Former Metro 911 operations chief files civil suit
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A former high-ranking employee of the Kanawha County Metro 911 Center has filed a civil lawsuit claiming she has been exiled to a data-entry job at the courthouse after sparking an investigation that resulted in the 911 director resigning.
Laura Wilson, former 911 operations director, filed the lawsuit against the Kanawha County Commission, the 911 Center and an unknown individual she refers to as "John Doe" who directed the retaliation against her.
She is still on the Metro 911 payroll and makes $65,405 a year, according to its website. However, her lawsuit says she returned to work on Aug. 13 and now performs "data entry work" as a "quality assurance manager" at the courthouse.
She says the reassignment has cost her "a significant amount of money in loss of overtime pay." She says she is "scorned by remaining employees in her current office, and publicly belittled by certain management personnel."
She has been forbidden from returning to the Metro 911 center even to retrieve personal belongings, her lawsuit says.
She said she left work at the center in January "due to the hostile environment." This came after her duties as operations director had gradually been stripped from her over the previous months, she says. In February, she began treatment for "recurrent major depressive disorder."
She says she also met with Rick Atkinson, chairman of the Metro board, in February.
Apparently, she met with him to discuss her boss, former Metro 911 Director Carolyn Karr Charnock.
"Atkinson reported in effect that he had met with Commissioner (Kent) Carper three or four years prior about the situation with Ms. Charnock and no action was taken," the lawsuit says. "Moreover, Atkinson opined that Commissioner Carper was unable to control Ms. Charnock."
Wilson says Atkinson then selected Charleston attorney Charles Bailey to conduct an investigation of the allegations of a hostile work environment on behalf of the board.
On July 28, the lawsuit says, "Carolyn Karr Charnock resigned and the major impediment of plaintiff's return to Metro was eliminated."
But Wilson was not permitted to return to her old job. She also was denied her request that all the sick and annual leave she had used during her absence be reinstated.
"The reassignment, demotion, and/or sequestration of the plaintiff was in retaliation for complaints she made to Rick Atkinson, a member of the 911 board, regarding the wasteful, improper, and/or illegal spending practices of former Director Charnock and to Charles Bailey, counsel for the defendants. The reasons given for the actions were a pretense to disguise the true motivation behind their actions."
The lawsuit also alleges that Charnock revealed to Wilson the existence of a "slush fund" that select employees were allowed to access for personal use.
Wilson claims Charnock told her about the fund last November during a meeting.
"Ms. Charnock advised the plaintiff (Wilson) of the existence of a 'slush fund' created for Metro for the personal use of selected employees," according to the complaint.
Each month, Homeland Security Director Dale Petry and Charleston Emergency Management Director Grant Gunnoe placed $450 in "bogus" rent payments into the fund, Wilson claims. The money was then used for "whatever purposes the director (Charnock) saw fit," including personal trips, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit also alleges at least one of the three county commissioners was aware of the slush fund, but it does not name that commissioner.
Charnock's resignation from 911 was effective Sept. 4. She now serves as public relations director at the Kanawha County Emergency Ambulance Authority at the same salary, about $80,000 per year.
Charnock could not be reached for comment Thursday. Wilson's attorney, Michael Clifford, did not return calls seeking comment.
Atkinson confirmed the county Office of Emergency Services does pay rent for an office at the Metro 911 Center. He said the office houses the Emergency Operations Center that is used during county emergencies.
However, he denied the fund was ever used for any personal expenses. He said local accountant Bill Chambers has audited it on numerous occasions.
"I think he (Chambers) would have found something like this," Atkinson said.
Atkinson said that to his knowledge the fund was used for things such as the purchase of hookups for the county's portable generators.
Wilson began working for the 911 Center in 1993. At first she handled records but soon moved up to 911 dispatcher. She was offered the position of training coordinator in 2006 and was promoted to operations director in 2010, according to the complaint.
Wilson alleges her duties began to be removed without cause around the end of September 2011.
"Plaintiff (Wilson) was removed from a position of gaining information pertaining directly to her job without cause and without counseling," according to the lawsuit.
Clifford, her attorney, is no stranger to the Kanawha County Commission. He is a former prosecuting attorney who has sued the county on numerous occasions.
Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper also said all accounts at the Metro 911 Center have been audited.
"The funds are audited every year," he said.
Carper declined to discuss the lawsuit specifically and referred questions to Johnnie Brown, an attorney with Pullin, Fowler, Flanagan, Brown and Poe, the firm that represents Travelers Insurance, the county's insurance provider.
"Unfortunately, the county gets sued a lot," Brown said. "But we're looking into these allegations."
The allegations are serious, and the investigation will be thorough and conducted soon, he said.
"And any actions taken, will be taken quickly," Brown said. "We take any allegations dealing with taxpayer money very seriously."
Like Carper, Brown said he could not discuss the particulars of the case because it is a personnel issue.
"A number of people are taking a look at this and if any actions need to be taken, they certainly will," he said.
Commissioner Dave Hardy said counsel instructed him not to comment because the case involves personnel.
"But anything that involves Metro 911 gets my attention because it is a very, very important organization," Hardy said.
Like Carper, Hardy said he was unaware of any fund that was designated for personal use by Metro 911 employees.
"And of course the county commission wouldn't tolerate a slush fund," he said.
The case has been assigned to Judge Duke Bloom. No hearings have been scheduled.