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HAMMOND — Retaliation against a county employee could be at the base of this year's election debacle in Porter County, according to a federal lawsuit.

Kathy Kozuszek, the Democrat representative in the Porter County Voter Registration Office, has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court claiming her fight for overtime pay led to the voter registration office being stripped of its responsibilities to run elections. Instead, she contends, the responsibility was put into the hands of the Porter County clerk.

Kozuszek names the county, Porter County Election Board, Porter County Clerk Karen Martin and Porter County Election Board Chairman David Bengs as defendants in the lawsuit.

"As a result of the retaliatory transfer to the Porter County Clerk, the November 2018 election in Porter County was a well-publicized embarrassment, with several Porter County officials attributing the mismanagement of the election to defendant Martin and her lack of experience in conducting an election. In fact, several county officials called for Martin's immediate resignation," reads the filing by Kozuszek's attorney, Ivan E. Bodensteiner, of Valparaiso.

In the lawsuit, Kozuszek contends everything was fine until the last quarter of 2016, when the county changed her employee status from "nonexempt" to "exempt" to save the county money. As a "nonexempt" employee, she received overtime. 

In February 2018, county attorneys were notified they were in violation of the Federal Labor Standards Act for refusing to pay her overtime for the time she worked over 40 hours each week.

She also contends the action violated the First and 14th amendments.

Less than a month later, according to the lawsuit, the Porter County Election Board, "with encouragement from members of the Porter County Council, took retaliatory action" by transferring election-related duties from her office to that of Martin.

The Nov. 6 Porter County election was plagued with issues, including a lack of poll workers, which caused some polls to open late. A court order opened the polls for the full 12-hour voting period, but that and other issues resulted in vote totals not being released until three days after the election.

Kosuszek is seeking a declaratory judgment against the defendants, compensation for overtime she worked and future overtime, compensatory damages, liquidated damages and punitive damages and costs, including attorney fees. She is also demanding a jury trial in the matter.

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Porter County Reporter

Joyce has been a reporter for nearly 40 years, including 23 years with The Times. She's a native of Merrillville, but has lived in Portage for 39 years. She covers municipal and school government in Porter County.