Port Manatee fires communications director amid abuse allegations

skennedy@bradenton.comSeptember 24, 2013 

MANATEE -- Another key official at Port Manatee has been dismissed from her $72,000-a-year post, failing to make her six-month probationary period.

Julie Yeh, hired as Port Manatee's corporate communications manager on April 22, was dismissed Friday, according to port documents. She could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Dave Sanford, interim port chief of staff, said officials had decided Yeh would not be retained.

"The port made a performance-based decision to not extend Ms. Yeh's period with the port beyond her probationary term," Sanford said in an e-mail to the Herald. "It is not considered ethical policy to comment further upon personnel matters, particularly as regards an individual employee."

In June, Yeh contended she had been "illegally bullied and intimidated" by Robert J. Armstrong, port deputy executive director and chief financial officer.

Yeh's harassment involved Armstrong's son, she wrote in a formal complaint to Port Manatee Executive Director Carlos Buqueras.

"Mr. Armstrong's extreme abusive behavior towards me tells me that he is actively trying to intimidate and harass employees into cover-ups," she wrote. "That Mr. Armstrong would boldly carry out this bullying and intimidation during an active investigation demonstrates

that he feels entitled, comfortable and protected."

Yeh wrote she was convinced Armstrong similarly bullied others into looking the other way on his son's behalf.

Armstrong's son, Robert B. Armstrong, who also was a port employee, was fired after he was arrested and charged in connection with stealing port property, dealing in stolen property and defrauding a pawnbroker. He has pleaded "not guilty."

His father returned items to the port police say were stolen by his son. The elder Armstrong has been charged with a single count as an accessory after the fact. He was fired by the port June 27. At the time, Buqueras said he had "lost confidence" in Armstrong's ability to effectively perform his job, which paid $127,587 annually.

An internal investigation was launched by port attorney Jennifer Cowan. The 13-page report found that port officials did not always adhere to their own drug-free workplace policy. In at least one instance, Armstrong's son was allowed to return to work even though he had acknowledged he couldn't pass a drug test, according to Cowan's findings.

Her report cited a Jan. 16 incident in which the younger Armstrong was asked if he could pass a drug test. He confirmed he could not but was not tested, the report said.

The elder Armstrong denied knowing anything about the situation when the report was released last month. He also denied the accusations made by Yeh.

"In regard to Ms. Yeh, I adamantly deny I ever threatened her or in any way intimidated her or anyone else," he told the Bradenton Herald. "That is 100 percent untrue."

Yeh's complaint followed a similar one filed last winter by Jill VanderPol, then-port communications manager, who later resigned.

VanderPol complained of a "hostile work environment," charging favoritism and improper behavior among her superiors, particularly the elder Armstrong. An internal investigation into VanderPol's complaint found no conclusive evidence of favoritism, according to a Jan. 30 report. The report did state, however, the senior Armstrong spoke to women in a condescending, aggressive way. Armstrong noted Tuesday that "all Ms. VanderPol's allegations were found to be unfounded by Lewis, Longman and Walker."

Earlier this month, Buqueras was arrested and charged with domestic battery after an argument with his wife over household bills turned physical, according to the Manatee County Sheriff's Office. He was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

Asked about the string of arrests and firings involving port officials, Port Authority Chairwoman Carol Whitmore said Tuesday she "takes every bit of it seriously."

She said she could not speak freely about the incidents because they are going through the legal process right now.

"Anything that tarnishes the mission of the port, I take very seriously," she said.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.

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