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Posted at 5:28 a.m. EDT Thursday, October 5, 2000

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Judge rules Ohio EPA illegally punished investigator

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency illegally punished the coordinator of a contamination investigation and must reinstate him, an administrative law judge has ruled.

The EPA must pay Paul Jayko for wages and other benefits lost when he was transferred to the agency's Bowling Green office, said Judge Thomas F. Phalen Jr. of Cincinnati, an administrative law judge for the Labor Department.

Phalen ruled this week that Jayko is protected under a federal whistle-blower law.

He said Jayco cannot be punished for writing critical internal memos of an investigation of possible links between contaminated soil on the River Valley High School campus in Marion County and the number of leukemia cases among graduates.

Whistleblower laws were written to protect people from their employers when they bring a safety-related issue to light. Jayko's case was the first by an Ohio EPA employee to test those laws.

The judge also ordered the EPA to pay Jayko's legal fees and to post notices of his reinstatement at the EPA's main and district offices for at least 90 days.

``It's still so hard for me to believe that my superiors could go so far as to set me up, frame me and destroy my whole life,'' Jayko said in a statement released by his attorney, Dennis Muchnicki. ``I just tried to do my job and tell the truth.''

Phalen ruled the agency violated the law by suspending Jayco for 10 days in the summer of 1998 and removing him as lead investigator of the case in Marion. Jayco has been employed as a EPA site coordinator since 1991.

Several EPA managers testified during the nine-day hearing before Phalen that Jayko was disciplined because of a failure to communicate.

Other people said that Jayko was a respected employee and that charges of drinking two beers before a night meeting and falsifying an expense report were fabricatd to justify the decision to reassign him.

Carol Hester, an EPA spokeswoman, said the agency disagrees with Phalen's ruling.

The River Valley high school and middle school, located 40 miles north of Columbus, sit on the former Marion Engineering Depot, where the Army repaired heavy engineering equipment and where chemical waste was dumped for a number of years.

Then-Gov. George Voinovich ordered the EPA to ``leave no stone unturned'' in its investigation after the agency was notified in June 1997 of unusually high rates of leukemia among River Valley graduates.

Jayko testified he tried to ``kick-start'' the process with memos suggesting air, soil and water tests be performed before students returned to school that fall.

The tests were not conducted until shortly before school began. Tests later revealed contamination under playing fields that have since been closed off. An investigation continues at the site.

Although a state study determined that the rate of leukemia is higher than expected among River Valley graduates, school officials have been told the campus is safe.

Voters in November will consider a bond issue that would allow the district to build two school buildings and relocate the students.

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