By: Duane Stuart, Backgate Website
TDCJ Public Information Officer (PIO) Michelle Lyons resigned this morning after being targeted by TDCJ's Bryan Collier and others for simply reporting the truth. Lyons, who has been employed by TDCJ for the past 11 years, resigned after enduring retaliation and harassment by agency officials for several months. Michelle had been nothing but cordial and professional throughout our years of exchanges as the website sought out answers to questions regarding policy, statistics or contraband issues. Many of our inquiries were also forwarded to state Legislators for their knowledge as well.
Ultimately, this action (forwarding emails to Legislators) is what is believed to have put Michelle on the radar with her TDCJ bosses. She responded to us like she would have any other entity seeking answers. Certain TDCJ administrators didn't appreciate the fact that we were in the loop as we are sometimes critical of TDCJ policies and other issues. Last Friday, Michelle responded to a request for information we filed the week prior for a statement about the ongoing facebook privacy story. She stated that she had been removed from that position, and explained why she had been. She had raised concerns to her bosses about the way time was being kept months ago within the department, and brought it forward. That's were it all began. A few trumped up charges later, one for not helping a subordinate by not supplying a statement for him to use in her name, and one for explaining to us via email why she wasn't able to answer our "official request" and the rest is history. Michelle emailed us this statement this morning;
" When I received the email from Duane on Friday and when I responded to him and everyone who he had originally copied on the message, it set in motion a chain of events. Within a couple of hours, my email account was 'frozen' and I was told I was under investigation. Before I was charged with failing to obey an order, I was told that I should not have responded to Duane because he is considered media. At this point, I would note that some time ago, I was tracking down an answer to a question Duane had asked me and I went to Mr. Collier. He asked why I was responding to Duane since "he's not media." It's interesting to me that he wasn't 'media' several months ago, but now he is? At the time, I said that while Duane may not meet the definition of media in TDCJ's own media policy, that he is a TDCJ employee and member of the public and that I respond to as many inquiries I can from the public in addition to those I receive from the media. That's exactly what I did on Friday. I view it as responding to a message from a colleague about possible federal labor law and privacy violations and including on it my union representative and two state lawmakers. Why is that an issue? "
Michelle went on to say;
"I know that what I've gone through these last six months is similar to what so many other TDCJ employees have had to endure during their own tenures with the agency. I just really didn't understand until it happened to me. I'll never know exactly what initiated the discriminatory measures they took against me with my demotion and pay cut, but I can pinpoint that the retaliation began as soon as I questioned the way TDCJ requires employees to track their time and how they appear to be circumventing federal labor laws through some policies (although an agency policy obviously shouldn't trump federal law). Within two weeks, Mr. Collier told me "I should have just fired you," and it only escalated from there. "
"It started months ago, when they told me that I was no longer allowed to comment on any matter involving Sen. Whitmire - they told me I had become a "lightning rod" for the agency where Sen. Whitmire is concerned. (What bothered me about that is that 9 times out of 10, I'm saying what they tell me to say, so if anything, I'm only a mouthpiece for the real lightning rods, but that's another matter.)"
It's ashamed that any employee with TDCJ must endure these types of retaliation and harassment. But it hits home when it's an employee in the public eye, and with media connections like those of Michelle Lyons. TDCJ has become so comfortable with it's unchecked retaliation and harassment that it doesn't skip a beat in mistreating employees statewide. As the Sunset Commission Hearings with the Legislature approach us soon, i am almost positive these issues will be heard by Legislators. Michelle Lyons was the last line of defense and the open door that provided some sense of transparency for an agency still living and operating in the dark ages. With her gone, the agency will surely suffer a huge blow to their ability to be believable and honest. We wish you the best Michelle.