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Article published February 24, 2001


Whistleblower reinstated


Jayko: He will continue to probe cancer cases in Marion.

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF


COLUMBUS - The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has settled a legal battle with an employee who was removed as the chief investigator into whether a cluster of leukemia cases is linked to the River Valley schools complex near Marion.

Paul Jayko, a Toledo resident who works in the EPA’s Bowling Green district, will return next week as a coordinator at the schools and two other sites where the military decades ago burned or buried tons of highly toxic chemicals.

"It has been a much longer road than I ever thought it would be, but I stand here today finally feeling that in the eyes of the EPA, I’ve been vindicated," Mr. Jayko said.

Mr. Jayko will receive $80,000 in compensatory damages and lost wages, and $20,000 for court costs. His two attorneys will receive $285,000 in legal fees, said Ohio EPA Director Chris Jones.

In return, Mr. Jayko will dismiss the complaint he filed in July, 1998, with the U.S. Department of Labor.

That complaint charged that the Ohio EPA violated seven environmental "whistleblower" statutes by reassigning him after he pushed for a more thorough investigation of leukemia cases among River Valley graduates. The schools were built in 1962 on a 78-acre military dump.

Mr. Jayko was the first Ohio EPA employee to test the whistleblower laws, which are designed to protect people from their employers when they bring sensitive safety issues to light.

The EPA decided to settle the case after the U.S. Department of Labor intervened on Mr. Jayko’s behalf, saying it agreed that the state violated the statutes.

"Director Jones has recognized that I never did anything wrong and did not deserve to be disciplined for the false charges that were brought against me," Mr. Jayko said at a news conference with Mr. Jones.

Until yesterday, the Ohio EPA had maintained that Mr. Jayko was disciplined and reassigned in 1998 because of a failure to communicate and that he drank two beers before a night meeting and falsified an expense report.

But some state EPA officials said the charges were drummed up to justify the decision to reassign Mr. Jayko away from the Marion investigation.

In October, 2000, an administrative law judge agreed, awarding Mr. Jayko a $139,789 settlement and ordering the state to reinstate him to the leukemia investigation he helped start in 1997.

The new agreement does not include any admission that the EPA retaliated against Mr. Jayko for pushing for a more thorough investigation of the leukemia cluster.

But in a letter to Mr. Jayko that is part of the agreement, Mr. Jones wrote that he would not have taken disciplinary action against him.

"Based upon my review and file and circumstances, I personally would not have concluded that you knowingly drank on duty or falsified a meal receipt," Mr. Jones wrote.

As a result, Mr. Jayko’s 10-day suspension will be rescinded with back pay and benefits, and the suspension will be removed from his personnel file. Mr. Jones said 30 days of vacation will be credited to Mr. Jayko for time he took off to pursue his legal case.

Don Schregardus, who was Ohio EPA director when Mr. Jayko was reassigned away from the Marion investigation, said yesterday he believes he made the right decision to suspend Mr. Jayko in 1998.

Mr. Jones said he has no plans to seek disciplinary action against the EPA supervisors in the Bowling Green district whom Mr. Jayko said tried to "frame me and destroy my whole life."

"What we’re trying to do is move forward," Mr. Jones said.

Mr. Jayko said he hopes Marion residents will "feel a sense of victory."

"Maybe we will never know all the causes for the illnesses which struck those people. But I guarantee the people of Marion that I will ‘leave no stone unturned,’ for them," Mr. Jayko said.

The River Valley school district has signed an agreement with the state and federal governments to build middle and high schools so the complex can be vacated. The new schools are set to open in 2003.

Mike Griffith, a geologist and member of an activist group that wants the children removed immediately from the schools, congratulated Mr. Jayko.

"Paul took his job to serve and protect the citizens of this state seriously, while his bosses seemed to be more intent on protecting their image rather than protecting the children," Mr. Griffith said.

But Mr. Jayko acknowledged that the dispute is not over.

The Ohio EPA will pursue an appeal it filed last month with a federal appeals court in Cincinnati.

Last year, the state sued the federal government, asserting that Ohio had constitutional protection - referred to as "sovereign immunity" - that barred Mr. Jayko from pursuing his case. The issue could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.


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