Five months ago, Karalea Clough, a Truckee Meadows Community College inventory clerk, was tasked with finding hundreds of unaccounted-for computers that for years had not been properly tagged and tracked by the college’s Information Technology department.
Today, Clough is fighting to keep her job as the college administration piles on allegations against her. Between March and August, documents show, TMCC bombarded Clough with a litany of allegations and complaints—including “bullying,” insubordination and the unauthorized purchase and installation of a picnic table. Almost overnight, Clough went from a recently promoted employee who was praised for finding improperly managed college equipment to being treated like a pariah on campus, she said.
“I feel like I’m in The Twilight Zone,” said Clough. “I don’t understand the venom and the rage. I was just doing the job that I’m required to do.”
In May, TMCC President Karin Hilgersom sent a memo taking away from the central auditing system (and Clough) the responsibility for tracking the college’s computer inventory. Hilgersom transferred the job to the IT department, the unit that lost track of the equipment after failing to attach inventory tags to the machines. In one instance last year, documents show, an IT department employee suggested an auditor simply scan a roll of the tracking tags that were supposed to be on the computers instead of locating the machines themselves.
TMCC officials declined to comment, citing the confidentiality of personnel matters. The officials also refused to discuss the IT department’s apparent failure to properly tag and track the computers—assets considered “sensitive equipment” due to the often-confidential data they contain—because that situation is “intertwined with an ongoing, confidential” personnel matter.
“TMCC would like to emphasize that any suggestions of a policy violation or missing equipment are unfounded,” TMCC spokeswoman Kate Kirkpatrick wrote in an email to the RN&R.
Emails and other documents obtained by the RN&R confirm that Hilgersom, TMCC administrators, department heads and others last year were well aware of the hundreds of unaccounted-for computers, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. In some emails, TMCC managers referred to the machines as “missing assets.” The employees discussed the issue as a possible violation of Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) policies and procedures.
Hunting fugitive equipment
System policy defines “sensitive inventory” as “a firearm or computer … regardless of value.” Those assets have special requirements, including that they are to be tagged, assigned to a “responsible person” and thereafter tracked so that their exact location on campus is always known.
In June 2022, managers at the Business Center North, NSHE’s purchasing and inventory control arm, discussed via emails the “concerning amount of missing assets,” including hundreds of computers. In an email dated Aug. 8, 2022, Vic Redding, TMCC’s vice president of administration and finance, told two other college officials that the computers “don’t appear to be currently tracked as required by NSHE policy.”
Redding noted that a college supply technician went to the IT department, and “it appears that TMCC IT was not actually tagging computers. Our (Business Center North) tech was shown a whole roll of tags in a meeting and they (TMCC IT) asked if they could just scan these (to complete the inventory report) without even looking for the actual equipment.”
A partial audit last year discovered that some of sensitive equipment assigned to TMCC’s IT Department “has not been properly tracked and accounted for.” The report said 984 items out of 1,321 on a backlog list had been located, and a small sampling of those showed that some were listed with the same serial number; several didn’t have tracking tags; and others weren’t assigned to a responsible person and/or lacked specific locations.
In addition, the report identified 23 “fixed assets” that could not be located, including a golf cart, which Clough said wasn’t ever located. The audit department notified Hilgersom about the untracked assets in an email dated March 8.
Clough, meanwhile, had been conducting the college’s annual inventory, which included looking for hundreds more untagged computers. All of the college departments cooperated with her work, she said, with the exception of the IT unit. Employees there refused to allow her to enter storage locations and repeatedly rebuffed her efforts to complete the inventory and locate untagged equipment, she said.
“They treated me as an annoyance, a nuisance,” Clough said. “They acted like they were being bothered by some underling who had no business asking them anything. They were very dismissive.”
A litany of allegations
Her troubles with the administration began in March, Clough said, when she notified Cheryl Jones, the IT department manager, that college policy makes department managers responsible for locating assets under their control. She attached a spreadsheet of the secured equipment and asked for the IT department’s assistance with the inventory process.
On March 27, Clough was called to the college’s human resources office and told that nine IT employees had accused her of “bullying.” Clough was not given any details in writing about the allegations and said her responses and subsequent counter-complaints were ignored. Meanwhile, she kept looking for untagged computers.
On May 11, Hilgersom reassigned the sensitive equipment responsibilities from the internal auditors, including Clough, to the IT department itself.
When asked why Hilgersom gave the job to the department that had failed to track the machines as required—and where an employee asked an auditor to pretend to have found missing computers—TMCC officials told the RN&R in an email that the college doesn’t comment on “rumors.”
On May 12, the day after Hilgersom handed over audit duties to the IT staff, the college human resources department notified Clough it would be investigating the bullying complaints against her. Clough said she didn’t hear any more about the issue until late June, when she received an email asserting there was a “preponderance of evidence” that she violated a draft bullying policy. Clough said those rules had yet to be posted or distributed when the accusations were made against her. An administrator sent a “letter of instruction” to Clough, advising her of the need for a “respectful and professional manner” in interactions with other employees.
“They never explained how I wasn’t respectful and professional,” she said. “Again, there were no specifics. It’s all vague.”
