CHARLESTON – The last two of 12 wrongful termination cases against West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner have settled.
The cases of former SOS investigators Thomas Ranson and Jeff Shriner each settled for $50,000. With the 10 previous settlements, that brings the total to more than $3.2 million.
Before the final two settlements, Warner had said he wants a “comprehensive review” of operating procedures for the state’s Board of Risk & Insurance Management. The lawsuits were settled despite repeated requests from Warner that the agency take the cases to court for trial.
“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.”
But one of the attorneys who handled the 12 wrongful termination cases said Warner should have just admitted his mistake in the beginning.
“They’re trying to deflect blame,” Ben Salango told The West Virginia Record. “Mac Warner broke the law. He’s doing everything he can do to deflect blame onto the plaintiffs’ lawyers and BRIM.
“It’s unlawful to terminate someone based on their political affiliation. It is mathematically impossible to come into an office with 50 employees, fire 16 of them who all are Democrats and replace them with Republicans.”
Salango, an attorney with Preston & Salango in Charleston, also said BRIM wouldn’t have settled the cases if they weren’t valid claims.
“They (BRIM) settle legitimate cases where the defendant clearly was acting illegally and the plaintiffs clearly were damaged,” said Salango, who also is a Kanawha County Commissioner. “Secretary Warner’s attempts to deflect blame are simply ridiculous.”
Warner has 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, 12 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 12 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, also has said Salango has ties to former Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.
"Mr. Salango was a contributor to former Secretary Tennant’s political campaigns," Queen told The 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."
Salango called Queen’s comments more misdirection.
“They’re simply trying to suggest that because I donated to Natalie’s campaign that the claims we made were frivolous,” Salango said. “Secretary Warner never met with the employees he fired. He never interviewed them.
“He sent in someone on his transition team and a lobbyist to interview all of the employees in the office. They were given a perfunctory five-minute interview. Then, they came in and fired these employees for no reason whatsoever. One of the women, Rose McCoy, she had worked for the state since 1968 … before we put a man on the moon.
“During discovery, we got Secretary Warner’s text messages and emails. They had sent out emails saying who they were going to fire and hire before the sham interviews took place.
“Those are the kinds of facts that causes BRIM to pay $3.2 million.”
Responding to Warner’s earlier criticism over the first four settlements, BRIM Chairman Bruce Martin issued a statement supporting 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.
A second batch of six settlements were $725,000 to Layna Valentine-Brown, elections division director; $400,000 to McCoy, a business clerk who worked for the state for 50 years; $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.