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Complaint: DOJ’s Montana Highway Patrol fired trooper in retaliation

Posted at 8:07 AM, May 30, 2024

The Montana Highway Patrol fired a trooper and union president in retaliation after she provided a workplace climate survey summary to union staff, according to allegations in an unfair labor practice complaint.

The complaint was filed against the Montana Department of Justice and its Montana Highway Patrol division. The DOJ denies the allegations and argues the trooper was fired for disseminating the document “in violation of a direct order.”

The Montana Federation of Public Employees made the allegations last month on behalf of Trooper Alicia Bragg. In a statement, MFPE President Amanda Curtis said the Highway Patrol’s actions constitute retaliation against a decorated officer.

“It is illegal to retaliate against a union president for sharing information related to her members’ working conditions with her union staff,” Curtis said. “We’re working to address this excessive punishment, get Alicia’s job back, and tackle MHP’s rapidly deteriorating working conditions for all troopers.”

Montana law prohibits state agencies from interfering with or coercing employees from exercising their union rights, reports the Daily Montanan.

Trooper: ‘Investigation was a witch hunt’

Earlier this year, the Montana Highway Patrol issued a climate survey in response to low morale, high turnover, and the need to make improvements at the agency, according to an earlier interview with an agency employee.

The results reflected poorly on management and indicated a lack of support for employees. The response rate was roughly 80%.

As part of a steering committee formed to address results, then-Trooper Bragg received a copy of the summary.

A 10-year employee at MHP, Bragg said multiple troopers told her they feared retaliation for their responses to the survey, and in her role as president, she helps enforce working conditions — which appeared to be eroding.

Those working conditions are part of the bargained contract the troopers’ union signs with the state.

As such, Bragg sent a copy of the summary to her field consultant.

“There’s no daylight between troopers and our union,” Bragg said in an interview Wednesday. “We’re one and the same. We’re always working together day and night for better working conditions.”

The summary became public on March 29 after the Daily Montanan published a story about it.

A short time later, Bragg lost her job. The Montana Highway Patrol put Bragg on leave on April 9 and terminated her April 19, and the complaint and an internal grievance are pending, according to related records.

“In my initial hearing, MHP leadership asked me who would have my back in a dark alley now,” Bragg said in a statement. “I realized their investigation was a witch hunt, and they didn’t care about using troopers’ survey input to improve our working conditions.

“Yes, as union president, I communicated about this survey — whether or not troopers’ truthful participation could be grounds for disciplinary actions — with my union staff. And I was fired for it.”

In addition to allegations the Highway Patrol retaliated against Bragg, the complaint alleges the agency is intimidating troopers and obfuscating negative working conditions by keeping survey results under wraps.

“It is the Federation’s position that information contained documentation of the working conditions of troopers (and) is a public document given that it was the product of a ‘climate survey’ that was paid for with public funds and is not a confidential document,” the complaint said.

DOJ: ‘Responses to employee misconduct’

The DOJ did not respond to an email from the Daily Montanan about this complaint, but Bragg and the union provided the response filed with the Department of Labor and Industry.

“Respondent generally denies all the allegations of the complaint, and asserts that all alleged actions, to the extent that they were actually taken as alleged, were warranted responses to employee misconduct,” said the letter to DLI.

The response on letterhead of Attorney General Austin Knudsen is signed by Chief Human Resource Officer Melissa Gardner and General Counsel Chad Vanisko with the DOJ.

In the letter, the DOJ said “a climate survey document” was distributed to a small committee made up of Highway Patrol employees, and all members were “ordered by commanding officers, both in writing and verbally, not to disseminate the document until it was authorized for release.”

The DOJ said when the summary became public, all committee members were asked if they disseminated it, and Bragg acknowledged she shared it. DOJ said she did so despite direct orders.

“MHP troopers, as law enforcement officers, are subject to strict rules regarding orders of commanding officers and obeying the same,” the DOJ said.

The DOJ agreed a public employer is obligated to bargain in good faith, but it argues the union is confused about the climate survey, the DOJ didn’t interfere with communication, and contract negotiations weren’t underway anyway.

“The parties were not … in the process of bargaining at any relevant time herein,” the DOJ said.

Bragg: ‘Good troopers need to stay’

Bragg, from Great Falls, worked as a dispatcher for 8.5 years for three different agencies in Montana before heading to the law enforcement academy.

“It was just the natural progression, in my mind, to move to the other side of the radio,” she said.

Trooper Bragg receives an award.

She’s worked for the Highway Patrol since 2014, and her face has been on DOJ posters hanging in district offices. In her tenure, she earned a Hedstrom Award for providing life-saving efforts as an officer and an Unsung Hero award for Special Olympics volunteering.

Three years ago, Bragg was elected union president for her local, and she said the pipeline between her and her field consultant was wide open. They shared contract negotiation information, new policies and documents related to discipline procedures.

She provided the survey summary to her field consultant in the same light, she said, and she never imagined she would lose her job in the course of doing union business: “Absolutely not.”

She said the consultant who conducted the survey told the steering committee a full report was nearly 400 pages. However, Bragg said she doesn’t believe it has been released despite a promise it would be and a commitment to “full transparency” with results.

The Daily Montanan has requested the full report from the DOJ. The DOJ has not provided it.

On Monday, April 8, Bragg said her captain called her back to Helena from a detail in Bozeman, and after a meeting with superiors on April 9, she was put on leave. Bragg said she suspected retaliation ahead given the quick action in her case compared to others.

However, Bragg said she was also disappointed because she had believed she was helping to improve working conditions for Montana Highway Patrol employees. She shared her story of being fired on Facebook, and it has been shared 111 times.

“I was extremely frustrated because I had worked so hard and communicated with troopers throughout the state about it being a safe process for them to share their opinions about the Highway Patrol,” Bragg said.

Bragg, who had union staff present in her interview, said she had convinced people who feared retaliation to respond to the survey: “It was really frustrating to me to be the first one to be taken out by the survey.”

Grievance, complaint, unfold

Bragg wants her job back despite the allegations the Montana Highway Patrol treated her unfairly and illegally.

“The good troopers need to stay,” Bragg said. “There’s quite a few troopers that are leaving.”

Some are quitting because of the climate at the Highway Patrol, but Bragg said she’s been telling troopers since her termination that Montanans — and those who travel through it — need good officers to stay and cultivate new growth and a new culture at the agency.

She said she wants troopers to serve citizens without fear.

“I don’t want them to feel any stress about going to work because they’re worried about retaliation or anything ugly coming out of the survey,” Bragg said.

An internal grievance and the complaint are pending. It could be nine months before the complaint is resolved, but the grievance could result in Bragg’s job being restored and even back-pay if it resolves in her favor.

In the meantime, Bragg said she and her husband are planning summer with their 14-year-old, an adopted foster child. She also enrolled in seminary and is working on a bachelor’s in ministry.

“It’s just another way of helping people along the way,” Bragg said.