NORFOLK, Va. (CNN/WAVY) — Lee-Anne Walters and her family were the first in Flint, Michigan, to discover there were astronomically high levels of lead in the water and alert the Environmental Protection Agency. But the family now says her criticism and advocacy during the water crisis has been met with workplace retaliation and harassment against her husband, a sailor with the U.S. Navy.
“We’re still recovering from Flint. We never thought we’d be in this position again,” Walters said, explaining that she is afraid her husband is in danger of losing his job. “We are afraid now for our livelihoods.”
Dennis Walters, a 17-year Navy veteran, has filed a complaint claiming mistreatment at work due to his wife’s role in the Flint water crisis. The complaint, sent to the Offices of Inspector General for the Department of Defense and the Navy.
In the complaint, Walters claims that he has been repeatedly mistreated at the Sewells Point Police Precinct, which is part of Naval Station Norfolk, because his wife has been so outspoken. He claims that the pattern of harassment began in March after she testified in Congress.
“Demeaning me, making derogatory comments about me being a ‘crusader,’ and I should know what my role is and trying to handle me and my job as a military wife isn’t to be a crusader,” Lee-Anne Walters told WAVY.com.
A “hostile work environment”
The Walters say the treatment got worse after Lee-Anne testified before Congress last spring. A Michigan state senator then invited the Walters to attend a public hearing in Michigan in March 2016. When Dennis Walters asked for Temporary Assigned Duty — in other words, official travel orders — the Navy denied his request, telling him he must use personal time because a TAD “could be demeaning to the EPA.”
Walters took personal leave to travel to Michigan, but upon return, says things got worse.
WAVY.com interviewed his wife, Lee-Anne Walters, and their attorney, Eric Leckie. Dennis Walters was advised not to speak to the media by the Navy.
Dennis Walters claims that he has been, “subjected to a systematically hostile work environment,” in which he was made to work unreasonably long hours without breaks and was denied training opportunities, according to court documents. He claims the stressful work environment has resulted in physical symptoms including vomiting and nausea while on duty.
Lee Anne Walters says the family has been careful to respect protocol and keep her husband out of the advocacy efforts, but it has not made a difference. She says her criticism of the EPA and the slow response to the water crisis in Flint has caused her husband problems at work.
“When we started this, my husband was given very clear-cut guidelines on how he could participate,” she said. “We were told his name couldn’t be used, he couldn’t do interviews, and we have followed the rules. So to turn around and be let down once again by the government, it’s not OK.” She did not say who gave them these guidelines.
Walters also told WAVY.com her husband tried to raise concerns to his chain of command first, then met with the command ombudsman, and eventually with Navy legal services. She says the legal services representative denied their grievance. She would not comment on why.
The Walters hope an agency will take up their claim, and open an investigation. They are also requesting a transfer to a different unit.
WAVY.com spoke with a Naval Station Norfolk spokeswoman Thursday, who says that from the beginning of the Walters’ arrival in Norfolk, they were aware of and supportive of the Walters needs and special accommodations related to their obligations in Flint. The spokeswoman also said she was not aware of the Walters’ concerns about the chain of command until she read media coverage of the report. She says the Navy is now looking into the allegations.