The end of Rob McGinty's flight-attendant career arrived by fax on Aug. 13, 2003. It followed a disastrous meeting two days earlier at the...

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The end of Rob McGinty’s flight-attendant career arrived by fax on Aug. 13, 2003.

It followed a disastrous meeting two days earlier at the Proud Bird restaurant near the Los Angeles airport. As McGinty, his supervisor and two union reps gathered around a table in a private room, Alaska Airlines investigator Don Pilker dropped a bomb.

McGinty, he believed, had fraudulently claimed health benefits for his longtime partner.

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Pilker laid out the evidence: documents, dated invoices, letters — each submitted by McGinty’s ex-partner, and each seeming to confirm that the couple had split months before McGinty told his employer.

By the end of the meeting, McGinty was livid.

“I’m absolutely outraged,” he recalls fuming, “that you would take the word of a psychologically unbalanced alcoholic over that of a 22-year veteran with not one blemish on my record.”

The confrontation was the climax in a series of events that led to McGinty’s firing, which Alaska Airlines still thinks was justified. The story unfolds like a soap opera, complete with a vengeful ex-lover, office politics, a one-sided investigation and an arbitrator’s puzzling decision.

McGinty’s dismissal also exposes a vulnerable spot in corporate benefit policies, which have tougher eligibility standards for domestic partners than for married employees. Had the 48-year-old airline veteran been married, he might still be working for Alaska today.

Benefits for both

McGinty loved being a flight attendant, feeling as responsible for the lives of the passengers as the pilots were.

He was usually the attendant in charge, communicating directly with the cockpit and managing his section with military precision. “That way I could be assured that it was running the way it needed to be run.”

He advocated for better working conditions, once refusing to fly a scheduled leg because a putrid smell in the galley was nauseating the crew. The airline had to ferry the empty plane back to Seattle.

He also encouraged his managers at Alaska to push for domestic-partner benefits, a trend that began taking hold in the late 1990s.

By 2001, the year Alaska began offering the perk, more than 5,000 major employers were granting health benefits to unmarried couples, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights advocacy group.

McGinty was eager to sign up. His partner, Crisstopher Hill, had held a series of jobs in the eight years they’d been together, some providing health benefits, some not.

To qualify for the benefit, McGinty had to prove, through property deeds and bank statements, that he and Hill had been living together for at least six months.

If Hill were to move out, McGinty needed to tell the company immediately, and Hill’s benefits would be cut.

The rules are different for married couples. Spouses are eligible immediately for benefits, and they’re able to collect them during a separation or until they divorce.

By all accounts McGinty was a top professional. But he admits that he could also be flinty, offending allies with a blunt opinion or sharp comment, a trait that chilled some work relationships.

One may have been McGinty’s boss, L.A. base manager Don Derbyshire. When Derbyshire sent out a mass e-mail explaining a new parking policy, McGinty fired off a reply questioning the policy and criticizing the company’s handling of it. When he hit the “send” button, the message went to everyone on the recipient list.

McGinty apologized for the mistake, but he thinks his relationship with his boss was permanently strained.

Derbyshire told lawyers the incident didn’t influence his later decision to fire McGinty, according to legal documents. Calls to Derbyshire and other Alaska officials were directed to the company’s spokeswoman, Amanda Tobin, who said the airline doesn’t comment on personnel matters.

By 2001, McGinty and Hill’s relationship was unraveling, McGinty says. They had moved from Spokane to Palm Springs, Calif., and Hill, who was unemployed and suffering a damaged disc in his spine, had begun drinking heavily, according to legal papers.

Their arguments escalated to the point that, in September 2002, McGinty rented a studio apartment for Hill, a “safe house” where Hill could go when he’d had too much to drink.

When things didn’t improve after Christmas, McGinty ended the relationship.

At first Hill was distraught, McGinty recalls, then he got angry, threatening to get even.

McGinty was disturbed enough to warn Derbyshire and other managers that Hill might cause trouble. They told him not to worry. He also told Alaska’s benefits department that his partnership with Hill was over.

McGinty had hoped the breakup would end his turmoil. Instead, it was just the beginning.

Hill was still angry seven months after the split. He wanted some furniture and Christmas ornaments he’d left in the Palm Springs house.

Rebuffed by McGinty, he did something he’d later regret. He left a voice mail with Alaska Airlines, telling the company he’d been receiving health benefits he wasn’t entitled to. He lied.

