Ex-official says asbestos claim led to trouble

Gilbert Jackson has devoted his professional career to workplace health and safety. Now the former N.C. official says he was pushed out of his position for reporting a health threat inside his own office building.

Jackson, 61, has filed a complaint with the state labor department, alleging he was forced to retire because he reported asbestos violations in the Raleigh building.

Jackson's former boss at the N.C. Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission contends he was not forced out but left of his own accord.

Until April, Jackson served as general counsel for the commission, which hears appeals of OSHA citations. He gives this account in his complaint:

In September 2007, soon after Jackson and his colleagues moved into the 37-year-old office building owned by the N.C. Medical Society, he noticed a worker taking air samples in their office. He was told that asbestos, a known carcinogen, was being removed.

Jackson complained to N.C. OSHA that people working in the building hadn't been told about the presence of asbestos, as required by law. He also told his boss, commission chairman Oscar Keller, that he had done so.

Weeks later, Jackson said Keller phoned to tell him “he had gotten a call from the governor's office telling him that I had to back off from the asbestos problems at the Medical Society. When I objected he said that if I didn't back off, I would ‘have to go.' ”

The next day, Jackson said, Keller told him he had to attend a meeting with him and the medical society's CEO. At the meeting, Keller disclosed that Jackson was the one who reported the OSHA violations and asked him to apologize, Jackson said. He contended that violated a law stipulating that the identities of those who report OSHA violations be kept confidential. Jackson said Keller yelled at him and told him not to report any more OSHA violations.

Subsequently, he said, Keller changed his hours, made him report to an administrative assistant who was not an attorney and gave that assistant authority over some legal decisions that were once his responsibility. Jackson said he was forced to take early retirement in April.

Keller disputed that Jackson was pushed out of his job. “All I can tell you is he is the one who resigned to take early retirement,” he said.

He referred other questions to the commission's current general counsel, who said she could not discuss the complaint because it is still under investigation.

Jackson filed his complaint under the state's Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act, which prohibits employers from punishing workers for reporting unsafe working conditions. An Observer investigation earlier this year found that few who seek help under the program wind up getting it.

Keller, 87, and the commission's two other members were appointed by Gov. Easley. They're paid on a per diem basis. Keller, who founded Capital Bank in 1997, contributed $8,000 to Easley's 2000 and 2004 gubernatorial campaigns.

Easley's press secretary, Renee Hoffman, said there's no indication the governor's office played any role in Jackson's departure. The governor's legal counsel contacted everyone named in Jackson's complaint and “has determined that no one in the Governor's office had any conversations with Mr. Keller about Mr. Jackson's employment,” Hoffman stated in an email.

In documents signed when the commission leased the office space, the state said the building must be kept free of hazardous asbestos. But a medical society executive checked neither “yes” nor “no” when asked whether the building was asbestos free, according to a copy of the lease proposal.

N.C. OSHA cited the medical society for asbestos violations but imposed no fines.

Medical Society CEO Robert Seligson, whose office is in the building, said tests showed the asbestos levels were minuscule, posing no threat to any of the building's occupants.

The society never tried to hide the presence of asbestos in the building, Seligson said.

Staff researcher Maria David contributed.