CHARLESTON – West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner wants a “comprehensive review” of operating procedures for the state’s Board of Risk & Insurance Management.
Warner is upset that BRIM has settled 10 wrongful terminations lawsuits filed against him and his office for a total of more than $3 million.
Six of those suits recently were settled by BRIM despite Warner repeated requests that the agency take the cases to court.
“BRIM spends millions of dollars every year to settle frivolous lawsuits based on a flawed accounting practice they call ‘risk management,’ Warner said. “That practice allows BRIM to authorize huge settlement amounts to avoid trial at all costs.
“BRIM settles these types of lawsuits without the approval or consent of the agency head involved, and without oversight by the governor or the Legislature. They answer to no one. That has to change.”
Warner said he plans to meet with legislative leaders to discuss his idea for a comprehensive review of BRIM’s operating procedures.
BRIM is the state agency responsible for handling lawsuits brought against any and all state, county and municipal governments. Earlier this year, 10 former employees of the SOS office jointly filed complaints for being fired when Warner took office in January 2017.
“My administration has been able to achieve some very significant accomplishments over the last 21 months,” Warner said. “These accomplishments for the taxpayers, our business community and the voters were only made possible by the hard-working, professional staff in my office.”
Warner argues that all 10 of the fired workers were “at will” employees who could be terminated for any reason or for no reason at all.
“I asked BRIM to take every one of these cases to a jury,” he said. “All of these individuals were ‘at will and pleasure’ employees of the Secretary of State’s office. Agency heads and employees alike have the discretion to terminate ‘at will’ employment. Any change to that interpretation is a legislative decision, not BRIM’s.”
Warner also said he thinks a jury would have found no wrongdoing on his part if the cases went to trial.
“The way this state handles lawsuits by way of insurance settlements needs to be completely redone,” Warner said in September. “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.
“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.”
Mike Queen, director of communications for the Secretary of State's office, 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 told The West Virginia Record in September. "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."
Responding to Warner’s earlier criticism over the first four settlements, BRIM Chairman Bruce Martin issued a statement supporing his agency’s staff.
“We believe these claims were handled according to the policies and procedures with which all claims are handled,” Martin said. “These guidelines are in place to insure we fulfill our primary fiduciary responsibilities to our insureds and consequently, the taxpayers of West Virginia.”
The first four cases settled 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.
The six latest settlements were $725,000 to Layna Valentine-Brown, elections division director; $400,000 to Rose McCoy, business clerk who worked for the state for 50 years state employee; $325,000 to Anna-Dean Mathewson, business and licensing specialist; $275,000 to Nancy Harrison, head receptionist; $275,000 to Sam Speciale, public relations specialist; and $137,500 to Tammy Roberts, elections division specialist.
Two more cases – investigators Thomas Ranson and Jeff Shriner – still are pending in Kanawha Circuit Court, where all civil complaints against state agencies must be filed.