Some allegations made in a civil discrimination lawsuit against Denton County were proved to be false and others were misleading, according to court documents obtained by the Denton Record-Chronicle. And the district attorney isn’t talking about the role those allegations played in his decision to force the resignations of four assistant district attorneys on June 25.
On June 21, a federal jury decided in favor of misdemeanor prosecutor Nadiya Williams-Boldware in her claims that she toiled in a hostile work environment and was denied promotions because of her race. She was awarded $510,000 plus attorney’s fees. Fees paid to the county’s lawyer as well bring the loss to Denton County taxpayers to an estimated $1 million.
Prior to the jury trial, U.S. District Judge Michael Schneider ruled there was no evidence to support allegations that prosecutors Cary Piel, Susan Piel, Ryan Calvert and John Rentz contributed to a hostile environment in Williams-Boldware’s workplace.
The suit alleged that Cary Piel made a racial comment in front of her; that Susan Piel, who was her supervisor, should have protected her from hearing the comment, and that Rentz and Calvert later made hurtful comments to her.
First Assistant District Attorney Jamie Beck, who acts as spokesperson for District Attorney Paul Johnson’s office, declined comment on the forced resignations or on specific questions about the issue.
“Our office will not be providing any comment on any person that is no longer an employee of the Denton County District Attorney’s Office,” she wrote in an e-mail in response to questions.
Williams-Boldware did not respond to a telephone message asking for comment. One of her attorneys, Bill Trantham, said the county’s lawyers had an opportunity to present all the evidence they wanted to and they didn’t put Susan Piel or Ryan Calvert on the stand.
“Sob, sob. Boo hoo hoo. Cary Piel and John Rentz got up there and lied, and the jury didn’t believe them,” Trantham said. “Paul Johnson lied, and the jury didn’t believe him. He testified that Nadiya came into his office and walked over to his window and told him she could have John Wiley Price and a bunch of protesters in the parking lot if he didn’t give her the money to pay off her student loans. That was a lie, and [the jury] gave her $510,000. How do you explain that?”
The Piels, who are married, Calvert, who is Susan Piel’s brother, and Rentz were all seasoned felony trial prosecutors. The Piels had worked together and won high-profile cases such as the murder case against former police officer Bobby Lozano and a murder charge against Charles Stobaugh, whose wife went missing and never was seen or heard from again.
Calvert was serving on a Tarrant County jury pool on June 25, but the other three were called into a conference room with Johnson, who told them he wanted their resignations or they would be fired. They complied and left almost immediately.
Rentz has not responded to efforts to reach him for comment. The suit alleged that he called Williams-Boldware a troublemaker.
Calvert said his cellphone was turned off that morning because he was in a courtroom. He checked his messages during a break and found one from Johnson asking for a callback. He returned the call but reached voice mail and asked Johnson to call him again.
Johnson did not, Calvert said. Instead, at the lunch break, Calvert saw an e-mail from Johnson asking that he contact him when he was done with jury duty. He also had numerous messages from his sister.
Calvert called Susan Piel and learned that they were being let go and were supposed to resign. He immediately sent Johnson an e-mail tendering his resignation. He never heard another word from Johnson.
Calvert was shocked. Never once in his nine years with the district attorney had he heard anything but praise from Johnson and Beck, he said. He was named attorney of the year in 2011 and 2012 by the Denton County Crime Victims Coalition.
The lawsuit alleges that on Oct. 29, 2009, Calvert attended a birthday party in the office for Williams-Boldware. The suit states that Calvert, in the presence of Williams-Boldware and others, said that he had better leave the party or his tone would have him going to “one of those classes.” That apparently was a reference to sensitivity classes that Cary Piel attended after his comment.
Later, Williams-Boldware admitted in a sworn deposition that Calvert did not attend her birthday party and that she did not actually hear him say anything about her.
Calvert said the truth was that he passed a friend in the hallway in another part of the office that day and the friend suggested that he go by the party because there was food. He did not at that time even know what his brother-in-law had said to Williams-Boldware or that he attended a sensitivity class, he said. Calvert’s own perception of Williams-Boldware was that she was extremely sensitive and easily offended.
“I always found her to be nice, to be pleasant, but her temperament was one of emotional sensitivity,” he said. “I responded that I might say happy birthday in the wrong tone of voice and upset her.”
Calvert said there was no one else in the hallway, but apparently a friend of Boldware must have overheard the comment and repeated it to her.
Later that same afternoon Calvert was called into Beck’s office and asked about the comment. Trantham — one of Williams-Boldware’s lawyers, along with Chris Raesz — had called to complain.
Calvert told Beck exactly what he said and where he was when he said it, he said. The friend was called in separately and told Beck the same thing.
