Lawsuits against Secretary of State’s office are settled
Four employees who filed wrongful termination lawsuits last year against Secretary of State Mac Warner on grounds they were fired because of their political affiliations have settled out-of-court for a total of nearly $1 million, their attorney said.
Eight other former employees have wrongful termination cases set to go to trial, apparently after Warner objected to the state Board of Risk and Insurance Management settling the initial cases.
The settlements include $500,000 to Cristie Hamilton, former elections specialist; $250,000 to Christina Stowers, receptionist; $115,000 to David Nichols, legal assistant; and $100,000 to Timothy Richards, business and licensing specialist, according to Mark Atkinson, one of four attorneys representing the fired employees.
The four who settled their lawsuits were part of a purge of 16 employees — 15 registered Democrats, one independent — all fired shortly after Warner took office in January 2017.
Initially filed in August 2017, the lawsuits contend that the employees were part of a mass firing orchestrated by Warner so he could replace longtime office staffers with handpicked new hires in a throwback to a spoils system that the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued is illegal under state law and the West Virginia Constitution.
In a statement issued Monday afternoon, Warner did not address the merits of any of the four cases, but in his words “excoriated” BRIM for being overly willing to settle such cases, contending that the state risk insurance provider pays out an average of $12.5 million a year in settlements.
“It’s a process with no oversight, where the lawyers keep getting richer off the deep pockets of the state, the state’s insurance carrier and the taxpayers,” Warner said in the statement, calling for a legislative investigation of BRIM.
While Warner at the time of the firings said they were necessary to “streamline” the secretary of state’s office, he subsequently hired 22 new employees, 19 of whom are registered Republicans, according to the lawsuits.
“It’s just what we needed to do to move the office forward,” Warner testified before the Senate Finance Committee a month after the firings.
The complaints also noted that the majority of fired employees had between eight and 50 years of experience, and were replaced by new hires with little or no governmental experience.
Warner spokesman Mike Queen said Monday the secretary wanted to take all 12 cases to trial, but said BRIM attorneys settled the four cases without Warner’s knowledge or approval.
“We’re totally disappointed,” Queen said, adding, “This is a honey pot for trial attorneys who’ve found a little bit of a jackpot jury in BRIM.”
Warner’s statement includes a copy of a letter he sent to BRIM claims manager Robert Fisher on Aug. 31 stating that he does not authorize any further settlement of cases involving the secretary of state’s office, and denying that employees were fired or hired because of their political affiliations.
“The plaintiff’s lawyers have confused — purposely so — correlation with causation. They argue that since most of my new hires have Republican connections, that I did not retain their clients for political reasons,” Warner wrote.
“Let me be clear, nothing could be further from the truth. Not once, not ever, did I ask or find out anyone’s political affiliations – nor did I care,” Warner continued. “I didn’t ask about the political affiliations of people I fired, and I didn’t ask about the party affiliations of people I hired. Simply put, I hired based on competency and I terminated for lack of competency.”
BRIM executive director Mary Jane Pickens could not be reached for comment Monday.
Ben Salango, one of the attorneys representing the fired employees, previously stated that the odds that Warner could have fired 15 Democrat employees and replaced them with 19 Republicans by chance without knowing their party affiliations would be astronomical.
“You probably have better odds of getting struck by lightning twice,” he said.
In the letter to Fisher, Warner contends that, “because so many employees from the previous administration were Democrats, nearly anyone I removed would, of course, be Democrat.”
In a statement Monday, previous Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said she was pleased with the settlements, saying the fired employees were “dedicated public servants who were unfairly terminated.”
“They believed if they did their job and put the citizens of West Virginia first, they would be able to have successful careers as state employees,” Tennant stated. “I was frustrated and disheartened when they were terminated simply because of a change in administration. I am thankful these four have been able to find a resolution, and I am hopeful the other eight will have the same outcome.”
The eight other wrongful termination lawsuits stemming from the purge are set to go to trial shortly, Atkinson said.
“We are pleased with these settlements, and we look forward to going to trial with the other eight cases,” he said.
Other plaintiffs with cases pending in Kanawha Circuit Court include Rose McCoy, business clerk; Nancy Harrison, head receptionist; Tammy Roberts, elections specialist; Samuel Speciale, public affairs specialist; Layna Valentine-Brown, elections director; Anna-Dean Mathewson, business and licensing specialist; Thomas Ranson, investigator; and Jeff Shriner, investigator.
Salango is one of the investors in HD Media’s purchase of the Gazette-Mail in March.
Reach Phil Kabler at email@example.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.