CLEVELAND – Custodian Hugh Gaughan did not endear himself to Cleveland school officials in 2003 when he exposed the presence of convicted felons working in the schools, in violation of state law.

Gaughan (pronounced Gaw-han) believes district officials were determined to get rid of him, one way or the other, as revenge for his whistleblowing activities.

He offers a compelling case, supported by a significant amount of documentation.

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Perhaps the most troubling part of his story occurred in 2008, when he was accused of attempting to molest a small boy in a school restroom. He was fired from his job, even though law enforcement authorities investigated and declined to press charges.

Gaughan appealed the termination and was eventually reinstated to his job, after a federal arbitrator determined that that the allegations against him were inconsistent and full of holes.

Gaughan’s attorney claimed school personnel made an unusual number of phone calls to the police detective who investigated the alleged incident, trying to convince him that charges should be brought against Gaughan.

The district finally got rid of Gaughan in 2013. He says he was fired for insubordination, due to what he says was his was his insistence on documenting all meetings in which his job status was discussed.

He wanted to contest the firing, but said his union filed the grievance paperwork too late. Gaughan believes union officials were angry because he exposed fellow employees and union members who were convicted felons.

Today the former school custodian is unemployed, running low on money, and seeking the type of justice that whistleblowers typically expect. He believes he did the community a favor by exposing the presence of potentially dangerous felons in the schools, including several convicted child molesters.

“I believe and hereby state that I am a victim of retaliation for exercising my First Amendment right to engage in ongoing whistleblowing activities against the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, to expose their illegal employment of convicted felons,” Gaughan wrote in a statement sent to EAGnews.

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Cleveland school officials failed to respond to several detailed telephone messages from EAGnews, seeking comment regarding Gaughan’s accusations.

‘Child molesters and other filthy felons’

It all started in 2002 when Geoghan said he nudged a young girl out of his way when he was helping another custodian move a table in a lunch room.

He was called to the principal’s office and told he had been accused of touching the girl in a sexual manner, according to legal documents. The school district investigated and found no reason to pursue the matter.

Not long after Gaughan said he heard that the building principal was making disparaging remarks about him, and telling other employees that he was guilty of sexual misbehavior with a student. He said he filed a lawsuit against the principal and settled out of court for a few thousand dollars.

EAGnews was able to confirm that Gaughan did file a lawsuit against the principal for defamation of character, but could find no written evidence of a settlement. A court official said settlement amounts are not typically listed in court records.

In the meantime Gaughan said he became angry because co-workers were harassing and threatening him, based on the principal’s accusations. He said he had heard that there were actual child molesters working in the district, so he decided to research their criminal records.

Gaughan found records of at least a dozen employees with felony convictions. Ohio law says people convicted of certain felonies are prohibited from working in schools.

Gaughan also found information on several school employees who had been accused of various crimes, but never convicted. One of them was a school bus driver – Ariel Castro – was later gained national notoriety when it was learned that he kidnapped three young women in the Cleveland area and held them against their will for approximately a decade.

He turned his findings over to the school district and a local television reporter, Carl Monday, who did a series of high-profile reports on the topic in 2004 and won an investigative journalism award for his efforts.

Monday confirmed to EAGnews that Gaughan contacted him and provided the material that prompted his investigation.

“In this investigation of non-teaching school workers in Cleveland, Ohio, it was found that more than a dozen have felony records,” said a summary of the investigation from WKYC-TV, in Cleveland, where Monday worked at the time. “Many were child molesters, drug dealers, and elderly abusers. It also found that criminal checks were done randomly … less than 500 criminal checks a year … which meant that over 4,000 employees were not checked.

“As a result of this investigation, a computer program tracking criminal records in over 70 jurisdictions was donated and ex-con workers were fired.”

This was apparently nothing new for the Cleveland school district. A report by the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper exposed 46 convicted felons working in the district in 1998.

“…I outed child molesters and other filthy felons on the school district payroll, who school officials were either negligent or corrupt in hiring and retaining,” Gaughan wrote in his statement.

Trouble began for Gaughan shortly after the television reports were aired.

Gaughan said he encountered various forms of verbal harassment and physical threats from fellow employees. He claims he sought whistleblower protection from the school district’s Internal Affairs Department, and was told by an official to “get whistleblower status from Carl Monday.”

In 2005, after Gaughan had a verbal disagreement with a school employee over the manner in which he mopped a floor, the district had him examined by a contracted psychologist, who determined that he was unfit for work. But Gaughan hired his own psychologist, who determined that he was mentally fit to continue his duties.

The school took no action to terminate him at that point.

A serious accusation full of holes

In 2008 Gaughan was accused of exposing himself to a second-grade boy in a student restroom, which was connected to an employee restroom. The school district, the Ohio Department of Children and Family Services, and the Cleveland Police Department investigated the allegations. No legal charges were brought against Gaughan, but he was fired from the school district.

Gaughan contested his termination, and a federal arbitrator ruled in his favor and ordered his reinstatement.

The boy claimed he went into a student restroom in the basement of an elementary building where Gaughan was working. He said he encountered Gaughan, and accused the custodian of dropping his pants and asking him if he wanted to “play a game.”

