At 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 16, 2020, the director of Colorado’s Office of Emergency Management hopped out of his car at a Denver warehouse used to store personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You! Now! In the warehouse!” Mike Willis said to one of his employees, pointing his finger at her and then the warehouse doors. The state’s joint incident commander for the pandemic response was raging over some sort of miscommunication about logistics.
“I’m so (expletive) pissed off at you right now,” Willis said to her, staring her down with “intense hatred,” she later told state investigators. “How can you let this happen?”
In a corner of the warehouse, the two went back and forth at each other loudly. Finally, Willis turned toward the employee, pointing his finger into her temple.
“Are you a (expletive) idiot?” Willis said, stepping up into her face. He stood so close — “towering over” her, one witness later said — that their masks were nearly touching, as he unleashed another tirade.
The situation was “as close to being physical than she had ever encountered,” the staffer told a state investigator — and she previously worked in the Department of Corrections.
This incident, a subsequent state investigation and the resulting suspension of Colorado’s emergency management director, detailed in a February 2021 investigative report, have not been previously reported. But current and former employees say it’s hardly an outlier.
During his five years at the helm of Colorado’s responses to natural and public health disasters, Willis has displayed a pattern of aggressive behavior and inappropriate, unprofessional conduct, according to interviews with 23 current and former colleagues, state and federal government officials, National Guard service members and a review of internal state investigations into his conduct.
Willis has been suspended twice over the past 18 months for behavior that included berating female staffers, throwing objects in rage and intimidating workers to the point they thought it was close to getting physical. The most recent suspension included a warning that Willis likely would be fired “for any similar misconduct” in the future.
More than once, Willis has been drunk after-hours at industry conferences and nearly fought other attendees, multiple witnesses told The Post.
A state employee in 2019 notified human resources that they believed Willis was intoxicated in the state’s Emergency Operations Center during the response to the shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch — an allegation reported at the time to Willis’ supervisor Kevin Klein, the head of Colorado’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
But the state didn’t investigate the allegation in 2019. Klein only launched an inquiry this month after The Post began asking for records and conducting interviews. (Willis denied being inebriated that day and Klein concluded that the allegations were not sustained.)
Willis, Klein and Stan Hilkey — who runs Colorado’s Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management — declined interview requests from The Post.
In emailed responses to questions, Willis said, “I continue to learn through my experiences,” admitting that he “can be intimidating on occasion” but is working on his affect and delivery.
“In my role, I have to instill a sense of urgency into situations that require rapid, meaningful action,” he wrote. “Getting a large bureaucracy to move is important and our ability to respond timely and efficiently to any crisis can cost or save lives.”
The governor’s office, through a spokesperson, wouldn’t answer questions about whether Gov. Jared Polis has been informed of or received complaints about Willis’s behavior.
“He rules by fear; he intimidates; he threatens,” said the now-former employee who reported the STEM incident, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they still work alongside the state. “That’s his mantra for being an effective leader.”
When Willis applied in 2017 to run the state’s Office of Emergency Management, he sounded all the right notes about what it means to be an effective leader.
“…(E)motional responses nearly always sabotage conflict resolution,” Willis wrote in the application, a copy of which was obtained by The Post through an open records request. “Great people are passionate about what they do and believe; therefore leaders must guide stakeholders through conflict in a way that does not allow it to devolve into an emotional tug of war. This starts with the leader’s own responses as that sets the tone.”
Willis was picked after an “extensive national search” that included more than 60 applicants, the department announced in November 2017.
But in reality, current and former state employees told The Post, Willis runs his office through anger and force of personality.
Staff soon learned of his quick-trigger temper, which could erupt at a moment’s notice. It didn’t just happen during crises, they said. It could be a routine meeting during which someone tells him something he doesn’t like, or another department doesn’t give him what he wants. He’s known to pound on the table, throw his glasses in disgust or abruptly leave meetings altogether.
“He’s always angry,” said Fran Santagata, a retired emergency manager, who said she was on the receiving end of Willis’s explosions. “I don’t care what meeting he goes to, he’s always angry and always on edge.”
During one meeting in 2018 to discuss the cyberattack on the Colorado Department of Transportation, Willis grew upset over what he viewed as a lack of productivity, according to the accounts of two people who were there.
At regular intervals, Willis reconvened the group to see who had accomplished their tasks and who hadn’t. One by one, Willis went through the staff. If you completed your assignment, he sent you to one corner of the room. If you didn’t, Willis sent you to the opposite corner.
“It was all just for show,” said one employee who watched it unfold, speaking on condition of anonymity because they still work alongside the department. “All for public shaming.”
Personnel from the Office of Information Technology were stunned.
“To have someone talk to them like that,” said the individual who reported the STEM incident and was also in the room for the CDOT meeting, “that is unheard of.”
