At 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 16, 2020, the director of Colorado’s Workplace of Crisis Management hopped out of his motor vehicle at a Denver warehouse employed to retail store own protective tools in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You! Now! In the warehouse!” Mike Willis stated to one particular of his personnel, pointing his finger at her and then the warehouse doors. The state’s joint incident commander for the pandemic reaction was raging in excess of some type of miscommunication about logistics.
“I’m so (expletive) pissed off at you ideal now,” Willis mentioned to her, staring her down with “intense hatred,” she later on instructed state investigators. “How can you permit this transpire?”
In a corner of the warehouse, the two went back and forth at each and every other loudly. Last but not least, Willis turned toward the personnel, pointing his finger into her temple.
“Are you a (expletive) fool?” Willis stated, stepping up into her confront. He stood so shut — “towering over” her, 1 witness later on said — that their masks ended up virtually touching, as he unleashed yet another tirade.
The scenario was “as shut to remaining physical than she had ever encountered,” the staffer explained to a state investigator — and she formerly labored in the Office of Corrections.
This incident, a subsequent state investigation and the ensuing suspension of Colorado’s crisis management director, detailed in a February 2021 investigative report, have not been previously noted. But current and former employees say it’s hardly an outlier.
Throughout his 5 several years at the helm of Colorado’s responses to normal and general public wellbeing disasters, Willis has exhibited a pattern of intense conduct and inappropriate, unprofessional carry out, according to interviews with 23 present and former colleagues, condition and federal federal government officers, Countrywide Guard support members and a overview of internal condition investigations into his conduct.
Willis has been suspended 2 times above the past 18 months for conduct that bundled berating female staffers, throwing objects in rage and daunting personnel to the point they imagined it was near to having physical. The most latest suspension integrated a warning that Willis probable would be fired “for any comparable misconduct” in the long term.
Extra than after, Willis has been drunk just after-hrs at marketplace conferences and virtually fought other attendees, various witnesses explained to The Publish.
A condition personnel in 2019 notified human methods that they considered Willis was intoxicated in the state’s Crisis Functions Center throughout the reaction to the capturing at STEM School Highlands Ranch — an allegation documented at the time to Willis’ supervisor Kevin Klein, the head of Colorado’s Division of Homeland Security and Unexpected emergency Management.
But the point out did not investigate the allegation in 2019. Klein only released an inquiry this month following The Article began asking for information and conducting interviews. (Willis denied getting inebriated that working day and Klein concluded that the allegations were being not sustained.)
Willis, Klein and Stan Hilkey — who runs Colorado’s Division of General public Safety, which oversees the Division of Homeland Stability and Emergency Management — declined interview requests from The Post.
In emailed responses to queries, Willis mentioned, “I continue to master as a result of my experiences,” admitting that he “can be daunting on occasion” but is functioning on his affect and shipping.
“In my purpose, I have to instill a sense of urgency into circumstances that need quick, meaningful motion,” he wrote. “Getting a huge paperwork to go is critical and our capability to reply well timed and efficiently to any crisis can value or preserve lives.”
The governor’s place of work, as a result of a spokesperson, would not solution concerns about irrespective of whether Gov. Jared Polis has been informed of or gained problems about Willis’s conduct.
“He principles by dread he intimidates he threatens,” explained the now-former worker who claimed the STEM incident, speaking on the situation of anonymity since they still function alongside the state. “That’s his mantra for currently being an efficient leader.”
When Willis used in 2017 to operate the state’s Office environment of Emergency Management, he sounded all the proper notes about what it means to be an powerful chief.
“…(E)motional responses almost often sabotage conflict resolution,” Willis wrote in the software, a copy of which was attained by The Put up by means of an open up data ask for. “Great individuals are passionate about what they do and think for that reason leaders must tutorial stakeholders by means of conflict in a way that does not enable it to devolve into an emotional tug of war. This commences with the leader’s have responses as that sets the tone.”
Willis was picked immediately after an “extensive countrywide search” that provided much more than 60 candidates, the section declared in November 2017.
