Nepotism, cronyism at heart of two Berkeley termination suits

By Lawrence Smith | Sep 6, 2012

MARTINSBURG – Separate lawsuits filed in Berkeley Circuit Court by two former county employees allege they were fired for exposing either nepotism or cronyism.

The Berkeley County Council is named as a co-defendant in wrongful termination suits filed by Sharon Chaffee, and Jay Russell. In their suits filed April 9 and May 4, Chaffee, 56, of Martinsburg, and Russell, 52, of Winchester, Va., allege they were let go from their respective jobs last Fall when they witnessed, and either questioned or refused to give special consideration given to either family members or friends of county officials.

According to her suit, Chaffee was hired by then-Berkeley County Assessor Preston Gooden in July 2008 to work as a transfer clerk. Sometime in the Fall 2010 after Patricia Kilmer became assessor following Gooden's death in February 2009, Chaffee was assigned to handle transfers in the Mill Creek district.

On an unspecified date, Chaffee was beginning a foreclosure transfer for property previously owned by Kilmer's son, James, when she noticed Patricia changed the mailing information to her address. The change, Chaffee alleges, was made sometime before the office opened that morning at 9 a.m.

Though she didn't make any entries in the Office's computerized system regarding the transfer, Chaffee says she entered it on the property card. When she did, she noticed that another employee, Lisa Custer, entered a reappraisal code on the card at 8:29 a.m. changing the property from Class 3 to Class 2.

About the time she discovered the issues with the Kilmer property, Chaffee says she also noticed ones with another employee. On Sept. 27, 2010, Chaffee asked Brad Unger, the Office's chief appraiser, why a townhome belonging to Roger Kirkbride, the Office's GIS coordinator, and Gooden's son-in-law, was listed as a Class 2 property and not Class 3.

After telling her he would find out, Chaffee says she watched Unger enter Kilmer's office with Kilbride. Upon concluding their impromptu meeting, Unger approached Chaffee, told her the classification was correct and if she had any more questions to speak with Kilmer.

When she did, Chaffee says Kilmer replied that Kirkbride told her he used the "townhouse as a vacation home and she was not going to call him a liar." Also, she said "as long as a home has furniture in it and someone visits there once a year, it qualifies as a vacation home."

According to the suit, when Chaffee said there was another property classification she wanted to discuss, Kilmer "banged her fists on the table and shouted, "'I know what property you are talking about, it's my son's, and I'll change the class back and the taxes myself.'"

Kilmer, the suit alleges, continued her tirade saying "that times were hard for everyone and as assessor she had an obligation and the discretion to work with taxpayers" and how "'You would have done the same thing.'" Kilmer concluded by saying "'I am the assessor and the decisions are mine to make, not yours.'"

Shortly after she left Kilmer's office, Chaffee says Unger motioned her to come into his. After making Northwood Bentley, the county attorney, who was in the room with Unger, aware of Chaffee's concerns, Kilmer said she instructed Unger to change the classification on her son's property back to Class 3.

However, Chaffee alleges Kilmer, through word and deed, made her displeasure with her known.

In October 2010, Kilmer told Karen Lahrime that there were too many "potstirrers" in the office, and that was going to change. She added that "'If someone has time to get into other people's business, then they must not have enough work to do.'"

The next month, Kilmer informed Chaffee she had Kirkbride reconfigure her computer so she could watch what she was doing in "real-time." The changes included removing icons to not only the Assessor's Web site, but also ones to the Berkeley Sheriff's tax office, and those with links to state statutes.

According to Kilmer, Chaffee "did not need to be going to those sites."

Over the next year, Chaffee alleges Kilmer either began giving work to other employees or teaching them how to do her job. Also, despite making her aware she was qualified to perform data entry work, Chaffee says Kilmer, without advertising it either publically or internally, created a data entry position, and hired her granddaughter.

According to the suit, Kilmer also, without advertising the position, hired her grandson to be an appraiser around the time she hired her granddaughter.

Despite a backlog of work, Chaffee says Kilmer informed her on Oct. 12 that her job "had been abolished." Though her termination was immediate, Chaffee was told she would be paid through Oct. 14.

In her suit, Chaffee lists Kilmer, and Gearl Raynes, the acting assessor, as co-defendants. Raynes was appointed assessor in December when Kilmer resigned in the midst of an Ethics Commission investigation into her hiring of not only hers, but also the family members of other employees for summer jobs.

According to his suit, Russell was hired by the Council in September 2006 to be the county's facilities director. Following his election in 2010, Russell says Commissioner Douglas Copenhaver objected to him using Fastenal for electrical supplies and equipment, and demanded he begin using Tri-State Electric.

When he refused, Russell says Copenhaver unilaterally scheduled a meeting with all employees of the facilities department for Sept. 9. Though he was not notified of the meeting, Russell found out about it, and attended.

Copenhaver, Russell alleges, continued to demand that all purchases for electrical equipment and supplies be made from Tri-State. However, Russell stood his ground saying purchases from them "was a waste of County taxpayer money as Fastenal could and would supply the necessary items at a significantly more competitive price."

After the meeting concluded, Copenhaver then went to the Council's office and demanded Russell be terminated. According to the suit, Copenhaver, along with Deborah Hammond, the county administrator, and Alan J. Davis, the deputy county administrator, "retreated into Ms. Hammond's office to discuss the matter privately."

About a month later, Russell says Davis notified him he was being placed on administrative leave to alleged violations of the county's fuel card policy. Later, on Oct. 17, Davis sent Russell a certified letter saying an investigation discovered he engaged in "'theft, misappropriation, embezzlement, unauthorized possession or removal of Berkeley County property or the property of co-workers," which was being forwarded to the county prosecutor.

According to the suit, the Council on Nov. 10, voted 3-2 to terminate Russell. The reasons for firing him, Russell says, "were a pretext for unlawful retaliation against [him] for opposing waste and wrongdoing."

Copenhaver is named as a co-defendant in Russell's suit. In the 10 months since he was fired, no criminal charges have been filed against him.

In her suit, Chaffee seeks unspecified damages to include reinstatement, lost and future wages. She is represented by Martinsburg attorney Harry P. Waddell.

In his, Russell also seeks unspecified damages to include reinstatement and back pay, plus court costs and attorneys fees. He is represented by Waddell and David M. Hammer with the Martinsburg law firm of Hammer, Ferretti and Schiavoni.

Chaffee's and Russell's cases are assigned to judges Christopher Wilkes and John Yoder, respectively.

Berkeley Circuit Court, case numbers 12-C-290 (Chaffee) and 364 (Russell)

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