The trail of workplace rage that appears in part to have led a Virginia news reporter to shoot two colleagues today on live television is meticulously -– even hauntingly -– laid out in a long series of memos filed as part of Vester Lee Flanagan’s lawsuit against his onetime employer, WDBJ.
The 167-page file from Roanoke City General District Court documents a series of alleged issues with his former employer -- for whom the victims, Alison Parker and Adam Ward, also worked -- according to memos written to and about Flanagan by station management.
On May 31, 2012 included in the documents, Flanagan’s news director at the time cited the reporter -– who used the professional name Bryce Williams -– for cursing at his cameraman and berating him in front of an interview subject, the documents say.
“Ultimately, remedying the rift with individual co-workers caused by your behavior is up to you and will take constant and conscious effort,” wrote Dan Dennison. “Any further incidents of inappropriate behavior or situational response that is not professional or leaves a co-worker feeling threatened or uncomfortable will lead to more serious disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment.”
Two months later, on July 30, Dennison was even more pointed:
“Your behaviors continue to cause a great deal of friction with your co-workers,” he wrote, according to the document.
“Under no circumstances should you engage in harsh language, demonstrate aggressive body language, or lash out at a photographer in front of members of the public,” Dennison continued. “Clearly much damage has been done already in your working relationships with several members of the photography staff. It is your responsibility, going forward, to work at repairing these relationships.”
The news director then ordered Flanagan to contact the station’s employee-assistance program, saying “failure to comply will result in termination of employment.”
Flanagan was hired on March 6, 2012, at a salary of $36,000, the documents show.
He was fired on Feb. 1, 2013 and filed suit 13 months later, accusing the station of sexual and racial harassment and not paying him overtime that he claimed he was due, among other things.
He represented himself in the case, which was dismissed in July 2014. The station denied any wrongdoing, said that it investigated Flanagan's claims and found them meritless, according to Marci Burdick, Senior VP of the station's parent company, Schurz Communications.
Burdick also said that there have been no threats to the station or personnel since Flanagan was fired.
The path from the summer of 2012 to his firing six months later is marked by a decline in his behavior, then improvement and then accusations the documents say.
On Aug. 6, 2012, Flanagan got the lowest possible marks for working with colleagues and the second-lowest for interacting with outsiders.
On Nov. 9, 2012, he was cited by Dennison for violating journalistic standards by wearing an Obama political sticker while waiting to vote. Though superiors acknowledged that Flanagan had not previously received demerits for his ethics, they were concerned that such a problem would only add to the pile of grievances people had with him.
“You need to quickly and diligently move from the category of an employee who commits misstep after misstep to the kind of problem-free employee we hope you can become,” his boss wrote, according to the documents.
“Your disciplinary actions and performance deficits are well documented...We are fast reaching the point where continued violations of company policy or basic journalistic standards could mean termination from employment at WDBJ7.”
Six weeks later, the managers at the station were openly discussing with Flanagan a possible end of their relationship with the reporter.
“Maybe it’s time for me to go,” Flanagan is reported to have said in response to two lengthy discussions with Dennison on Christmas Eve.
Three weeks into January 2013, Flanagan for the first time brought up “discrimination.” In a meeting called to discuss a technical problem on a story, Flanagan raised “his concerns about possible discrimination.” He was upset about “a couple of statements that he thought were racist” and said “he felt he was working in a hostile work environment.”
By Feb. 1, a meeting was called to fire Flanagan. It was punctuated by a confrontation, the documents say.
When he was briefed on his severance package, Flanagan came back with this: “"You better call police because I'm going to make a big stink. This is not right."
Station managers called the cops. As Flanagan cleared out his things, the police arrived, according to the memos.
The news director “and two police officers came into the newsroom,” according to the file.
“They told Bryce that the company wanted him off the property and needed to leave," Flanagan's bosses wrote. "Bryce refused and continued to keep trying to call (the station’s owner) from his desk phone. The officer began to take the phone and Bryce said ‘Take your hands off me. Leave me alone.’ Some other members of the staff were on the periphery of the newsroom observing and recording video. The officers continued to tell Bryce he needed to leave. Bryce tossed a hat and small wooden cross at Dan (the news director) and said ‘You need this.’
“He told one of the officers ‘You know what they did? They had a watermelon back there for a week and basically called me a n------.’ Dan instructed any remaining employees to leave the newsroom. Dan and I also went to the periphery of the newsroom and allowed the officers to remove Bryce from the building.”
In a May 26, 2014 letter, Flanagan pleaded with the judge handling the case, Francis Burkart III, according to records.
“Your Honor, what I encountered while employed at WDBJ-7 was nothing short of vile, disgusting and inexcusable,” he wrote to Burkart. “I will be able to prove the defendant broke several laws. Judge Burkart, I realize this is the ultimate ‘David vs. Goliath’ scenario, so to speak. However, I am neither intimidated nor fearful. While I may not be an expert with regards to case law and legal terms, I AM an expert when it comes to integrity, character and the difference between right and wrong.”
He said he wanted to be tried by a jury of black women. And he vowed that “I will not rest until this matter is resolved. I am a very, very persistent person and will utilize every resource I have to achieve justice…”
And Flanagan complained of “a conspiracy” by the camera staff to oust him from the station.