The boy claimed he said no, and accused Gaughan of then exposing himself. The boy said he ran out of the restroom and back to his tutor, who was waiting upstairs in a hallway.

Gaughan acknowledged being in the restroom when the boy entered (it was the only entrance to an employee restroom behind the student restroom). He said he asked the student what he was doing alone in the restroom, told him to leave, and the boy ran out.

Gaughan fervently denied any sort of sexual misbehavior.

Cleveland police investigated, found numerous inconsistencies in the child’s story and no charges were filed. The arbitrator who presided over Gaughan’s appellate case noted the same inconsistencies, and many other problems with the accusations.

In one interview with authorities, the boy said Gaughan followed him into the restroom. In another he said Gaughan was already in the restroom when he arrived. During one interview, the boy claimed that Gaughan asked him if he wanted to play a game, but never mentioned anything about the man exposing himself. In another he accused Gaughan of exposing himself.

In one account, the student accused Gaughan of standing behind him, getting ready to touch him. The boy said he could tell that was about to happen, because he could see a reflection of Gaughan in the mirror.

The arbitrator, Gerard Scola, wrote in his final report that he watched several videos showing the restroom from all angles, and didn’t see any mirror.

“This story appears to change, every time the boys tells it,” Scola wrote.

‘Faulty, unreliable and legally insufficient’

Scola was also troubled because the school district investigator’s notes regarding the incident were torn from her notebook and could not be found.

Another problem was that the child’s tutor stated that 30 to 45 seconds elapsed between the time the boy went to the bathroom and returned to him in the hallway.

“Let’s go through this scenario,” Scola wrote. “The student had to navigate a flight of stairs, go down the hall, go into the lavoratory, be immediately encountered by the grievant, then the grievant had to pull down his pants, ask the student if he wanted to play a game, pull down his underwear, expose himself to the student, then he had to run out of the lavoratory, run down the hall, run up the stairs and do all this in 45 seconds.

“Now if the grievant followed the boy into the lavoratory then add a few more seconds to the time it took do to all of those things mentioned above.”

Finally, there was the fact that Nick Jackson, the deputy chief of operations for the school district, issued a letter to subordinates, ordering them to begin the process of termination for Gaughan, based on a report from the Ohio Department of Children and Family Services.

That happened despite the fact that local prosecutors had already decided against filing charges against Gaughan, based on the police investigation.

“There is no clear and convincing evidence that (the alleged incident) really happened,” Scola wrote. “The district took a circumstantial report (from the DCFS) and built a case. Therefore the district did not have ‘just cause’ to terminate the grievant.”

Gaughan’s attorney, in a letter to a union official, slammed the DCFS for jumping to conclusions in its report.

“The welfare department investigation wrongfully determined that Mr. Gaughan was guilty of the criminal offense of endangering children,” attorney John Gibbons wrote. “The welfare investigators made no effort to withhold a decision until the police department investigation was complete. Therefore, that finding upon which the school district rested their determination was faulty, unreliable and legally insufficient in every respect.”

Gibbons also suggested that school officials may have openly campaigned to have criminal charges brought against Gaughan.

“…It is my belief, based on numerous conversations with the detective, that he was subjected to an unusual number of phone calls from officials in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, School Security Division, urging him to bring criminal charges against Mr. Gaughan.”

Finally fired for good

In 2012, Gaughan said he was asked to do some work which would require him to be elevated off the ground. He said he told his superiors he might need assistance with any assignment involving heights, due to a physical condition. He said the school district responded by again ordered him to be examined by a contracted psychologist.

At some point a school official apparently sent the new psychologist a copy of the records of Gaughan’s first mental examination, which occurred in 2004.

This was done illegally, because Gaughan refused to give the district permission to share his records. Gaughan filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, which negotiated a settlement between the school district and Gaughan.

Gaughan received $15,000 in exchange for agreement not to file a lawsuit against the district.

In 2013, Gaughan said he turned in the names of three more school district employees who were convicted felons. Later in the year he said the school district accused him of neglecting his duties, over what Gaughan said were a variety of minor accusations.

Based on his previous experiences, Gaughan informed district officials that he wanted to videotape, or have a stenographer present, at all meetings where allegations against him were discussed. He said a union official agreed that he had the legal right to videotape all such proceedings.

Gaughan’s claims his insistence on documenting disciplinary meetings led to his termination, for insubordination, in May, 2013. He again tried to appeal, but the union did not meet the deadline for filing the necessary paperwork.

Gaughan believes the union failed to property represent him because union officials resented the actions he took against other employees (and fellow union members) who were convicted felons.

He said one union official had scolded him in the past for turning in “good union brothers.”

“No (school district) policy even exists that prohibited me from videotaping management during meetings,” Gaughan wrote. “I believe and hereby state (one particular union official) and/or other union officials and school district employees and officials conspired with one another to terminate my employment and thus rid themselves of an inconvenient whistleblower.

“It is sadly ironic that (Cleveland school officials) fired me as a custodian for doing my job – cleaning the dirt out of the schools.”