Rhonda Powell was the highest ranking African American official in Macomb County’s history, as the former director of the health department of Macomb County, until September 5, 2019 when she was fired.
Tuesday, in downtown Detroit, Powell and her attorney filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and Deputy Executive Director, John Paul Rea, alleging she was fired after addressing discrimination complaints from other African American employees. She is suing for punitive damages in the amount of $5 million.
Appointed by Hackel and praised and promoted by him during her tenure working at the county seat in Mount Clemens, Powell oversaw three separate departments, including addressing diversity and inclusion in Macomb County. She was also one of the founders of One Macomb, an entity created with the purpose bringing diversity and inclusion to all of Macomb County.
“Born and raised in Mt. Clemens, I am very passionate about Macomb County and I chose to work there. The last thing I expected when I was called into that meeting September 5 was to be terminated,” Powell said at the press conference held at the Penobscot Building. “It’s been very challenging and my heart aches that we are in this place. I know so many other people that have walked this same road and I stand up here representing them as well.”
Powell was hired in 2014 to lead the Macomb County Community Services Agency, which was later renamed Macomb Community Action. That marked her second tenure with the county. From 2011-12 she ran the Office of Senior Services before leaving for a private sector post. She held her post as the director of Health and Community Services since 2017.
Complaints from African American employees led them to be demoted, moved from offices to cubicles, harassment, and subjected to scrutiny because of the color of their skin. When Powell discovered that a number of complaints brought by African American employees had gone unanswered, Powell attempted to address these complaints and was met with resistance at every turn. That forced her to finally reach out to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, for which she was immediately fired by Macomb County in retaliation. In addition to filing a whistleblower complaint in State court, Powell has also filed a federal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“We are pursuing this lawsuit because we feel it is important to tell the stories of what continues to happen out in Macomb County,” said Powell’s attorney Nabih H. Ayad. “You see a number of stories saying Macomb County is inclusive and open for business for the African American business. Unfortunately, that is not true. And Ms. Powell is the person can attest to this. She is a leader in the African American community in Macomb Township and this is a classic case of whistleblower action.”
Powell and Ayad said she was offered “hush money” during her meeting with Rea and the human resources director, which Powell declined.
“They had a different option for me, saying that if I was silent, waived any claims, and was complicit in helping them with any pending lawsuits, I could continue to receive my pay and benefits until the end of the year,” said Powell.
Powell was named in another lawsuit, where one of her former employees filed a whistleblower suit against her and the Macomb County. county. In that lawsuit, Ernest Cawvey said he was terminated from his position with Macomb Community Action in March after he participated in an investigation involving employees who he said are friends of Powell.
Macomb County officials said they would not comment on the lawsuit until after the press conference.