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Head of state attorney general's civil rights division ousted

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Paul Sheridan's two decades in the West Virginia Attorney General's Office ended abruptly last week.

Sheridan led the office's civil rights division, which represents people who say they have been discriminated against by employers and landlords. Sheridan said a top aide to new Attorney General Patrick Morrisey fired him without warning on Jan. 28.

It's not unexpected that Morrisey, a Republican, would build his own team after he defeated Democratic incumbent Darrell McGraw last fall. But Morrisey promised then he would "meet with the incumbent's office to get a good handle around the existing docket."

Sheridan's account of his firing suggests Morrisey's administration did not make a full effort to understand his specialized division, which consisted of Sheridan, two attorneys and two staffers.

Sheridan, a 22-year veteran of the office, was given two days last week to impart knowledge to his successor, former Putnam Circuit Court Judge J. Robert Leslie, a Democrat.

"We talked about a handful of cases is what we talked about - at a fairly superficial level," Sheridan said in a telephone interview.

Sheridan handled legal work for the Human Rights Commission, which is supposed to make sure employers and landlords don't discriminate against West Virginians because of race, religion, color, nationality, ancestry, sex, age, blindness or disability.

Last week, Morrisey complained in a radio interview that the office lacked a centralized filing system and that he "inherited a pretty big mess" from McGraw.

Sheridan said he tried to contact Morrisey's transition team shortly after the election but never heard back.

Sheridan said his communications with Morrisey's team consisted of two memos and then talks with Leslie.

The first memo was a detailed list of his outstanding cases. That list was prepared after the election at the request of McGraw's top aide, Fran Hughes.

Sheridan said Morrisey's team then asked him to redo the list in a standardized format. He said Morrisey's team sent a directive the day before the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend asking for that second memo.

"Here I am the head of the division, but I can't ask anybody else to spend the weekend doing this - I don't have the ability to say, 'Let's pay everybody overtime to do this,' " Sheridan said.

So, he spent the weekend preparing the list in a new format for the workweek that started on Tuesday, Jan. 22.

Less than a week later, Sheridan was fired.

Sheridan said he received a call on the morning of Jan. 28 to see if he could meet with Morrisey's chief counsel, Dan Greear. Greear ran against McGraw and lost in 2008.

At 2 p.m., Greear was in Sheridan's office, Sheridan said. Greear told Sheridan his career in the office was at an end and he had two days to train Leslie.

"When I was asked for reasons, I was told Mr. Greear is not at liberty to discuss that," Sheridan recalled.

It's not what Sheridan expected.

"I sort of anticipated that there would be some conversations, just based upon what I read in the paper - including in your paper - from (Morrisey)," Sheridan said. "I never met him. Still to this day, I never met him."

Sheridan said he was concerned about the future of the office.

Greear referred questions to Morrisey spokesman Richie Heath. Leslie did not return a call seeking comment.

"As a matter of policy, we do not comment on personnel matters," Morrisey said through Heath. "However, we take every personnel decision seriously and only make such decisions after performing a thorough review."

Morrisey said his office would "vigorously enforce the West Virginia Human Rights Act and the West Virginia Fair Housing Act" - two key civil rights laws - and that Leslie had experience handling both.

Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin appointed Leslie last year to fill part of the unexpired term of Putnam Circuit Judge O.C. Spaulding.

The attorney general's civil rights division mostly handles cases of alleged discrimination identified by the state Human Rights Commission.

That means the commission is essentially the attorney general's client.

The chairman of the commission, The Rev. Darrell Cummings of Wheeling, said he was not consulted about the Morrisey administration's decision to fire Sheridan.

"All I know is in the past we've enjoyed working with him - he's been a blessing to the Human Rights Commission and I wish him nothing but well," Cummings said.

But Cummings doesn't necessarily deal with the day-to-day operations of the commission. The executive director who does, Phyllis Carter, did not return a message seeking comment.

Contact writer Ry Rivard at ry.rivard@dailymail.com or 304-348-1796. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryrivard.

 


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