. There were several arguments against removal of the Smith statue, but the one that took sway over most Smith supporters was that “Why the Darkies Were Born” wasn’t racist, but satirical. In other words, they argued, we didn’t understand Smith’s intent when she sang that song; she was making fun of racism.

Personally, I applauded the difficult decisions made by the Yankees and the Flyers. That said, there was something about the sports radio argument that struck a nerve. A decade-plus of hearing experts like William Wiley, Deborah Hopkins, and Barbara Haga teach disciplinary charges will make you wince when you hear an argument about intent.

If you’ve attended any FELTG training, whether as a federal HR professional, attorney, or supervisor, you know that it’s awfully hard to prove intent. Your decision to remove, suspend, or demote an employee could be the right one. However, using an intent-driven charge will unravel your case faster than Anthony Scaramucci’s tenure as White House Director of Communications.

The MSPB, in Boo v. Department of Homeland Security, made it clear: Whether intent has been proven must be resolved by considering the totality of the circumstances, including the appellant’s plausible explanation, if there is one. Basically, if the employee has a decent excuse, your charge is sunk.

Here are a few charges to avoid with case examples:

Falsification: The MSPB found that the Richard Leatherbury, an assistant operations manager, improperly submitted a claim for past overtime based entirely on an estimate, and that improperly indicated that the claim was based on a precise calculation of actual time worked. The board upheld the agency’s removal.

However, the Federal Circuit found that the employee’s good faith explanation in filing the travel expenses was disregarded. Areasonable good faith belief in the truth of a statement precludes a finding that the employee acted with deceptive intent. Leatherbury v. Army, 524 F.3d 1293 (Fed. Cir. 2008).

Insubordination: The agency claimed that registered nurse Irene Yetman’s failure to complete her work was evidence of insubordination. The administrative judge rejected these charges. Yetman’s intent was not to disobey orders. The orders were so onerous, she didn’t have time to complete them all. Yetman v. Department of the Army, 88 FMSR 5138 (MSPB 1988).

Theft: Cathryn Nazelrod, a correctional institute employee, admitted that she took $10 from an inmate’s envelope to buy herself lunch. Nazelrod put the $10 back into the inmate’s envelope the very next day. When the agency found out, it demoted Nazelrod on the charge of theft. Noting that the one of the elements of criminal theft was an intent to permanently deprive the owner of possession or use of the property, the MSPB concluded that the agency failed to prove the requisite intent because she returned the money. On appeal, the Federal Circuit agreed. King v. Nazelrod, 43 F.3d 663, 665-67 (Fed. Cir. 1994).

Taking a page out of the best-selling Eat This, Not That book, I share with you Charge This, Not That.

  • Charge Lack of Candor, not Falsification
  • Charge Failure to Follow Orders, not Insubordination
  • Charge Unauthorized Removal, not Theft

While I understand the Flyers’ decision to remove a statue of an artist whose successful career included racist songs, and I have made that case in the court of public opinion, I would not want to argue it before the MSPB. Gephart@FELTG.com

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