Mac Warner critical of lawsuit settlements

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia secretary of state is outraged and frustrated over the out-of-court settlements of four wrongful termination lawsuits filed against him in 2017.

Twelve of the 16 employees terminated in January 2017 sued Mac Warner last year and four recently settled with the state’s insurance carrier for $965,000 total.

“As soon as I heard of the shockingly absurd settlements, I immediately instructed my lawyer NOT to settle any further cases without my weighing in on the decisions,” Warner wrote in an Aug. 31 letter to Robert Fisher, claim manager with the West Virginia Board of Risk and Insurance Management.

On Monday, Warner released the letter to The Parkersburg News and Sentinel after it asked for comment about news reports that the four cases were settled.

“I specifically directed that I wanted to take the next case to trial,” Warner said. “However, I learned yesterday (Aug. 30) that my direction was not heeded and the adjuster unilaterally settled the specific case I insisted we take to trial. Then again today, I found out he settled a fourth case.”

Warner told Fisher he was expressing his “extreme outrage and severe frustration.”

Warner, upon taking office in January 2017, terminated 16 people, 15 Democrats and an independent, saying he was streamlining operations. He hired 22 employees to replace the 16.

The suits were filed in August 2017 in Kanawha County Circuit Court.

The settlements totaled $965,000 and were: $500,000 to Cristie Hamilton, an elections specialist; $250,000 to Christina Stowers, a receptionist; $115,000 to David Nichols, a legal assistant; and $100,000 to Timothy Richards, a business and licensing specialist.

“We’re pleased the four cases got settled,” said Charleston attorney Mark Atkinson, who with attorney Ben Salango of Charleston represents the former employees.

The remaining eight cases are scheduled for trial. They are: Layna Valentine-Brown, an elections director; Nancy Harrison, a receptionist; Anna-Dean Mathewson, a business and licensing specialist; Rose McCoy, a business clerk; Tammy Roberts, an elections specialist; Tom Ranson, an investigator; Jeff Shriner, an investigator; and Samuel Speciale, a public affairs specialist.

A comment from Fisher was not immediately available.

Elected officials have no oversight in the deliberations or settlement discussions, Warner said. In a separate statement, Warner called on the Legislature to change the process.

“This is an issue that few know about, and when you do find out about it as a public official, it’s too late,” Warner said.

Any settlement sets a “terrible precedent,” Warner said. It tells bad employees they can file frivolous lawsuits and drive up costs for the state – “at a time taxpayers are fed up with overpriced couches,” he said.

Warner in the letter said he was repeatedly informed by county clerks, previous office holders, workers in the office and others that “it would be best for me to exercise my option for ‘will and pleasure employees’ and install competent people in the office.”

Warner said he delivered on the direction voters gave him at the ballot box.

The former employees claim they were discharged for political reasons. Warner said the claim was a “contention completely disconnected from reality.”

“My predecessor had already politicized the office, hiring an overwhelming number of employees registered as Democrats,” Warner said. “I became aware of the employees political affiliation only after the lawsuits were filed; in fact, it was when the plaintiffs’ attorney described the cause of the action that I first became aware of the employees political registration.”

Warner also said he never asked the political affiliations of the people he hired.

“Simply put, I hired based on competency and fired based on incompetency,” he said.

Warner asked that his “input as a constitutional officer of the state of West Virginia be given the weight to which it is entitled and that we allow the judicial system to function as the arbiter or right and wrong.