“I am not a racist. I never said a word about sensitivity class,” Calvert said. “Ms. Beck acknowledged to me that my comment had nothing to do with race. She said not to worry about it.”
No one in the district attorney’s office is allowed to comment to the press except Beck. So when the lawsuit was made public and Beck declined comment, that left the four people accused of racial wrongdoing with no way to defend themselves.
Calvert was dismissed from the lawsuit by the judge. He was never deposed and did not attend the trial. His dismissal came as the aftermath of the county losing a lawsuit, he said.
“My job was dependent on a trial I had no part in,” Calvert said. “It had nothing to do with my being a racist. It had everything to do with politics.”
Susan Piel was not at the birthday celebration either. She had been walking a tightrope because she supervised Williams-Boldware, and she desperately wanted to refrain from doing anything that might offend her. Neither was she present during the episode when her husband made the racially insensitive remark in April 2009, she said.
Months later Beck informed her that Williams-Boldware had filed a complaint with the county human resources department. The department determined that the district attorney’s office had taken appropriate action. Susan Piel told Beck that she had stayed out of the issue because of her precarious position between her husband and her employee. Beck told her she did the right thing, Susan Piel said.
Then in December 2009 the lawsuit was filed. Susan Piel said at that time she asked to be removed as Williams-Boldware’s supervisor. And she was. But she still supervised all the other misdemeanor prosecutors and she feared that something she said or did would be taken wrong. She requested that she be laterally moved to avoid problems. She received a letter back from Johnson denying the request.
“You have excelled at your position as Chief of the Misdemeanor Division. …” the letter said in part. “Susan, I am proud of the professional demeanor you have displayed to date and am confident that you will continue to conduct yourself in a like manner as you continue to meet your responsibilities in the position of Misdemeanor Division Chief.”
This was the only message she ever received concerning the lawsuit, she said. From April 2009 to June 2012, she was never told that she did anything wrong, she said.
She did not testify at the trial. When she was summoned to the meeting room, neither she nor any of the others was given a reason for the demand for their resignations, she said.
She plans to spend some time with her and Cary’s three children before finding another job, she said.
“Right now, I’m just taking it day by day,” she said. “I understand that politics are involved when you work for an elected official. If the district attorney felt that I needed to go, he has had the past three years to communicate that to me. I would have quietly left, if asked. But for me, it feels disloyal to have been assured for three years that you did nothing wrong and then be abruptly and publicly humiliated this way.”
That April of 2009, Cary Piel was prosecuting a case against a black woman who drunkenly drove across a graveyard, destroying a number of headstones, and he had just watched a video of her fighting with officers and yelling curses and racial slurs against them when they arrested her. He was upset by her actions, he said, when he made a racial comment in front of Williams-Boldware.
By the time he walked back to his office he realized that he had blundered, he said. He immediately sat down at his computer and apologized to her in an e-mail.
“A few days later I saw her and I apologized over and over. I apologized five times,” Cary Piel said in a recent interview. “She was still mad at me, but I was sincere and I thought she took it that way.”
Later the incident was investigated. Cary Piel admitted to his remark and said he knew he had made a terrible mistake. A letter of reprimand was placed in his personnel file, and he was directed to attend sensitivity class.
“I accepted that and went to class with an open mind,” he said. “There was never a doubt I was wrong. No question. But no one ever told me I was in jeopardy of losing my job. I took my punishment and I thought it was over.”
Within the week of his forced resignation Cary Piel went to work for the law firm of Jackson & Hagen. He is grateful to Rick Hagen for giving him a position, he said. With his wife having lost her job at the same time and three children to support, he needed a job.
“I’m so glad to get back to work. Rick has a lot of cases, and I can help. He knows that I can work a case,” Cary Piel said.
After the federal judge dismissed the suit’s claims that the four prosecutors contributed to a hostile work environment and kept Williams-Boldware from being promoted, the county was left as the only defendant in the lawsuit. The jury apparently decided that the county was liable for a hostile work environment.
In his pretrial ruling, the judge wrote that Williams-Boldware and her lawyers were ordered to show evidence that the four prosecutors contributed to a hostile workplace. No evidence was ever produced, the judge wrote. He ruled that Williams-Boldware asked for only one promotion and was given that promotion.
The lawsuit speculated that Susan Piel must not have approved Williams-Boldware’s participation in felony trials because she never participated in any.
“Plaintiff cannot state a plausible claim for race discrimination based upon mere belief,” the judge wrote. “… Because plaintiff has failed to allege sufficient facts to support a racial discrimination claim for failure to promote against the individual defendants; this claim should be dismissed. …”
DONNA FIELDER can be reached at 940-566-6885. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.