Within days, Pilker, then Alaska’s head of corporate security, flew to Palm Springs and met Hill at a Denny’s restaurant. Hill said he’d moved out in April 2002, eight months before McGinty reported the breakup. During that time Hill had run up more than $150,000 in medical bills paid by the company health plan.

Pilker told Hill he’d need proof of the separation.

“So I forged a couple things and they bought it,” says Hill. “I was just thinking, ‘This is going to piss Rob off to give me my stuff back.’ I never thought it would get that far.”

Two weeks later, Pilker called the meeting in Los Angeles. He presented Hill’s documents: a photocopied letter with McGinty’s signature referring to Hill’s April 2002 supposed move-out, the lease for the “safe house” rented for him the following September.

To explain his whereabouts between April and September, Hill told Pilker he’d stayed with friends.

The documents looked odd to McGinty. For one, the dates were wrong. Second, he never used that stationery.

Worse to him, no one had tried to get his side. He said he could prove the two lived together until Dec. 31, 2002. He reminded the group that he’d warned his bosses, including Derbyshire, that Hill might retaliate for the breakup.

He looked across the table at his boss, waiting for him to speak up. Derbyshire acknowledged that he’d been informed about Hill’s threats, but he said little else, McGinty says.

Two days later, he was fired. McGinty filed a grievance with the flight-attendants union, whose contract requires disputes to be handled through arbitration.

In the first hearing with arbitrator Herbert Fishgold, Hill repeated the lie he’d made to Alaska Airlines.

When it was McGinty’s turn, he showed invoices, check stubs and a note from the landlord supporting his version of events.

But McGinty couldn’t suppress his resentment. Outside the hearing room at the Seattle headquarters, he confronted his former bosses, questioning their integrity and their loyalty.

“I made them even more angry,” McGinty acknowledges. One supervisor, he recalls, snapped back.

“You have to understand,” he reportedly told McGinty, “I have the power and the authority to reverse this right here and now.”

In the meantime, Hill’s guilt began to plague him.

“I was losing sleep over it. I was ruining someone’s career.”

Hill called the attorneys and recanted.

Problem was, Hill now suffered a credibility problem. If he lied once, the lawyers argued, what was to stop him from lying about this? And who’s to say McGinty didn’t persuade him to concoct this latest version?

Fishgold found that given the false accusation and weak investigation, Alaska had no cause to fire McGinty. He ordered, among other things, that Alaska pay McGinty 14 months of lost wages, about $36,600.

But then came the shocker: Alaska should not give McGinty his job back.

“The employer-employee relationship has deteriorated to the point where it no longer appears viable,” Fishgold wrote.

McGinty and his union supporters were stunned.

“It doesn’t make sense,” says Ed Gilmartin, an attorney with the national Association of Flight Attendants. “It’s the equivalent, without sounding too dramatic, of being acquitted of murder but getting the death penalty anyway.”

“I think about it every day”

The union filed a lawsuit against Alaska in federal court last month, arguing that Fishgold exceeded his authority and based part of his decision on assumptions — that McGinty may have persuaded Hill to change his story — never proved during the hearings.

The union wants McGinty reinstated.

Alaska Airlines could dispense with the ruling altogether and rehire McGinty, but the company isn’t planning on it.

“Both parties agreed we would abide by the arbitrator’s decision, whatever it was,” said spokeswoman Tobin.

For now, McGinty is working at a custom-furniture showroom near Palm Springs. In the end, the same-sex benefits he encouraged Alaska to adopt may have ended his career.

“Would this have happened to a heterosexual couple?” McGinty wonders. “Would the same dynamics have applied? I doubt it.”

Gay-rights advocates agree: The rules designed to protect fraud in the face of soaring health-insurance costs have created a double standard.

“Most employers don’t require any proof whatsoever of a marriage,” says Daryl Herrschaft of the Human Rights Campaign. “It’s simply a check box on the enrollment form.”

Herrschaft’s group doesn’t suggest that employers do away with controls but rather apply them equally.

“Whenever you have two groups of employees who aren’t being treated the same, it’s a recipe for conflict and lost productivity.”

As for Hill, he now lives with his parents in Eugene, Ore.

“I think about it every day,” he says of the lie that started the mess. “I pray to God and say, ‘Please, take this all away and by some miracle get his job back.’ “

Shirleen Holt: 206-464-8316 or sholt@seattletimes.com