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By Phil Kabler
December 13, 2018
With the settlement of the final two of 12 wrongful-termination lawsuits against West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner on Thursday, the total cost to the state has topped $3.2 million, not counting legal fees.
Charleston attorney Mark Atkinson confirmed Thursday that fired investigators Thomas Ranson and Jeff Shriner settled their lawsuits for $50,000 each. Both contended they were fired by Warner because of their political affiliation and age.
Ranson and Shiner were not among the 16 employees — 15 registered Democrats, one independent — that Warner fired in an office purge upon taking office in January 2017. They were fired several months later.
In a deposition, Warner said he fired the two former law enforcement officers because of “a lack of initiative, enthusiasm, diligence, that sort of thing,” and not because they had worked for former secretary of state Natalie Tennant, a Democrat whom Warner defeated in the 2016 general election.
Warner testified that the office had decided to contract out any investigations.
Thursday’s settlements wrap up the 12 wrongful-termination lawsuits against Warner.
Previous settlements included: Christie Hamilton, elections division specialist, $500,000; Christina Stowers, receptionist, $250,000; David Nichols, legal assistant, $115,000; Timothy Richards, business and licensing specialist, $100,000; Layna Valentine-Brown, elections division director, $725,000; Rose McCoy, business clerk and a 50-year state employee, $400,000; Anna-Dean Mathewson, business and licensing specialist, $325,000; Nancy Harrison, head receptionist, $275,000; Sam Speciale, public relations specialist, $275,000; and Tammy Roberts, elections division specialist, $137,500.
With the cases resolved, Atkinson said it was unfortunate that, in news media interviews, Warner claimed that the employees, most of whom had between eight to 50 years of governmental service, were fired because they were incompetent.
“It really irks me and my clients that they’ve been called incompetent and inept to try to cover for his liabilities,” Atkinson said. “The fact the state has paid over $3.2 million proves that Mac Warner’s claims that these people were incompetent is blatantly false.”
Warner also has said he believes the state Board of Risk and Insurance Management erred in settling the lawsuits, contending that all fired employees were “at-will” and were subject to termination for any cause or no cause.
However, in his deposition, Warner testified that he was aware that state and federal laws prohibit firing “at-will” employees because of their age, race, sex or political affiliation.
Thursday afternoon, the Secretary of State’s Office released this statement: “Secretary Warner has very clearly articulated his concerns to BRIM regarding the settlement of any and all of the cases regarding the dismissal of at-will employees.
“Each of the 12 employees who were dismissed were classified as and signed contracts acknowledging that they were at-will employees.
“Secretary Warner was very clear in his demand to BRIM to take each case to a jury of taxpayers, giving Secretary Warner the opportunity to publicly explain and defend his decisions. Secretary Warner was not given that opportunity.
“At this point, Secretary Warner will meet with legislators from both parties in an effort to bring changes to BRIM and to protect the right for constitutional officers to hire and dismiss at-will employees.”
BRIM retained Thomas Kleeh, of Steptoe and Johnson, as a defense attorney in the lawsuits, and the state has not yet paid Kleeh’s legal fees.
In addition to Atkinson, attorneys representing the fired employees are Ben Salango and John-Mark Atkinson. Salango is an investor in ETBN Group, Inc., a subsidiary of HD Media, which owns the Charleston Gazette-Mail.