But in actuality, latest and former point out staff informed The Write-up, Willis runs his office by anger and power of identity.
Employees quickly uncovered of his quick-result in mood, which could erupt at a moment’s detect. It didn’t just materialize during crises, they explained. It could be a plan conference during which anyone tells him a little something he does not like, or another department does not give him what he wishes. He’s identified to pound on the desk, throw his glasses in disgust or abruptly leave conferences completely.
“He’s normally indignant,” mentioned Fran Santagata, a retired crisis manager, who claimed she was on the receiving finish of Willis’s explosions. “I do not care what conference he goes to, he’s generally indignant and usually on edge.”
For the duration of one meeting in 2018 to focus on the cyberattack on the Colorado Section of Transportation, Willis grew upset around what he viewed as a absence of productiveness, according to the accounts of two individuals who have been there.
At common intervals, Willis reconvened the group to see who experienced accomplished their responsibilities and who hadn’t. Just one by one particular, Willis went via the staff. If you finished your assignment, he despatched you to a person corner of the space. If you didn’t, Willis despatched you to the opposite corner.
“It was all just for exhibit,” said just one staff who watched it unfold, talking on ailment of anonymity for the reason that they continue to work together with the section. “All for community shaming.”
Staff from the Office environment of Information and facts Engineering were stunned.
“To have anyone talk to them like that,” mentioned the individual who noted the STEM incident and was also in the room for the CDOT meeting, “that is unheard of.”
Willis, in an e-mail, reported this portrayal of the day’s gatherings “is an deliberately inaccurate depiction of a extremely helpful trouble-fixing strategy.”
In actuality, he wrote, if a crew briefed a issue that they did not have the means to solve on their own, “a agent was asked to go to an spot on the operations flooring near the entrance (not a corner).” In the stop, the crew “addressed the difficulty in increased element.”
Individuals who worked underneath Willis explained him as the most demanding boss they’ve at any time encountered. One particular former employee stated he was heading by a bottle of whiskey a week as a coping system.
“I was distant from my loved ones,” this human being mentioned, talking on the situation of anonymity for the reason that he continue to will work with the condition. “I was a bad father, an even even worse husband.”
Santagata recalled her medical doctor expressing alarm after observing a single of her mental wellness evaluations. The strain built her fall 10 lbs as she consistently felt on edge, she reported, striving to anticipate what might make her boss reduce his temper.
“I was exhibiting legitimate indications of PTSD,” Santagata claimed. “It was awful, just terrible.”
The previous staffer who stated he resorted to consuming recalled going for walks down the hall to a distinct exit, just so he wouldn’t have to stroll earlier Willis’ business office.
“He’d yell to the stage in which you’d have to shut the doorway,” claimed Robyn Knappe, a previous unexpected emergency administration formal. “He would definitely act like we ended up all a bunch of grunts.”
Willis, in an electronic mail, reported, “I am guaranteed I can be scary on event and I am passionate about our mission and making sure those that function, are living and perform in Colorado are served to the finest of our means.”
His recent crew, he stated, “feel protected in their surroundings and are not intimidated by both me or the issues of preparing for, responding to and recovering from disasters in our point out.”
The director elicited some positive responses in team evaluations and interviews with The Article.
“I sense like he has been the finest director we have had in a really extended time,” 1 personnel wrote in 2019, in accordance to worker evaluations obtained by The Write-up as a result of an open documents request. “The changes he’s marched by way of have been good, his eyesight is appropriate, he’s engaged and approachable.”
Others wrote that Willis supplies a distinct highway map for the way of the section and applauded his open up-door plan. Some staff members from other point out companies who have worked with Willis ended up amazed when informed about his suspensions, declaring they’ve never observed this aspect of him.
Suspensions and warnings
But Willis’ hyper-intense managerial design has landed him in problems several periods throughout his tenure.
