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A Blackhawk helicopter flies over a canyon as Colorado's Office of Emergency Management responds to Boulder's 2013 flood. An internal investigation was launched after an employee alleged that leadership at state's Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management created a “toxic and hostile” work environment, according to an investigative report obtained by The Colorado Sun. (Joe Amon, The Denver Post via AP Photo, pool)

Several employees at the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management cited “concerning statements” about equity, diversity and inclusion within the state’s division that responds to all types of disasters in Colorado as the department investigated separate claims accusing its leadership of creating a toxic workplace environment, state documents show.

The statements were made during interviews conducted as a part of an investigation launched from an employee complaint about discrimination, harassment, retaliation and other alleged workplace violations, according to a Sept. 26 memo from Colorado Department of Public Safety’s deputy executive director, Jana Locke. 

The worker who lodged the complaint accused the division’s leadership of creating a toxic work environment by “bickering among themselves,” yelling and “showing a lack of respect and decency,” according to the investigative report obtained Tuesday by The Colorado Sun. The employee also accused leadership of a lack of budget transparency and failing to provide leadership and enforce policies.

The investigation comes weeks after a Denver Post report documented a troubling history of aggressive and inappropriate behavior from one of the division’s directors, Mike Willis. 

Leaders from the department, including director Stan Hilkey, said actions have been taken to address the employee’s concerns and that Willis has worked to change his workplace demeanor. In a previous statement to The Sun, Willis said he took responsibility for his “missteps at DHSEM” and has been held accountable for his actions. Some of the events described in The Denver Post article described events “that simply did not happen” and were not supported by witness interviews, Willis said.

Interviews with several employees during the latest investigation corroborated accounts of yelling between an unnamed director and two employees in late 2021. 

Six other employees acknowledged a supervisor and another staff member behaved “discourteously,” but said they received apologies and that the issue had been “sufficiently resolved,” the reports said. 

The investigation, conducted by the department’s human resources department, coincides with a separate assessment of workplace culture by a third-party consultant, Investigations Law Group. State officials paid $40,000 for the Denver-based group to evaluate the culture, structure and effectiveness of the division in August, according to a state’s online database of vendors. 

Several of the employees who corroborated workplace violations also mentioned separate concerns over diversity issues in the workplace.

That led the agency’s executive director to note several “new and concerning statements” related to diversity and equity, Locke said in Monday’s memo.

None of the statements regarding diversity and equity were made by DHSEM leadership, said Patricia Billinger, a spokeswoman for Colorado’s Department of Public Safety.

During an interview, an employee told the investigator that the area she works in lacks diversity and that people she works with “treat her like they have never seen a Black person before,” the report stated. She said she felt she was hired “as part of a quota” and that “her race is more the focus than what she is there to contribute.” 

The employee who lodged the complaint also told an investigator he was concerned that the Black woman was being called on last during meetings. He said he did not feel it was being done on purpose and called it an issue staff “needed to work on,” and that he was committed to working on it himself. 

The comments were sent to the employee’s supervisor who worked to “ensure the employee understands that these statements don’t align with our policies and values, and the importance of respectful and inclusive communication,” Billinger said.

The Colorado Department of Public Safety has been working for many years “to deepen and strengthen” its culture and practices to make the department a “welcoming, inclusive workplace where everyone can thrive,” she said. That work includes mandatory staff trainings, a workplace code of conduct and ethics, policies that set clear expectations for its employees regarding civil rights, and voluntary education, outreach and projects, she said. 

The statements will be reviewed as part of the third-party workplace review.

Other allegations made in the complaint regarding workplace culture and a lack of strategic leadership for the division will also be reviewed by the ongoing review by an outside consultant, the memo stated. The consultant is expected to make recommendations for the division no later than Dec. 31. 

The investigation also included a review of two allegations that employees violated the division’s toll road usage policy and whether one of the DHSEM’s leadership discouraged a staff member from filing a grievance. Both were found unsustained, according to state documents.

Olivia Prentzel

Olivia Prentzel is a general assignment writer for The Colorado Sun. Email: