More than shushing was going on at the Marathon County Public Library
A report obtained by The Wausonian reveals excessive punishment, bullying and sexual harassment - including by the whistleblower himself
In late February of this year, the Marathon County Library Board received a disturbing letter. The letter came from library employee Matt Derpinghaus, and it detailed some fairly shocking allegations about a toxic work environment at the library, the result of two managers who made life hell for their employees, including the letters’ author.
Six months later, as an investigation into the allegations became public, those two managers — Library Director Ralph Illick and Business Manager Tom O’Neill — are gone. But so is Derpinghaus. It turned out, according to the report, he was part of the problem as well as a victim of it.
The Wausonian through public records request received, along with Derpinghuas’ original letter, a copy of the investigative report put together by law firm von Briesen. Anyone who has been in government long enough knows von Briesen is the law firm a governmental body calls when it’s time to get rid of someone, and few survive (now-retired County Administrator Brad Karger was one of the few, escaping with a suspension).
Those records reveal not only a pattern of bad behavior, but also hint at an HR department that seemed to look the other way.
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In Derpinghaus’ report, he lays out a timeline ranging from his employment in February 2016 to fall of 2020.
According to Derpinghaus’ letter, Illick regularly threatened staff members’ employment, bullying managers in meetings, and repeatedly blamed Derpinghaus for staff members quitting. Derpinghaus writes that he often was reprimanded for things that were outside of his control or that he had nothing to do with. He mentions Illick yelling at him for mishandling “patron checks,” which Derpinghaus writes he had nothing to do with in the course of his job duties.
The most disturbing allegation is one in which Illick allegedly showed a number of scenes of a video to Derpinghaus that concluded with one in which a man performs fellatio on another man, but on a dildo instead of his privates. “This made me extremely uncomfortable, but I felt I could not say anything for fear of further bullying,” Derpinghaus wrote.
The letter also accuses HR Director Frank Matel of shielding Illick’s behavior. According to the letter, Matel and Illick were friends and attempts to bring this to Matel’s attention were met with scorn and ignored. Matel had told him he would look into the allegations and get back to Derpinghaus — according to his letter, that never happened.
The systematic change
Besides the personnel allegations, Derpinghaus details what he says are Illick’s true intentions around the library system. As a recap, Illick had been pushing for the library to transition from the smaller Wisconsin Valley Library Service to the South Central Library System. The systems represent the larger borrowing network for things such as inter-library loans.
As someone who spoke with Illick about the system change in the past, his comments in the letter sound largely the same, though with much more direct and colorful language than when speaking to the press. When Derpinghaus asked about what about the other libraries that rely on Marathon County’s participation in the Wisconsin Valley Library System, according to the letter he responded: “F—- them and WVLS, we pay for everything, we receive substandard service and we don’t get the correct voting rights.”
Those are essentially the issues Illick told me about in previous interviews, though of course he chose his words much more diplomatically. Marathon County is gigantic compared to the other library services, and did share the bulk of the cost burden that wasn’t reflected in the voting rights ratio. The service seemed inefficient to this reporter; two attempts at trying to get a book from the T.B Scott library in Merrill proved unsuccessful. A library staff member once mentioned two months was a common wait for such a book loan, if not longer.
Derpinghaus questioned the “savings” of the move from WVLS to South Central Library System — he contended in the letter that the savings would come from firing employees. (Illick in a meeting told county officials employee reductions would come from attrition, ie not filling open spots. Derpinghaus’ letter implies that those “openings” would come out of coercion on Illick’s and O’Neill’s part.)
Pulling down the cookie jar
von Briesen’s report doesn’t specifically address Derpinghaus’ claims, but in interviews with 15 current and former library employees, the report’s investigator was satisfied that Derpinghaus’ allegations of a toxic and hostile work environment where employees were bullied into leaving were corroborated. Many told investigators that they left the library over a “culture of fear” created by Illick and O’Neill. The two disciplined and/or forced out employees over the smallest performance issues.
But in a twist of pulling down the cookie jar on one’s head, those interviewed ALSO said Derpinghaus contributed to that culture. According to the report, he repeatedly made inappropriate comments to female employees, those interviewed told the law firm, and contributed to the toxic culture. One woman quit the library because of Derpinghaus’ comments and how Illick apparently did nothing about it. The seeming discrepancy between Illick harping on Derpinghaus and also protecting him isn’t addressed in the report.
Tom O’Neill and Ralph Illick were put on unpaid leave by the library board May 19. Eight days later, Illick submitted his resignation to the board prior to a library board meeting discussing the matter. The next month, O’Neill resigned and Derpinghaus was fired.
Since then, Leah Giordano was named interim library director and has been working on improving the culture there. She was one of two contenders for the Library Director position but apparently, according to Board Chair Sharon Hunter, won’t be offered the permanent position as the board is redoing its search.
That’s a surprise, as Giordano seemed a safe internal choice following a fairly toxic predecessor. She’d already done a lot of work turning around the culture from what it sounded like during subsequent library board meetings. Either way, employees told The Wausonian that the library is a less toxic place today.
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