One staff, interviewed as element of the investigation into the 2020 warehouse blowup, reported she had documented 19 incidents involving Willis in excess of a 6-thirty day period span, lots of of which she thorough to Klein, his boss. They included verbal altercations, yelling, cursing and conversations that ended up perceived as inappropriate and unprofessional in the place of work.
The female, who was not named in the report, explained she commenced to stay away from Willis as a great deal as feasible.
“You by no means know if you are likely to get Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde,” she instructed investigators.
Willis mentioned in his interview with HR that he apologized following a single of the incidents. But on a further a single, he said he felt the female “was interfering with his mission and it was not his initial rodeo.” She’s often telling him no, he explained to investigators.
In the warehouse situation, the department concluded Willis violated 3 point out insurance policies governing office violence, ethics and experienced perform, and being an inclusive, respectful and expert staff.
Hilkey, who operates the Colorado Department of Public Safety, told Willis and Klein throughout a Jan. 19, 2021, assembly that the conduct outlined in the investigation place equally the section and Klein “in a posture of liability unless it stops and anything is performed,” according to a summary of the assembly received by The Write-up by means of an open up information ask for.
Willis explained “he just desired to be improved and not let it happen yet again,” the memo states. Hilkey agreed, stating he hoped this would be the very last time he listened to about this kind of habits.
It wouldn’t be.
Klein suspended Willis for two times with no pay back for his part in the warehouse fracas, mandated he generate apology letters to the females who submitted the problems, and purchased him to go to qualified coaching periods.
Willis “demonstrated a sample of inappropriate conduct that should be corrected,” Klein wrote.
Just about just just one 12 months afterwards, nevertheless, two much more gals filed problems with HR — outlining habits from Willis that felt all as well identical: throwing objects, staring them down, scary via yelling.
“I felt intimidated by his actions, increasing his voice and staring me down and I never know how I would’ve responded experienced it been an in-person conference,” the woman wrote in the grievance, 1st noted by The Write-up in May perhaps. She cried afterward and didn’t go to a assembly two times afterwards.
When once more, Klein suspended Willis, this time for a few days without the need of shell out. The moment again, he requested Willis to publish apology letters to the folks he harmed. As soon as all over again, he ordered him to go to specialist counseling. He also stripped the director of journey privileges, which have considering the fact that been reinstated.
“I think about this the past time that sanctions other than termination will be utilized for any identical misconduct by you,” Klein wrote.
Willis, in an electronic mail, stated he wouldn’t remark on the formal investigations past what he explained to HR in his interviews.
“I keep on to find out through my encounters,” Willis reported when questioned by The Post if his conduct has transformed since the suspensions. “I’ve taken these situations and experiences seriously and worked on my have an impact on and shipping, whilst I carry on to attempt for significant-working teams to convey to bear important solutions for the people today of the point out of Colorado.”
Hilkey advised The Submit in an email that the office can take allegations of inappropriate behavior “very significantly.”
But even ahead of Willis was appointed by Klein to his latest posture in 2017, he exhibited equivalent designs of belligerent behavior all through his several years in the Colorado Countrywide Guard, according to multiple people who served with him.
Some 10 yrs in the past, John Dolan recollects three folks walking into his place of work to tell him about just one specifically awful blowup. Willis experienced read some thing throughout a briefing that he did not like, the men and women explained to Dolan, who was the guard’s director of personnel at the time.
“He was pissed and threw a chair whole across the space into the wall,” Dolan mentioned he was explained to. “Reckless, daunting, violence in the office. It was surely a breach of army carry out.”
Willis, in an electronic mail to The Publish, claimed the chair incident by no means took place. “There ended up no incidents in my navy profession and I was not disciplined,” he reported.
STEM Faculty shooting incident
The state recently released a 3rd inquiry into Willis’s actions, this time similar to the reaction to the May well 7, 2019, college capturing in Highlands Ranch.
State officials had gathered in the Crisis Functions Heart in Centennial that afternoon, checking the scene in scenario Douglas County authorities necessary guidance.
A state staff, nevertheless, noticed Willis “was not working plainly,” the unique advised Klein this thirty day period, according to the 23-web site incident inquiry summarizing Klein’s probe.
