Denver International Airport has fired the senior leader over its parking operation after a year of turmoil that saw a critical audit of the airport’s shuttle bus system and charges by employees of discrimination, harassment and a hostile work environment.
Internal documents, emails and personnel records obtained by The Denver Post reveal that by early April, employee concerns about the workplace culture in the Parking and Transportation Department had grown so widespread that DIA brass hired an outside investigative firm to dig deeper. For months, scrutiny had focused on the leadership of Winfred “Herald” Hensley, the senior vice president in charge of the department.
While the workplace probe still is underway, DIA says, Hensley is gone. Chief Operating Officer Steve Jaquith fired the nearly 16-year DIA veteran on May 5. The Post obtained his 13-page dismissal notification through a public records request.
For the airport, it was an unusual action to take against such a high-level city employee; others who face serious questions or pressure from above are more likely to resign. Hensley made about $177,000 a year to oversee the airport’s garages and lots and the large staff that runs them. Parking is DIA’s largest source of non-airline revenue, bringing in $148 million last year — and nearly $204 million in 2019, before the pandemic affected air travel.
“Many employees strongly believe harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment exist within Parking and Transportation,” Jaquith wrote in Hensley’s dismissal letter, citing the consensus from more than 10 hours of employee listening sessions he conducted. “The culture of the Parking and Transportation Department is a direct reflection of your poor leadership and judgment; ineffective communication, delegation and follow up; and lack of accountability.
“You have lost the respect of your subordinates. The environment is indeed perceived as toxic.”
Reached by The Post this week, Hensley declined to comment on his dismissal.
The department has been roiled by several developments since February, starting with Hensley’s placement on a nearly two-week investigative leave. Then came the noisy exit in early March of Ben Juarez, the department’s parking director.
Juarez had raised concerns about Hensley to DIA’s top officials the prior month, prompting Hensley’s brief placement on leave, after they had sparred since last fall over responsibility for the critical shuttle audit and then Juarez’s performance review. After resigning, Juarez sent an email blast to other employees on March 4, his last day. In it, he outlined his concerns about Hensley’s leadership, improper use of employee discipline and perceptions of pay inequity — and encouraged them to speak up, too.
Later that day, Jaquith announced that he would convene the listening sessions.
Jaquith also criticized Hensley for making purported remarks to employees in May 2021, including Juarez, that left the impression that Hensley promoted a Black employee to a front-office administrator job for an improper reason. Hensley, according to the dismissal letter, told them he wanted to make the department look good to the rumored next airport CEO, Phil Washington, who also is Black.
Hensley later said he didn’t recall making the comments, according to the dismissal letter. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock appointed Washington to the top job in early June.
Beyond ill-conceived remarks, the dismissal letter details other managerial missteps that contributed to “a complete cultural breakdown” of the parking department under Hensley.
According to the document, Hensley disputed his employees’ characterizations about his comments, actions and leadership, while challenging the basis for his firing. It says he “blamed the lack of trust and pervasive perceptions of discrimination, pay inequities and retaliation solely on Mr. Juarez,” as an agitator.
But Jaquith took issue, writing that Juarez’s complaints “became the catalyst for many other employees in the department to find the courage to speak up about their own similar experiences and perceptions.”
Juarez declined to comment this week, but he confirmed that he filed a complaint against the city with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging pay discrimination and retaliation.
DIA spokeswoman Stacey Stegman said Mark Nagel, the airport’s senior director of operations, is now serving as the Parking and Transportation Department’s interim leader.
Fallout of parking audit includes 3 reprimands
Hensley’s dismissal notice says he failed to accept accountability for his role in the department’s poor oversight of DIA’s parking shuttle provider, as uncovered by an August report issued by City Auditor Tim O’Brien’s office.
ABM Parking Services has a $178 million, five-year contract to operate shuttles to DIA’s outlying passenger and employee parking lots. Auditors found that those buses too often failed to run on time during a three-year period. All the while, DIA failed to assess millions of dollars in contractual penalties against ABM, the audit found, and failed to keep track of riders’ complaints.
Personnel records reviewed by The Post show that the audit resulted in discipline against at least three DIA employees.
By December, Jaquith issued written reprimands to Hensley; to Juarez, the parking director; and to Brian Pokorny, the commercial contract administrator under Juarez who was responsible for daily oversight of the shuttle contract. All three disputed Jaquith’s assertions that they fell short in making sure the contract was followed, according to disciplinary notices reviewed by The Post.
Hensley later received a second written reprimand related to the audit. On Dec. 20, Jaquith cited him for twice making comments to Juarez during the fall that were deemed inappropriate for a senior airport leader, including calling Juarez “a nut case.”
“I am also concerned about you not taking leadership accountability for the outcome of the 2021 Shuttle Bus Audit and, instead, blaming me for challenging the performance of those on your team, including you,” wrote Jaquith, a former United Airlines hub leader who was hired by DIA last June.
Hensley, who was promoted to his senior vice president job in September 2019, started at DIA in 2006 as parking manager, according to his resume on file with the city. Before the airport hired him, he worked for six years as ABM’s general manager for its parking shuttle operation at DIA.
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