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DHHR fires attorney at center of contract controversy

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Department of Health and Human Resources fired general counsel Jennifer Taylor on Monday, she said.

The abrupt and unexplained decision comes a week after the Kanawha County prosecutor cleared her of criminal wrongdoing. Taylor said DHHR has for months assigned her entry-level legal work even though she is among the highest paid officials in the department, which is the largest in state government.

Taylor is one of three senior officials that DHHR Secretary Rocco Fucillo "reassigned" last summer.

The trio wondered aloud why DHHR had decided to award a multi-million marketing contract to the highest bidder, Ohio-based Fahlgren Mortine.

The trio includes Taylor, assistant secretary John Law and deputy secretary for legal affairs Susan Perry.

Perry and Taylor filed lawsuits against DHHR last fall claiming they were both whistleblowers.

DHHR conducted an internal investigation of the trio's behavior. The investigation is said to have accused them of illegally interfering with the contract. But Kanawha County Prosecutor Mark Plants said last week he would not pursue any charges against Law, Perry or Taylor.

Despite that, Perry is now apparently the only one of the three who still has a job at DHHR.

The department fired Law last month without giving a reason. That's after DHHR used tens of thousands of tax dollars to pay Law to work from outside the office.

Likewise, Taylor said Monday night that she and Perry had been forced to do legal paperwork that could be done by a paralegal or an entry-level state attorney.

Taylor makes $90,000 a year, she said, and Perry makes $96,000, according to state records.

Taylor said DHHR human resources director Harold Clifton called her Monday afternoon and fired her.

"Effective Feb. 4, 2013, Jennifer N. Taylor's employment with the WVDHHR has been terminated," DHHR said in a brief statement late Monday night. "Taylor served as the department's general counsel."

Taylor and Perry's attorney, Walt Auvil, said DHHR's decision basically eviscerates its own legal defense against the whistleblower lawsuits.

DHHR's outside legal counsel, Chuck Bailey, argued DHHR did not retaliate against Taylor (or Perry) because she "continues in her present position with all salary and benefits continuing" pending the outcome of DHHR's internal investigation and Plants' own review.

Since Bailey made that argument last year DHHR's own internal review has concluded; Plants did not prosecute them; and DHHR has fired Taylor.

Auvil wondered what DHHR's legal defense would be now.

"The defendants had argued in the motion to dismiss that one of the reasons that Jennifer's case should be dismissed was that there was no damages because she lost no pay," Auvil said. "That defense seems significantly compromised by firing Jennifer."

The whole months-long incident seems to have been prompted by a serious rift within DHHR. On one side was DHHR's purchasing office. On the other side were Perry and Taylor.

The camps first appear divided over how a multi-million contract was handled last winter. That contract involves what has now become the largest contract in the history of West Virginia government: a computer system to process Medicaid claims. Xerox, one of the companies that lost the bid, is now challenging how the bid was handled by DHHR's purchasing office.

The camps grew further apart over the handling the multi-million marketing contract last spring and summer.

The marketing contract, estimated to be worth $3.5 million, was awarded to Fahlgren Mortine for one year's work. To pick Ohio-based Fahlgren, DHHR passed over three lower bidders.

The committee's room for error was small: Of 100 possible points, Fahlgren received 93.96 in the scoring process. The Arnold Agency, which was DHHR's former advertising firm, received 93 points and was the lowest bidder.

After reviewing the scoring, Taylor found the decision "legally indefensible," according to the suits.

Taylor and Perry's whistleblower suits blasted the agency for a "track record of errors" the pair had to correct or tried to keep the agency from making.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin urged an expeditious resolution to the situation last fall, but it is unclear what he or his office has done to resolve the situation in the months since he made that statement.

Earlier Daily Mail reporting on the situation with Law, Perry and Taylor estimated how much the trio had been paid since they were put on leave. These estimates were based on salary information on the state auditor's website.

Taylor said Monday night that the figure the Daily Mail has been using was incorrect. She said she makes $90,000 a year at DHHR. The auditor's website listed her as making $83,000, a reflection of the salary she earned at a previous job in the state Treasurer's Office.

As a result, several Daily Mail articles since last summer have underestimated how much the state paid the trio since Fucillo "reassigned" them.

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


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