“…(H)e was visibly intoxicated,” the worker, who was not identified in the report, advised investigators. “His experience was… pink. His eyes had been red, bloodshot and he struggled to emphasis on things.”
As the day wound down, the staffer mentioned they felt the require to report what they saw. That night time, they referred to as the head of HR and advised her the whole tale — a simply call memorialized at the time in a memo incorporated in Klein’s report.
The following working day, the HR director called Klein “and relayed the information for his understanding,” the memo states.
Klein, in an e-mail to The Submit, claimed he had been with Willis before on Could 7 and “did not see any indicators of intoxication.”
The individual who experienced referred to as HR on May possibly 7 built it distinct they weren’t filing a formal criticism, Klein claimed. “As a consequence,” he claimed, “I determined to intently observe him.”
None of the other witnesses interviewed as element of Klein’s probe this month explained to him they experienced found something unconventional about Willis’ behavior on Might 7, 2019. Two people who were being there that working day and interviewed by The Publish reported he did not feel intoxicated.
But another then-staff, the human being who described the 2018 meeting about the CDOT cyberattack, explained to The Publish that Willis was wobbly that day in the Emergency Functions Centre, his eyes glazed around. His conduct, the next particular person said, was constant with another person under the impact.
Willis, in his interview with Klein and in reaction to queries from The Write-up, denied staying inebriated.
Eventually, Klein and Hilkey agreed that the statements of intoxication have been not substantiated. Both department heads, in the report and an accompanying memo, questioned the trustworthiness of whistleblowers they thought to be chatting to The Publish and took challenge with them reaching out to other colleagues.
“I also come across that there seems to be a coordinated effort by former employees… to malign (Willis) in a regional newspaper,” Klein wrote.
However, Klein after again pointed out “incidents of overwhelming behavior” by Willis detailed by an worker for the duration of the inquiry into the 2019 allegation.
“I have resolved similar actions with (Willis) and my expectations for enhancement stand,” he wrote in the closing line of his report.
“Belligerent, narcissistic behavior “
Those who’ve worked with Willis say his actions outside the business is just as troubling.
One former employee, who told The Article about consuming due to pressure from the career, remembers looking at Willis strolling to an elevator at the 2018 yearly emergency administration convention in Loveland.
In the center of the hallway, Willis stopped abruptly.
“You know what your (expletive) problem is?” Willis stated to the employee, an account corroborated to The Write-up by a next man or woman. “I really don’t (expletive) like you.”
Willis explained to The Post in an e-mail that he didn’t remember this dialogue, but said he “sometimes joke(s) all around with some employees in a method that has usually been recognized to be in exciting. It is possible that another person overheard this kind of banter and now 4 yrs later on is attempting to make it into something it was not.”
Other field experts and staff explained to The Article about similar incidents at conferences, usually at night right after the beverages commenced flowing.
One night during the 2018 Nationwide Emergency Managers Association conference in Savannah, Ga, Willis had obviously been ingesting, according to another individual who witnessed his habits. He was loud, bombastic. He slurred his text.
A typical, informal discussion with an individual at the bar speedily devolved into Willis approximately coming to blows, the individual said.
“People have also substantially to consume (at these conferences), but I have by no means viewed that sort of belligerent, narcissistic habits before,” reported the unique, who spoke on the affliction of anonymity because they nonetheless do enterprise with the state. “It’s embarrassing.”
Willis denied at any time staying in a circumstance at a meeting in which a conversation was near to turning actual physical.
“I have savored conversations and healthy disagreement with other emergency administration experts on complex problems,” he claimed by using electronic mail.
Present and previous personnel say they just cannot understand how Willis however has his work immediately after the several investigations, aggressive actions at conferences and numerous office blowups that go away grown ups in tears.
“It is a serious pattern of abuse, of dereliction of duty and of incompetence,” said the former personnel who described the STEM incident. “And it is gone unchecked by senior leadership inside the office.”