After an 18-month battle through the federal appeals process, a Department of Transportation civil rights official has won reinstatement in the $32,000-a-year job from which he was fired.
The Civil Service Commission's appeals review board made that decision in the case of Vincent Oliver, who was fired as DOT's deputy civil rights director in June 1976 by then-secretary William T. Coleman.
Oliver says the decision also entitles him to back pay end benefits totaling more than $50,000.
In a bitter dispute over minority hiring policy, Coleman said at the time he was firing Oliver because he was "incompetent," Oliver, for his parts aid Coleman lacked "strong moral leadership" and supported "token hiring."
Oliver claimed his firing was the result of his repeated attempts to call attention to the department's poor record in the employment of women and minorities, and of his disagreement with his immediate supervisor, the director of the civil rights office, whom Coleman also dismissed at that time.
The appeals review board, the highest tribunal to which federal employes can take their merit system appeals for Judgment, called the firing of Oliver "an abuse of discretion, arbitrary and unreasonable." It not only canceled Coleman's firing of Oliver but also reversed a subsequent decision by a lower Civil Service Commission appeals authority, which had upheld Coleman's action.
Describing Coleman as an "incompetent political hack," Oliver said yesterday tha t the review board's decision proves Coleman's "statements about me were not true . . . He was just trying to shut me up." Oliver said he and his wife had been living off savings since his firing. He could not find other work, he said, and doesn't believe in receiving unemployment or welfare benefits.
A personnel specialist well-versed in the labyrinthine federal appeals process, Oliver said he handled his own appeals case because, "after going through about 10 lawyers, from $25-an-hour to $150-an-hour, I decided they generally knew very little about how to handle cases like this."
DOT has until March 22 to comply with the review board's decision. The agency also must purge the firing from Oliver's record.
DOT's civil rights office declined comment on the matter.
Former secretary Coleman, reached by phone in California, said, "I don't know how they (the review board) could make that decision" based on the record. But, he added, "Oliver had the right to an appeal, and if he was able to convince them he was right, then I have no problem with that."
Coleman the Republican administration's only black cabinet officer, had been a key lawyer on the team that won the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation case in 1954. He is now in private practice with the Washington firm of O'Melevny and Myers.
Some coworkers interviewed yesterday said that the perception at the time of the dispute was that Oliver and his supervisor had barely been speaking to each other for some time. Coleman said at that time that he had begun his own investigation into his department's civil rights activity and the rift in the civil rights office. "Oliver did nothing but make excuses," when confronted with the problems. Coleman stated at the time. "He couldn't cut the mustard."
Some of those familiar with the dispute said Oliver was a "bright aggressive and articulate man, someone whose goals were admirable, but whose methodology could be considered radical or unrealistic."
Oliver had joined DOT in 1975 after leaving the Drug Enforcement Agency where he was involved in a similar dispute over minority hiring efforts.
Over the years, DOT has developed one of the poorest records for hiring minorities and women among cabinet-level departments. Of its 72,000 employes, just under 1,500 - or 13.08 percent - are nonwhite, according to the agency's civil rights office.
Coleman said the percentage was just at 10 percent when he took office.
The head of the review board that made the decision in Oliver's favor is Peggy Griffths, a black woman who won her own post in a similar battle. A lawyer and longtime career government employe, she won her $43,592-a-year job 1st September with a U.S. District Court Judgment that she had been a denied promotion because of discrimination by the Civil Service Commission, Griffths could not be reached for comment on the Oliver decision.
James Frazier, Oliver's immediate boss at the time of his firing. was a political appointee whom Coleman allowed to resign during the 1976 dispute that put all three of the men at odds. Frazier reportedly has transferred to the civil rights office of another federal agency.