Willis, in an email, said this portrayal of the day’s events “is an intentionally inaccurate depiction of a highly effective problem-solving strategy.”
In reality, he wrote, if a team briefed a problem that they didn’t have the resources to resolve themselves, “a representative was asked to move to an area on the operations floor near the front (not a corner).” In the end, the team “addressed the problem in greater detail.”
People who worked under Willis described him as the most challenging boss they’ve ever encountered. One former employee said he was going through a bottle of whiskey a week as a coping mechanism.
“I was distant from my family,” this person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he still works with the state. “I was a bad father, an even worse husband.”
Santagata recalled her doctor expressing alarm after seeing one of her mental health evaluations. The stress made her drop 10 pounds as she constantly felt on edge, she said, trying to anticipate what might make her boss lose his temper.
“I was showing genuine signs of PTSD,” Santagata said. “It was horrible, just horrible.”
The former staffer who said he resorted to drinking recalled walking down the hall to a different exit, just so he wouldn’t have to walk past Willis’ office.
“He’d yell to the point where you’d have to shut the door,” said Robyn Knappe, a former emergency management official. “He would definitely act like we were all a bunch of grunts.”
Willis, in an email, said, “I am sure I can be intimidating on occasion and I am passionate about our mission and ensuring those that work, live and play in Colorado are served to the best of our ability.”
His current team, he said, “feel safe in their environment and are not intimidated by either me or the challenges of preparing for, responding to and recovering from disasters in our state.”
The director elicited some positive responses in staff evaluations and interviews with The Post.
“I feel like he has been the best director we’ve had in a very long time,” one employee wrote in 2019, according to employee evaluations obtained by The Post through an open records request. “The changes he’s marched through have been great, his vision is right, he’s engaged and approachable.”
Others wrote that Willis provides a clear road map for the direction of the department and applauded his open-door policy. Some employees from other state agencies who have worked with Willis were surprised when told about his suspensions, saying they’ve never seen this side of him.
Suspensions and warnings
But Willis’ hyper-aggressive managerial style has landed him in trouble multiple times during his tenure.
One employee, interviewed as part of the investigation into the 2020 warehouse blowup, said she had documented 19 incidents involving Willis over a six-month span, many of which she detailed to Klein, his boss. They included verbal altercations, yelling, cursing and conversations that were perceived as inappropriate and unprofessional in the workplace.
The woman, who was not named in the report, said she started to avoid Willis as much as possible.
“You never know if you are going to get Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde,” she told investigators.
Willis said in his interview with HR that he apologized after one of the incidents. But on another one, he said he felt the woman “was interfering with his mission and it wasn’t his first rodeo.” She’s always telling him no, he told investigators.
In the warehouse case, the department concluded Willis violated three state policies governing workplace violence, ethics and professional conduct, and being an inclusive, respectful and professional employee.
Hilkey, who runs the Colorado Department of Public Safety, told Willis and Klein during a Jan. 19, 2021, meeting that the behavior outlined in the investigation put both the department and Klein “in a position of liability unless it stops and something is done,” according to a summary of the meeting obtained by The Post through an open records request.
Willis said “he just needed to be better and not let it happen again,” the memo states. Hilkey agreed, saying he hoped this would be the last time he heard about this type of behavior.
It wouldn’t be.
Klein suspended Willis for two days without pay for his role in the warehouse fracas, mandated he write apology letters to the women who filed the complaints, and ordered him to attend professional coaching sessions.
Willis “demonstrated a pattern of inappropriate behavior that must be corrected,” Klein wrote.
Almost exactly one year later, however, two more women filed complaints with HR — outlining behavior from Willis that felt all too similar: throwing objects, staring them down, intimidating through yelling.
“I felt intimidated by his actions, raising his voice and staring me down and I don’t know how I would’ve responded had it been an in-person meeting,” the woman wrote in the complaint, first reported by The Post in May. She cried afterward and didn’t go to a meeting two days later.
Once again, Klein suspended Willis, this time for three days without pay. Once again, he ordered Willis to write apology letters to the people he harmed. Once again, he ordered him to go to professional counseling. He also stripped the director of travel privileges, which have since been reinstated.
“I consider this the last time that sanctions other than termination will be applied for any similar misconduct by you,” Klein wrote.
Willis, in an email, said he wouldn’t comment on the formal investigations beyond what he told HR in his interviews.
“I continue to learn through my experiences,” Willis said when asked by The Post if his behavior has changed since the suspensions. “I’ve taken these events and reports seriously and worked on my affect and delivery, while I continue to strive for high-functioning teams to bring to bear critical services for the people of the state of Colorado.”
Hilkey told The Post in an email that the department takes allegations of inappropriate behavior “very seriously.”
But even before Willis was appointed by Klein to his current position in 2017, he exhibited similar patterns of belligerent behavior during his years in the Colorado National Guard, according to multiple people who served with him.
