A disability advocate and former equity coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) alleges that he was retaliated against and eventually pushed out of the giant state agency soon after he began raising concerns of racial bias within the agency's embattled enforcement division.

Mohamed (Mourssi) Alfash, the former equity coordinator within the DHS Office of the Inspector General, alleges that he was ordered to stop his work and then was fired last month after he began to investigate complaints that agency employees were unfairly targeting minorities with licensing and enforcement actions. The longtime state employee has filed discrimination and wrongful-termination charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Alfash's allegations come amid turmoil in the leadership ranks at DHS and reports of dysfunction within the agency's Inspector General's Office, which investigates financial fraud and abuse in thousands of state-licensed programs and facilities, including child-care centers and group homes for adults with disabilities. The office's top official, Carolyn Ham, was placed on investigative leave earlier this year after the state Legislative Auditor found pervasive fraud in the state's child-care assistance program and distrust between Ham and the office's team of anti-fraud investigators. The Legislative Auditor's Office is also investigating reports that DHS condoned a controversial billing practice that led to $25 million in Medicaid overpayments to two Indian bands.

Alfash's charge of retaliation echoes claims raised by other DHS officials. In July, a compliance officer, Faye Bernstein, was escorted out of the agency's central office in St. Paul after she raised concerns about the legality of multimillion-dollar contracts with drug treatment providers. And a month earlier, Dr. Jeffrey Schiff lost his job as Medicaid medical director after clashing with DHS officials who he said were "hostile and dismissive" toward his medical input.

Taken together, the reports paint a disturbing picture of an entrenched bureaucracy at DHS that is resistant to change and hostile toward those seeking to make changes. A number of prominent lawmakers say the agency is too big and have called for splitting up DHS and creating a separate, independent agency to investigate maltreatment and fraud.

"This agency has to stop silencing people," said Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, a member of the Human Services Reform Finance and Policy Committee. "DHS cannot fulfill its mission of serving the most vulnerable members of our society if people ... are working in fear of retaliation."

A spokesperson for DHS said data privacy laws limit what the agency can say about current or former employees. State records show that Alfash did not have any complaints or disciplinary incidents during his nearly four months as equity coordinator. "DHS is dedicated to building and maintaining a diverse workforce," the agency said in a statement Friday. "Equity is both a guiding principle and a priority at DHS, and qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds find many career inroads and opportunities for advancement. Discrimination is not tolerated."

In an interview, Alfash said he thought he found his "dream job" after he was hired as equity coordinator within the Inspector General's Office in April.

He was hired as part of a broader effort to identify and reduce disparities among the diverse populations that DHS serves, including people with disabilities and racial minorities. His responsibilities included tracking the office's progress on equity-related goals and reviewing its practices to assess whether it was reducing disparities.

Alfash, who has severe physical disabilities and is of Middle Eastern descent, considered himself particularly well-suited for the new position.

An accountant by training, he served five years as a labor market research analyst within the state's workforce agency, where he became an expert on disability employment. He produced in-depth reports highlighting the challenges that people with disabilities face in the job market and the wide gap between Minnesota's stated goal of integrating people with disabilities and their actual level of participation in the mainstream workforce. Minnesota has one of the lowest rates of integrated employment in the nation for people with developmental disabilities.

Outside of work, Alfash has played an active role in the community as a disability advocate, which he thought would be a valuable asset to DHS. He was appointed in 2017 by former Gov. Mark Dayton to the Minnesota Commission of Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing; is a member of a cross-agency working group exploring solutions to the statewide shortage of direct care workers; and serves on the board of Access Press, a disability newspaper.

"I had a big role to play and was eager to make a difference," Alfash said of his new position at DHS.

Soon after he began, Alfash said he began hearing complaints that the Inspector General's Office was disproportionately targeting minority-owned day-care centers with anti-fraud investigations and licensing actions.

Alfash said he did not know if the claims were valid but considered it part of his job to investigate. However, Alfash said his review never got off the ground because he was repeatedly stonewalled. His request to interview investigators and licensing specialists, and to accompany them in the field to understand how they work with members of the community, was turned down, he said. Agency staff also routinely ignored or denied his requests for basic data on health and human services disparities and about equity in the workforce, which made it impossible to research disparities, he said.

"How could I make equity a priority when I didn't even have the baseline data?" he said. "I was pushed away at every turn."

Alfash said he also repeatedly clashed with his supervisors over the scope of his work, and whether it should involve the community members that DHS serves. He was convinced that, to do his job effectively, he had to do outreach with licensed providers, including some of the day-care centers that were complaining of bias. At one point, Alfash suggested the creation of a special hotline for members of the public to report concerns of equity in the services administered by Inspector General's Office. That idea was also turned down, he said.

Over time, Alfash said, he was told to limit his work to internal equity matters within the Inspector General's Office and to avoid engagement with community members or even with other DHS divisions. He became increasingly troubled, he said, when supervisors in the Inspector General's Office began asking him to describe his advocacy activities outside of work, including a public dinner he attended to celebrate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at Attorney General Keith Ellison's office. Alfash said he was asked to list individuals he met at such functions and to detail conversations he may have had.

When Alfash asked why he was being asked about his personal activities, a supervisor told him they were concerned that he was "an informant" and was "pursuing an agenda," he said. "It's true that I had an agenda," he said. "I had a moral imperative to ensure that equity was part of the day-to-day operations of the OIG, and that was what my agenda is centered around."

On July 23, while he was on medical leave, Alfash said he learned via his personal e-mail that his position had been terminated the previous day. Alfash, who lives in Woodbury, has asked for his job back and for all "negative and biased evaluations" to be removed from his work record.

Staff writer Glenn Howatt contributed to this report.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres