Holcomb administration accused of waiving fine in Amazon worker’s death while pursuing HQ2

An investigation into Amazon employee injuries by a national not-for-profit journalism organization accuses Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s administration of absolving the online retail giant of any accountability in an Indiana worker’s death at the same time the state was bidding for the company’s coveted HQ2 project.

The article, published Monday by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, details the death of 59-year-old Phillip Lee Terry and the state’s investigation into whether Amazon was liable. Terry died on the job at the Amazon warehouse in Plainfield in late September 2017 after a 1,200-pound piece of equipment dropped and crushed him.

The Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration was sent to investigate the death, and safety inspector John Stallone concluded the forklift had not been propped up as it should have been when Terry was working under it, according to the Reveal article.

Stallone asked Amazon for proof that Terry had been trained on how to properly work on the equipment, but the company did not provide adequate proof, so Stallone issued four safety citations for a total fine of $28,000, according to the story.

That same month, Holcomb directed state officials to try to lure Amazon into locating its second headquarters in the state. The Seattle-based company announced it was in the market for another location and had promised a $5 billion investment and 50,000 new jobs to the winning region.

In November 2017, while the public bidding war for Amazon’s HQ2 was still playing out, Stallone and his boss, Indiana OSHA Director Julie Alexander, called Amazon officials to talk about the citations and fine related to Terry’s death, according to the article. Stallone recorded the call, and Alexander can be heard telling Amazon officials how to reduce the fines and shift the blame to “employee misconduct,” according to Reveal.

In a podcast posted by Reveal that included some of the audio from that conversation, Alexander can be heard telling Stallone, “I hope you don’t take it personally if we have to manipulate your citations.”

Stallone told Reveal that a few days after that call, he was called into a meeting with Indiana Labor Commissioner Rick Ruble and Holcomb, who allegedly brought up the Amazon deal and said it would mean a lot to the state to land the headquarters.

Ruble then told Stallone to either back off the Amazon case or resign, according to the story.

Holcomb’s office denied that meeting ever happened.

“The claim against the governor is absolutely untrue,” Holcomb spokeswoman Rachel Hoffmeyer said, according to the Indianapolis Business Journal. 

The Indiana Department of Labor settled the case with Amazon on Sept. 14, 2018, while Indianapolis was still one of 20 finalist cities for the HQ2 project, and waived all of the fines that had been imposed.

Ultimately, Amazon selected northern Virginia for HQ2.

Hoffmeyer referred other questions about the story to the Indiana Department of Labor, which oversees the Indiana OSHA. She said she had not spoken to Holcomb about the accusations about the Department of Labor.

Labor Department spokeswoman Stephanie McFarland did not immediately return a phone call from IBJ, but the department sent a statement to Reveal that said “the allegations are nothing short of bizarre and fantastical — in addition to being absolutely false.”

McFarland also told Reveal that Amazon provided proof that Terry had been properly trained, but the department did not share that documentation with Reveal.

Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody said in a statement that if Holcomb’s administration or the governor himself personally and knowingly looked the other way, “it would be a disturbing abandonment of their responsibility to keep workers safe.”

“Holcomb and his administration enforce the laws,” Zody said. “Their job is to protect workers, not political interests. The governor owes Hoosiers who put their lives on the line every day a public explanation of this report and reassurance his administration is looking out for their safety, not big businesses.”

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