Florida Commission on Human Relations found evidence of discrimination, retaliation and bullying
Irrefutable evidence has emerged of the involvement of Dr Kevin Folta in the bullying of a senior faculty member in his department at the University of Florida (UF) – bullying that seems to have directly contributed not only to the end of this senior scientist’s career but the demise of his multi-million dollar biotech programme.
This is ironic because Kevin Folta, as well as presenting himself as a champion of public science and GMO crop development, also frequently complains that people are trying to force him out of his job. When he recently stepped down as chair of the University of Florida’s horticulture department, he claimed that damaging attacks from “activist groups” had caused him to resign.
He has also responded to the many recent allegations against him, including spousal abuse, by complaining that he is being harassed and victimised and that his “31 years in public science” are being ignored. The goal, he says, is to hound him out of public service.
But according to a document lodged with UF by Folta’s former colleague Dr Dennis Gray, being railroaded out of his job via a campaign of harassment is exactly what Dr Gray experienced at the hands of Kevin Folta, Folta’s boss Jack Payne, and another senior figure within the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
This document – seen by GMWatch – may appear to provide only Dr Gray’s side of the story, but further details have been uncovered by the science writer Michael Balter. Balter tells GMWatch that his sources say the Florida Commission on Human Relations (FCHR) – a body set up by the Florida Legislature to enforce the Florida Civil Rights Act – investigated what happened and found reasonable cause to conclude that UF bullied, discriminated against, and retaliated against Dr Gray, “via the actions of his supervisors including Folta”. In other words, Balter says, the FCHR upheld Dr Gray’s complaint.
Before becoming aware of the details of FCHR’s findings, Michael Balter had already challenged Folta to explain his role in the affair. This was after Balter saw the document lodged with UF – the one we have also seen – which outlines Dr Gray’s complaints about the “unprofessional” and “demeaning” treatment he received over a period of about three years, leading up to his resignation in the most extreme of circumstances.
When Balter asked Folta for his comments on whether he had helped push Dr Gray out of the horticulture department, Folta said that was Dr Gray’s “one sided claim to the State” and that he wouldn’t respond to it. He also said he had always admired Dr Gray and was “grateful for all of his assistance in my career”.
After having obtained details of the FCHR judgement, Michael Balter noted that the State had, in fact, upheld a key part of what Folta dismissed as a “one sided claim”. Balter added, “What is particularly egregious here is that the Commission found that Dennis Gray was discriminated against for a medical disability, and then he was retaliated against for seeking lawful protection against that discrimination.” Folta has since claimed to have no knowledge of this disability and has also said the FCHR reached its judgement without receiving any input from UF. But Balter told GMWatch, “I have sources that specifically contradict those statements.”
Campaign of harassment
The document seen by GMWatch outlines what Dr Gray regarded as the key events in a campaign of harassment against him, in which Folta appears to have been the prime mover. It began when, after a long and very successful career at UF, Gray experienced what he described as “severe interpersonal problems” that arose out of Folta’s “interference with one of my graduate students”.
Because of these problems, the document says that Folta initially declined to be part of the evaluative chain for Dennis Gray. But then (according to the document) he suddenly, and without explanation, reversed course and insisted on doing Gray’s evaluations himself. And when Gray sought an alternative evaluator, as was his right under UF regulations, he was not only refused that right but was formally reprimanded by Folta for doing so, the document says. Up to this point in his career, Dr Gray had won only praise for his work and had never received any kind of reprimand, but more reprimands were soon to follow. These were for not going to meetings that were in reality more or less impossible to attend.
In one case, Dr Gray had a long-standing appointment with a specialist regarding a serious medical condition, but he was still reprimanded for not attending a meeting that had been hastily called just two days in advance. According to Michael Balter, the FCHR were clear that UF had used Gray’s failure to attend the meeting as a pretext to discipline him unfairly. In other words, the discrimination against Dr Gray because of his medical condition, and the retaliation against him that followed, were viewed by the Commission as deliberate, and not the result of some sort of misunderstanding.
Another meeting was unexpectedly scheduled for five days after Dr Gray had begun a long-standing and approved sabbatical. In this case, Gray already had flights booked and important commitments that he could not cancel, but he was still reprimanded for not meeting Folta.
The campaign of harassment outlined in the document culminated in April 2017 with Dr Gray being locked out of his own office and banned from the entire UF campus. He considered this “yet another attempt to bully me, to cause damage and to cause me to resign”. And that’s exactly what he eventually did, because of the “extreme stress” that he was under, which was severely impacting his health.
What triggered the dramatic events that finally led to his resignation was a claim that he had made a death threat against Kevin Folta. In the document, Dr Gray vehemently denied that he made any such threat. Indeed, he wrote that he had never threatened anyone with violence in his entire life. But, interestingly, although the supposed threat was not reported by Kevin Folta himself, Folta has claimed to have had such threats made against him on a number of other occasions – and some at least of these “threats” would not seem to bear close inspection. We understand a gagging clause was made part of Dr Gray’s retirement settlement. So if the contents of key documents in the case had not been recently uncovered by Michael Balter, what occurred might never have come to public notice.
The treatment of Dennis Gray poses some severe problems for Folta’s attempts to spin every concern about his behaviour as just another attempt to undermine his high profile promotion of GMOs. Those Folta supporters who have bought into his claims need to ask themselves where exactly the FCHR’s findings of his involvement in discrimination, retaliation and bullying fit into an anti-GMO conspiracy.
In fact, Folta’s tribal mythology completely breaks down with Dennis Gray, because he is exactly the kind of scientist Folta claims to admire. First, he is a biotech scientist who has won awards because of his development of new plant biotech procedures for grapes and other crops, including work on tackling citrus greening. Second, he’s an acclaimed public scientist who, as well as being the long-term editor-in-chief of the journal Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences, has published well over 100 papers, book chapters and books. And he has also done what Kevin Folta is always begging such scientists to do – he has taken his support for GMO crops into the public sphere, writing, for example, for the biotech industry’s GMO Answers website.
Biotech research trashed
When it comes to biotech research, Dennis Gray not only founded the Grapevine Biotechnology Laboratory at UF but obtained multi-million-dollar funding for his research programme, which became internationally known. And the campaign of harassment against him not only shattered his career but, according to the document we obtained, also caused the complete collapse of the entire research programme and the loss to UF of “an historic program in grape genetics that was over 100 years old”.
If this is the case, then Kevin Folta – the man who constantly rails against those he claims are obstructing vital developments in biotechnology, has himself helped to trash an award-winning biotech programme of exactly the sort he loves to publicly celebrate.
Of course, what happened to Dennis Gray and his research programme doesn’t only raise questions about Folta, but also the way that he has been managed by the University of Florida. His boss Jack Payne, senior vice president for Agriculture and Natural Resources, is among those identified by the FCHR as having played a role in the bullying etc. And what happened was enabled, in Dr Gray’s view, by UF’s failure to follow proper procedures, which would have checked the “anger-based behaviors” he was subjected to.
If you think the time has come for the University of Florida to take a new approach and to stop turning a blind eye to the many disturbing allegations involving Kevin Folta, you can send a letter here, which you can easily edit to reflect your particular concerns.
You don’t have to be concerned about GMOs to be concerned about Kevin Folta.
Report: Jonathan Matthews