Over the course of several years, an Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association employee played pranks on co-workers by building and detonating bombs near them, attempting to defecate on them while they worked, and placing bags of his own feces in their lunches.
The general manager of the association knew about the employee's behavior and, rather than discipline or terminate him, promoted him.
Those were among the findings of an administrative law judge who ruled late last year that the Montrose-based association must pay disability benefits to another employee who was injured on the job and fired last May. The judge determined the employee, Bill Bailey, was not responsible for his termination.
In a 20-page order, Judge Kimberly B. Turnbow detailed several instances of crude and dangerous behavior by employee Aaron English that was the subject of multiple complaints by Bailey and other employees but not addressed by water users association General Manager Steve Fletcher.
"Considering the totality of the evidence, the ALJ (administrative law judge) finds that Claimant did not precipitate the employment termination by a volitional act, which he would reasonably expect to result in the loss of employment. This finding is supported by Employer's failure to warn or discipline Claimant for his conduct between September 2014 and May 4, 2015, and Employer's tolerance of far more egregious behavior from other employees," Turnbow wrote in the order.
Sean Goodbody, an attorney with Withers, Seidman, Rice & Mueller, a Grand Junction law firm that specializes in workers' compensation claims, said Thursday Bailey's case is one of the strangest the firm has encountered in its roughly 40 years of existence.
"The order speaks for itself," Goodbody said. "Out of the hundreds of cases I've handled, this is easily the most bizarre I've seen in terms of facts, so we are very pleased. We are happy that Mr. Bailey got a little justice out of this."
A copy of the order was provided to the Sentinel this week. Workers compensation claim cases generally are made available only to parties involved in the case.
George Etchart, president of the water users association's board of directors, said he believed the judge's order was one-sided, and he claimed someone is circulating the order in a "blatant attempt to insult the association, to discredit the association."
Etchart said the board has reviewed the order and is conducting its own investigation. Asked why Fletcher and English remain employed with the water users association, Etchart responded, "They are currently employed, but, like I said, decisions haven't been made yet as to what ramifications are going to happen.
"I can't comment anymore, because no decision has been made. A decision will be made upon, you know, the whole board meeting and discussing it further."
The board's annual meeting is scheduled for Tuesday at the Montrose Pavilion.
Reached Thursday, Fletcher also called the judge's order "one-sided" and cited the age of the accusations, which he said happened between seven and 10 years ago.
"As far as the severity (of the acts), I think it's been … hyped up," Fletcher said,
Bailey worked for nine years as a ditch rider for the water users association, which provides irrigation water to more than 3,500 customers across 76,000 acres in Delta and Montrose counties. The association was formed under federal law in 1903.
The judge's order was based on a Sept. 21 hearing in Grand Junction that lasted more than three hours and featured testimony from Bailey, English and Fletcher.
Bailey testified he sustained a lower-back injury on the job in February 2015. He said when he reported the injury to his supervisor, English, he was ridiculed and told to take a few days off.
English admitted during the hearing he pulled pranks on co-workers for years, including shooting them with a "potato gun" he made out of PVC pipe on work time and building and detonating bombs on company time and with company materials. Some of the bombs were set to explode when his co-workers got into a work truck and turned the ignition switch on.
At one point, English was disclosing so much information about the bombs and how they exploded that the judge advised him of his Fifth Amendment rights about self-incrimination.
Bailey testified that in one instance, a bomb exploded with enough force to buckle the hood of a truck, and the explosion damaged his right ear. In another instance, he said he saw a pipe bomb explode while English was building it on a welding bench at work. He said the explosion sent shrapnel into the shop's ceiling, and that English laughed because he was "glad it didn't blow his arms off."
English admitted to other pranks. He filled milk jugs with an accelerant and hid them in ditch banks, so when co-workers were clearing brush from the banks using blowtorches the jugs would explode. He also placed bags of his own feces in co-workers' lunches and tried to defecate on co-workers as they worked in ditches.
Much of Fletcher's testimony indicated he was either unaware of many of English' pranks, or knew about them but did little to stem them. English testified that Fletcher approached him around 2009 when he was working as a ditch rider and asked him to stop building bombs because complaints had been filed. Fletcher himself, though, testified that he promoted English to water master in 2011, despite the pranks.
"Mr. English was only told to stop building bombs and admitted to still shooting his potato gun at work after his promotion to crew chief. In addition, Mr. English had no incentive to stop his 'pranks' because Mr. Fletcher did not find his other conduct to be fireable offenses, and in fact promoted Mr. English with awareness of such conduct," the judge wrote in her ruling.
Bailey testified that the pranks continued after English's 2011 promotion, saying English turned head gates on and off and altered the flow of water to customers on Bailey's water routes — actions Bailey claimed made it appear as if Bailey were not performing his job correctly.
Bailey, who at one point sought counseling because of his interactions with English, complained to Fletcher about English in 2014 and asked to have no more contact with English. Fletcher testified he told Bailey he could either communicate with English or find another job.
Fletcher fired Bailey last May and didn't give him a reason for doing so. But he admitted in testimony that he thought Bailey was a good employee and had "high hopes" to move him into the shop as a head mechanic. Bailey later received a letter indicating he had been fired for insubordination.
While testifying that lack of communication with English was a fireable offense, Fletcher hedged on whether much of English's behavior constituted a reason for termination.
He testified that whether setting off explosions near employees was a fireable offense depended on the "severity of the explosions."
"When asked whether putting one's feces in a co-worker's lunch was a fireable offense, Mr. Fletcher testified that 'there (are) always pranks, and I have seen that happen before in different places.' He testified that defecating into a co-worker's lunch is not a fireable offense. He testified that defecating towards another employee in the field is not a fireable offense, but could be 'if it continue(d),'" the judge wrote in her order.
When asked Thursday whether he still thought the feces-related pranks were not fireable offenses, Fletcher did not say he had changed his mind.
"I don't agree with it at all. It's totally uncalled for, but I don't know what-all led up to it, Fletcher said. "I know it got to be a competition thing — who could up who on these pranks."
He also said that he believes Bailey participated in the widespread pranking behavior.
City Editor Duffy Hayes contributed to this story.