A senior Veterans Affairs official in Honolulu who has filed numerous discrimination complaints against his bosses now finds himself working in a small cubicle with no phone and no meaningful work to do — as he draws an annual salary of about $120,000.
Honolulu-born Ronald Yonemoto, 62, said Wednesday that he feels he is in a "torture chamber."
So egregious is his highly paid, do-nothing job that Yonemoto plans to file a federal whistle-blower complaint — on himself, said his lawyer, Elbridge Smith.
"What we’re looking at here is sort of gross mismanagement, a gross waste of funds," Smith said.
Yonemoto was marginalized after he filed a series of workplace complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, his attorney says.
The VA Pacific Islands Healthcare System stripped him of all job duties on April 29 and relegated him to a tiny cubicle.
The most "meaningful work" Yonemoto, himself a lawyer and retired Navy captain, was given recently was to inventory fire extinguishers and wash a government vehicle and shuttle it for maintenance.
Smith wrote to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on May 19, asking for an investigation.
Miles Miyamoto, assistant regional counsel for the VA’s Pacific Islands system, said, "Mr. Yonemoto’s interpersonal relations in the workplace affect how he receives and completes assignments and what assignments are given to him. These are also matters pending in litigation."
The VA attorney said Yonemoto has pursued seven equal employment opportunity cases in Hawaii against the VA since 2004, and he filed at least three administrative complaints against supervisors in Washington, D.C., before coming to Hawaii in 2000.
The first two of the seven EEO complaints filed while Yonemoto has been here were decided in the VA’s favor, Miyamoto said. He added that judges found that Yonemoto "assumes the worst of the people that he works with" in taking the employment action.
"While we agree that Mr. Yonemoto does not engage in work that he and VA managers may deem optimal, we assure you that it is not because VA managers have a practice of forcing senior employees to collect pay for little or no work," Miyamoto said.
Smith, in a Jan. 6, 2009, EEO filing, raises issues of retaliation and race discrimination regarding his client. According to the letter to Shinseki, senior VA managers have yelled at Yonemoto, publicly ridiculed him and have circulated offensive e-mails about him, calling him a "mean little toady" and "big fat toad."
During most of the EEO filings in Hawaii, Yonemoto was special assistant to the director of the VA Pacific Islands system, Miyamoto said. The VA has facilities on the grounds of Tripler Army Medical Center.
According to the court filing, Yonemoto received "outstanding ratings" based on his performance and from 2000 to 2004 was given six "special contribution awards." He had a private office.
But in 2004, Smith said, work relations for Yonemoto "seemed to spiral downwards when he applied for the position of assistant director and was denied — and he filed a complaint over that."
Miyamoto said Yonemoto’s current workspace is a temporary arrangement driven by a need for space for patient care.
Yonemoto, nominally a health systems coordinator at the VA’s Center for Long-Term Care, has no privacy and no place to keep documents, said Smith.
"I can’t sleep at night," Yonemoto said in an interview. "It bothers me. I’m depressed, and I have strong paranoid feelings of what management can do to me."
Yonemoto’s attorney said he thinks the VA is trying to get his client to "quit or explode" before his latest case comes to a hearing.
Yonemoto is seeking an end to the "discriminatory treatment and reprisals" and $300,000 in damages, the maximum under the law, Smith said.
The case highlights a predicament for both Yonemoto and the VA, observers say. Perry Confalone, a labor and employment partner at the law firm Carlsmith Ball LLP, said federal employment cases can have greater levels of complexity because they can involve constitutional claims with a government employer.
Before Yonemoto relocated to Hawaii in 2000, a settlement was reached in Washington, D.C., resolving prior EEO complaints he had made, including discrimination charges, according to court filings.
"(The VA) settled the case by paying him some money and giving him the transfer," Smith said.
Miyamoto said "while the VA in Hawaii is far from perfect in managing its employees, it attempts to address fairly the EEO complaints filed by its employees."
The Pacific Islands system has five EEO complaints pending hearing or awaiting decision, and all were filed by Yonemoto, the VA attorney said.