Holcomb, labor officials insist Amazon death investigation handled properly

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Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and the Indiana Department of Labor insist that the investigation into an Amazon employee’s death in 2017 was handled appropriately, even though the safety violations that were initially issued were eventually dismissed.

Reveal, part of the not-for-profit Center for Investigative Reporting, recently highlighted the investigation as part of a report on working conditions in Amazon facilities across the country. The Indianapolis Star also published the Indiana-specific section of the Reveal article, which alleges Holcomb was involved in getting Amazon’s fines eliminated after the September 2017 death of a maintenance employee in Plainfield as part of a strategy to win Amazon’s coveted HQ2 project.

Holcomb has repeatedly denied the allegations, even taking the unusual step of issuing cease-and-desist letters to Reveal and the IndyStar. On Tuesday, he said he believes the Department of Labor and the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration handled the case correctly.

Reveal’s report said a now-former inspector for Indiana OSHA initially issued four safety citations for a total fine of $28,000 against Amazon, but those charges were later dropped. The inspector, John Stallone, provided audio recordings he said came from a phone call between Amazon officials and his boss, Indiana OSHA Director Julie Alexander, that suggests the agency helped Amazon get the fines removed.

In the recording, which Reveal published in a podcast, Alexander can be heard telling Stallone, “I hope you don’t take it personally if we have to manipulate your citations.”

That phone call occurred while Holcomb’s administration was unsuccessfully bidding for Amazon’s HQ2 project, which promised to bring a $5 billion investment and 50,000 jobs to the winning region.

Stallone told Reveal that several days after that call he was sent 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. Holcomb denies this meeting ever happened and has demanded more specific information on when and where this alleged exchange occurred so he can prove he was not there.

“Nothing in that report that I read in The Indianapolis Star gives me any sense of confidence that the story or their sources were credible,” Holcomb said Tuesday. “I’m waiting for a front-page apology, quite frankly.”

Department of Labor spokeswoman Stephanie McFarland has also told IBJ that the case was “absolutely” handled appropriately.

McFarland said whenever Indiana OSHA gets involved in an incident, an inspector is assigned to the case to gather information on what happened and determine whether the employer is in compliance with federal and state OSHA standards.

After that, McFarland said, the inspector meets with the employer to discuss the findings and then files safety citations, if necessary. In Amazon’s case, Stallone issued four citations.

“There’s nothing in stone at that point,” McFarland said.

Employers can then request an informal conference with Indiana OSHA officials to discuss the case and decide whether to fight the violations, McFarland said. That informal conference is the phone call Stallone recorded and provided to Reveal.

McFarland said the conversation Alexander can be heard having with Amazon officials about how to be a safety leader and what the company’s options are with the citations is not uncommon, because the state’s goal is to have employers create a safe work environment.

McFarland also said it’s not unusual for Alexander to tell a safety inspector that some citations might have to be adjusted.

If a settlement isn’t reached in that informal conference, the employer can request to send it to the Board of Safety Review, which consists of three individuals appointed by the governor.

In Amazon’s case, the company contested the four safety violations after the informal phone call with Stallone and Alexander, but the settlement agreement that dropped the charges was reached before the formal hearing in front of the Board of Safety Review occurred.

McFarland said that’s common, as companies can provide additional evidence and continue to discuss the case with Indiana OSHA and Department of Labor officials.

McFarland said the three-member board still has to sign off on any settlements that occur before the hearing though, and she confirmed that happened with the agreement to dismiss the fines against Amazon.

In an email sent to Reveal in October and later shared with IBJ, McFarland said the Department of Labor “must prove that an employer had either actual knowledge or could have known with reasonable diligence, also referred to as constructive knowledge, that an employee may take an unsafe action” and that the evidence did not meet that standard, so the violations were dropped.

Holcomb is also defending his decision to send cease-and-desist letters to Reveal and the IndyStar, despite both publications standing by the reporting.

The cease-and-desist letters demanded the publications correct errors in the story, stop publishing the article as written and issue an apology to the governor.

On Tuesday, the Indiana Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists sent Holcomb a letter denouncing his use of the cease-and-desist letter.

“In our view, your cease-and-desist letters, issued on Nov. 29, are designed to intimidate reporters and journalists looking into your administration,” the SPJ letter says. “The letters also add to the overall climate in the nation that looks to undermine the credibility of journalists and media outlets.”

The letter is signed by the board of directors for the Indiana Professional Chapter of SPJ. Indianapolis Business Journal reporter John Russell is president of the board.

When asked about the SPJ letter on Tuesday afternoon, Holcomb said he had not read it, but he does support strong journalism.

“I appreciate, actually, the thoroughness and toughness and all the good work that goes on by reporters everywhere,” Holcomb said. “And just like if we have a bad apple or a bad actor, that tends to reflect on the whole organization.”

Holcomb said it was “irresponsible” for the IndyStar to publish the article.

“It is a scary situation when you can just make an accusation, print it in a paper, and like I said a couple days ago, sell lies — not spread them — sell them,” Holcomb said. “When that apology comes, I’ll be in a forgiving mood.”

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