The head of Colorado’s Office of Emergency Management was suspended this spring amid a state investigation into allegations he intimidated and acted unprofessionally toward two female employees during a pair of meetings.
Mike Willis, an appointee who has played a large role in Colorado’s COVID-19 response, is back on the job, but the state’s homeland security director says he will be “taking steps to address the behavior” detailed in the investigation.
Willis was placed on administrative leave for two weeks in late March after an unidentified employee said he angrily threw an object during a meeting, stared her down and yelled, “What the hell am I supposed to do?,” according to an investigation report obtained by The Denver Post.
Another employee, who was also not named in the report, said Willis, at a different meeting two days later, grew angry and “slammed down” on the table and yelled after receiving what he felt was conflicting information.
“It was pretty intimidating,” the second complainant told investigators.
The investigation is considered to be complete and has been reviewed by Kevin Klein, the director of the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
A spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety, which houses the emergency management division, would not say whether Willis faced any repercussions for his actions, other than to acknowledge that “follow-up steps have been taken with Director Willis to address the issues covered by the investigation.”
Willis returned to work April 11 after two-plus weeks on leave.
“Staff of the Colorado Department of Public Safety are frequently in high-impact, high-pressure situations and the department expects professional conduct from all staff at all times, no matter the circumstances,” Klein wrote in a memo dated Thursday that also was obtained by The Post through a public records request. “I will be taking steps to address the behavior and the procedural issues described in the report.”
The probe was launched soon after the first woman emailed a complaint in late March against Willis. It came in response to a March 22 meeting regarding payment for volunteer organizations assisting families displaced by the Marshall fire.
After the woman, who appeared at the meeting virtually, said that the fire isn’t considered an emergency 2 1/2 months later, Willis allegedly stood up, walked behind his desk and threw something.
“He came back to the conference table, stared me down and yelled, ‘What the hell am I supposed to do?’” the woman wrote in her complaint.
Willis then said he had another meeting to go to and left the room. Within a few minutes, the woman wrote, other employees messaged her to express their support.
“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. She cried afterward and didn’t go to the meeting two days later, she said in the report.
In his interview with investigators, Willis acknowledged tossing his tablet on his desk in frustration during the meeting. He said he did not yell, but rather, “I did speak more loudly and probably with more dictation.”
When asked if he was frustrated by the conversation, Willis said, “It’s more accurate to say that I’ve been frustrated for probably about 18 months.”
The second woman told investigators that after Willis slammed on the table and started yelling in the second meeting, she was done.
“I won’t be talked to like that and when he’s ready to talk reasonably, he could let me know,” she told investigators.
Witness accounts included in the investigation report referred to Willis as a “hothead,” someone who believes “the rules don’t apply to him.” Others, however, said that Willis can get frustrated, but that he is just being firm.
Willis could not be reached for comment Friday. He declined to comment last month when reached by phone and asked about his suspension.
Stan Hilkey, executive director of the Department of Public Safety said in a statement that the past two years have brought “sustained and unprecedented challenges” for emergency management officials who have had to navigate a “high-pressure, high-impact environment.”
“Our core values at CDPS are honor, unity and service, and we expect all of our members to live these values through ethical, professional, respectful and inclusive behavior at all times, no matter the difficulty of the circumstances they face,” he said.
Willis, a Colorado native and Castle Rock resident, was appointed to his current position in 2017. He served as the Unified Command Center Incident Commander during the COVID-19 pandemic, updating the public on critical government responses to the virus’ surge, such as standing up alternative care sites that would have been used if hospitals were overwhelmed by patients during the initial waves in 2020.
He previously served in the Colorado National Guard and U.S. Army, according to his government biography.
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