Some 10 years ago, John Dolan recalls three people walking into his office to tell him about one particularly nasty blowup. Willis had heard something during a briefing that he didn’t like, the individuals told Dolan, who was the guard’s director of personnel at the time.
“He was pissed and threw a chair full across the room into the wall,” Dolan said he was told. “Reckless, intimidating, violence in the workplace. It was certainly a breach of military conduct.”
Willis, in an email to The Post, said the chair incident never happened. “There were no incidents in my military career and I was not disciplined,” he said.
STEM School shooting incident
The state recently launched a third inquiry into Willis’s behavior, this time related to the response to the May 7, 2019, school shooting in Highlands Ranch.
State officials had gathered in the Emergency Operations Center in Centennial that afternoon, monitoring the scene in case Douglas County authorities needed assistance.
A state employee, though, noticed Willis “was not functioning clearly,” the individual told Klein this month, according to the 23-page incident inquiry summarizing Klein’s probe.
“…(H)e was visibly intoxicated,” the worker, who was not identified in the report, told investigators. “His face was… red. His eyes were red, bloodshot and he struggled to focus on things.”
As the day wound down, the staffer said they felt the need to report what they saw. That night, they called the head of HR and told her the entire story — a call memorialized at the time in a memo included in Klein’s report.
The following day, the HR director called Klein “and relayed the information for his knowledge,” the memo states.
Klein, in an email to The Post, said he had been with Willis earlier on May 7 and “did not notice any signs of intoxication.”
The person who had called HR on May 7 made it clear they weren’t filing a formal complaint, Klein said. “As a result,” he said, “I decided to closely monitor him.”
None of the other witnesses interviewed as part of Klein’s probe this month told him they had noticed anything unusual about Willis’ behavior on May 7, 2019. Two people who were there that day and interviewed by The Post said he did not seem intoxicated.
But another then-employee, the person who described the 2018 meeting about the CDOT cyberattack, told The Post that Willis was wobbly that day in the Emergency Operations Center, his eyes glazed over. His behavior, the second person said, was consistent with someone under the influence.
Willis, in his interview with Klein and in response to questions from The Post, denied being inebriated.
Ultimately, Klein and Hilkey agreed that the claims of intoxication were not substantiated. Both department heads, in the report and an accompanying memo, questioned the credibility of whistleblowers they believed to be talking to The Post and took issue with them reaching out to other colleagues.
“I also find that there appears to be a coordinated effort by former employees… to malign (Willis) in a local newspaper,” Klein wrote.
Still, Klein once again noted “incidents of intimidating behavior” by Willis detailed by an employee during the inquiry into the 2019 allegation.
“I have addressed similar behavior with (Willis) and my expectations for improvement stand,” he wrote in the final line of his report.
“Belligerent, narcissistic behavior “
Those who’ve worked with Willis say his behavior outside the office is just as troubling.
One former employee, who told The Post about drinking due to stress from the job, remembers seeing Willis walking to an elevator at the 2018 annual emergency management conference in Loveland.
In the middle of the hallway, Willis stopped abruptly.
“You know what your (expletive) problem is?” Willis said to the employee, an account corroborated to The Post by a second person. “I don’t (expletive) like you.”
Willis told The Post in an email that he didn’t recall this conversation, but said he “sometimes joke(s) around with some employees in a manner that has always been understood to be in fun. It is possible that someone overheard this sort of banter and now four years later is trying to make it into something it wasn’t.”
Other industry professionals and employees told The Post about similar incidents at conferences, usually at night after the drinks started flowing.
One night during the 2018 National Emergency Managers Association conference in Savannah, Georgia, Willis had clearly been drinking, according to another individual who witnessed his behavior. He was loud, bombastic. He slurred his words.
A normal, casual conversation with someone at the bar quickly devolved into Willis nearly coming to blows, the individual said.
“People have too much to drink (at these conferences), but I’ve never seen that kind of belligerent, narcissistic behavior before,” said the individual, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they still do business with the state. “It’s embarrassing.”
Willis denied ever being in a situation at a conference in which a conversation was close to turning physical.
“I have enjoyed conversations and healthy disagreement with other emergency management professionals on complex issues,” he said via email.
Current and former employees say they can’t understand how Willis still has his job after the multiple investigations, aggressive behavior at conferences and countless workplace blowups that leave adults in tears.
“It is a chronic pattern of abuse, of dereliction of duty and of incompetence,” said the former employee who reported the STEM incident. “And it’s gone unchecked by senior leadership within the department.”
https://www.greeleytribune.com/2022/07/25/mike-willis-colorado-emergenecy-management-complaints-suspensions/ The domineering leader of Colorado’s emergency responses has history of tirades, F-bombs and intimidation – Greeley Tribune