Clough then filed a state whistleblower complaint, alleging that she exposed “willful mismanagement” at the college. The whistleblower process is designed to protect state employees who disclose improper governmental action from retaliation. Clough wrote that administrators and others retaliated against her in order to deflect attention from the mismanagement of assets, “including loss and theft of state-managed equipment over a period of several years.”
Kiah Beverly-Graham, TMCC’s lawyer, filed a motion to dismiss Clough’s whistleblower complaint, arguing, among other things, that Clough isn’t even a whistleblower. Beverly-Graham wrote that Clough didn’t uncover any improper government action, because “the substance of her allegations”—that “a number of items labeled as ‘sensitive equipment’ were not properly accounted for”—were already known at the highest levels of the college and the NSHE.
Clough also filed a grievance alleging that she had been bullied by IT employees, the human resources department and Hilgersom. That complaint is pending.
Administrators leveled more accusations against Clough in July and August.
Ayodele Akinola, TMCC executive director of facilities, in an email dated July 26, alleged that Clough had given an “unauthorized directive” to the IT department, hadn’t followed procedures when she took a sick day the day before, and used college funds to purchase a picnic table for the area outside the campus’ shipping and receiving unit without “appropriate approval.” Akinola wrote that the table—which is identical to other picnic tables on campus, and which had been in place for more than three months—was installed without permission, and that its placement could endanger others.
Clough had used plastic ties to affix a small sign to the table that said: “Dedicated to the auxiliary staff, 2023.” The table, she said, was purchased with her supervisor’s approval in April and located to allow shipping and receiving employees to have lunch outside and not miss any noontime deliveries. The message was a nod to her co-workers, she said, and not a notice that no others could sit at it.
Akinola wrote that Clough has “no authority to dedicate any space on campus to anyone” and that the tiny sign was a “negligent and willful violation” of NSHE policy.
A ‘climate of fear’ and retribution
On Aug. 16, Akinola notified Clough that she is under investigation of 17 alleged violations of state regulations and policies. The notice listed allegations of disgraceful personal conduct, incompetence or inefficiency, insubordination, unauthorized absence, demeaning others, “retaliation” and other offenses. No specifics were provided, although Clough thinks the allegation of “acting in an official capacity without authorization” may be related to the picnic table.
On Aug. 25, administrators added seven more alleged violations to the list, notifying her that she is under investigation for a total of 24 accusations that “could lead to disciplinary action.” No details of the alleged violations were provided.
“The allegations are cut-and-pasted right out of the employee handbook,” Clough said. “They are throwing handfuls of mud on the wall to see what sticks. … There has been continuous, relentless retaliation against me.”
Clough’s case is the latest incident during the last seven years in which TMCC employees, including faculty members, claimed they were targeted for dismissal without valid reasons.
In a letter to the Nevada Board of Regents in March 2020, signed by the Nevada Faculty Alliance presidents from all eight NSHE institutions, the authors wrote that a “climate of fear and intimidation” exists at TMCC. The letter stated that faculty who raise questions the administration doesn’t want to hear “are seen as enemies” and become targets for retribution by the administration, led by Hilgersom.
The college’s human resources office “has been regulated to a political arm of the president, to obfuscate, mount phony complaints against targeted faculty, and shelter abhorrent presidential behavior,” according to the letter. The college’s attorney, the letter said, “seems to have become the personal attorney of the president to facilitate the same kind of harassment or cover up.”
A federal civil rights lawsuit, filed by a TMCC faculty member in January 2022, alleges that Hilgersom and others “engaged in willful retaliation and attempts to publicly humiliate him with letters of reprimand, negative annual performance evaluations and investigations,” in an attempt to harass him after he criticized changes in the college’s math curriculum.
Jim New, a TMCC professor who is president of both the college NFA chapter and statewide Nevada Faculty Alliance, said the toxic climate described in the 2020 letter continues in 2023.
“I don’t think anything dramatic has changed; people are still afraid to speak out,” he said in an interview with the RN&R on Aug. 21. He noted the Board of Regents in July voted to grant Hilgersom a one-year contract extension without evaluating her performance, because she told the board she intends to retire on July 1, 2025. Now, New said, “what’s to hold her back from settling scores? Be very careful about what you say on campus.”
Kirkpatrick, the TMCC spokeswoman, told the RN&R on Aug. 13 that the college is in compliance with all state policies and procedures and “currently has a robust and transparent sensitive equipment inventory process which fully and effectively accounts for equipment in institutional custody.” Out of 2,092 pieces of untagged equipment, she wrote, all but 96 units have been inventoried and tagged, and the remaining 96 units are in the process of being tagged.
Clough said the college’s assurances don’t reflect reality. By her counting, there are still hundreds of computers unaccounted for.
Making her employment issues public, Clough noted, will probably result in more intimidation and retaliation. But she said it’s important that the public is aware of what happens to TMCC employees when they ask unwanted questions or do something a manger doesn’t like.
“It’s a one-sided, closed-door process,” Clough said. “There is supposed to be due process, but they don’t let that happen. I stood up for myself when they tried to silence me, and people in high positions did everything they could to knock me down.
“TMCC is a public institution, and people need to know how it’s being run,” she said. “… It’s about intimidation. It’s about power.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated on Sept. 5 after TMCC administrators added seven more alleged violations of college policies to the 17 accusations already leveled against Clough.