CHARLESTON – Democratic leaders of the House of Delegates are criticizing spending and practices in Secretary of State Mac Warner’s office, even calling for his impeachment.
The complaints come on the heels of an announcement that four wrongful termination lawsuits against Warner are being settled for a total of nearly $1 million. Eight other similar suits still are pending. The 16 firings took place in January 2017 when Warner became secretary of state.
Warner's office, however, stands behind its actions and says state government's system for settling lawsuits needs overhauled.
“Secretary Warner tried to claim that these firings were to make the office more efficient, but these firings were clearly partisan, as 15 of the 16 were registered Democrats,” House Minority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion, said. “He replaced these 15 people with 22 new employees- and most of the new employees were partisan Republican hires or connected with right-wing groups. That math doesn’t add up.”
Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, said Warner told the House Finance Committee earlier this year his office was within budget. But Bates says the state’s open government transparency website says Warner’s office has spent almost $3 million more over the previous year’s budget.
“Republicans in the House of Delegates are pursuing impeachment of all Supreme Court justices for gross maladministration related to excessive spending yet turn a blind eye to one of their own,” Bates said.
Delegate Andrew Robinson agreed.
“This is unacceptable,” Robinson, D-Kanawha, said. “If Republicans are serious about impeaching elected officials for gross misconduct in office, they should be looking at Secretary of State Mac Warner.”
Caputo called Warner’s actions typical Republican behavior.
“The illegal and unfair firings by Secretary Warner should come as no surprise, since the GOP continues to attack state employees, teachers and service personnel,” Caputo said. “Apparently, experience just doesn’t count as much as being on the right side of the political aisle.”
Warner, meanwhile, stands behind his decision to fire the 16 workers after he took office. He also is critical of the state Board of Risk and Insurance Management’s decision to settle the four lawsuits.
“The way this state handles lawsuits by way of insurance settlements needs to be completely redone,” Warner said in a statement. “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.”
When a state agency leader is sued, the case currently goes directly to BRIM. The agency leader has no voice in whether the suit should be settled. Warner called on the Legislature to look at overhauling that process. Warner said BRIM spends more than $12 million a year to settle these types of lawsuits.
“The Legislature must give public officials the ability to make decisions on how lawsuits are resolved since we are ultimately responsible to the voters for the decisions we make – and I continue to stand by my decisions – even if the insurance company doesn’t want to,” Warner said.
The four lawsuits that settled were the first ones scheduled to go to trial. The others are scheduled for trial next month. The four settlements were $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.
Other plaintiffs with cases pending in Kanawha Circuit Court are 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.
"The dismissal of the 16 at-will employees was necessary for Secretary Warner to streamline and reorganize the office to address the goals and objectives set by Warner’s transition team," said Mike Queen, director of communications for the Secretary of State's office. "All dismissed employees were classified by the state as at-will employees.
"After his election, Secretary Warner and his transition team evaluated the need for every position among the 55-member staff in the Secretary of State’s office. Every employee was evaluated on the duties and responsibilities.
"Several positions were combined into one. A professional Field Team of five professionals experienced in business licensing, registration and elections was created to be primary liaison with the state’s county clerks. A new satellite office to serve the eastern panhandle area was opened and staffed with two full business and licensing professionals.
"Finally, to address election cybersecurity, Secretary Warner hired a member of the Army National Guard with a top secret security clearance and placed that individual in the West Virginia Fusion Center."
Queen said the current SOS staff is 51 people. He also said no member of Warner's staff ever tried to determine the political affiliation of any employee who was dismissed.
Queen also said Ben Salango, the Charleston attorney representing the 12 dismissed employees, has ties to former Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.
"Mr. Salango was a contributor to former Secretary Tennant’s political campaigns," Queen said. "Mrs. Tennant has already filed to run for a political office in 2020 – but has not indicated which office she will seek. She served two terms as Secretary of State. During those eight years, she ran for governor and lost and ran for United States Senate and lost. Mrs. Tennant lost her re-election bid to Secretary Warner in the November 2016.
"After the November 2016 election but prior to Secretary Warner taking office on January 16, 2018, Mr. Salango actually used the Secretary of State’s conference room in the state capitol to encourage the 12 employees to bring their lawsuits."
Queen also said the increase in the office's budget mentioned by Robinson went to county clerks, not the SOS office itself. And he said Robinson and Bates both voted to present the "Roads to Prosperity” special election to the voters of West Virginia, adding that the Legislature agreed to reimburse all 55 counties for all costs associated with it to the tune of $3.06 million.
"The Secretary of State’s office managed the election and was a conduit to reimburse the counties for their expenses," Queen said. "The questionable expenditures of the West Virginia Supreme Court don’t hold a candle to the $12.5 million sue-and-settle honey pot of taxpayers’ money that BRIM hands out to trial lawyers each and every year.
"Secretary Warner is respectfully requesting that Delegates Robinson and Bates and the entire Legislature take a very close look at the way BRIM settles lawsuits without any oversight by any elected official or the Legislature."