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Cabell County commissioners deny allegations in lawsuit

March 7, 2018 GMT

HUNTINGTON - The Cabell County Commission is denying all allegations made by a self-described whistleblower who filed a federal lawsuit last month claiming he was fired for cooperating with an investigation into the county’s finances.

Jason Nichols claims that, in a violation of the West Virginia Whistleblower Act, the Cabell County Commission, County Clerk Phyllis Smith and County Administrator Beth Thompson wrongfully fired him in retaliation for voicing his concerns to the Cabell County Prosecutor’s Office and state auditor.

In response to Nichols’ allegations, the defendants denied all the allegations made and said the lawsuit was premature because Nichols had not yet exhausted administrative remedies to appeal his firing.

Nichols was employed for 2 1/2 years with the clerk’s office and was responsible for administrative tasks related to the county’s budget. Nichols claims he was fired for using his First Amendment rights in reporting his concerns of alleged misuse of taxpayer and employee funds as well as alleged illegal payroll practices.

According to the complaint, in spring 2017 the Cabell County prosecuting attorney started an ongoing investigation of the financial affairs of Cabell County.

The plaintiff said he received a Freedom of Information Act request in December 2017 regarding the investigation. When Smith learned he was gathering documents to fill the request, he was told that prosecutors should be directed to come to her and nothing should be turned over to the prosecutor.

Nichols said he felt this meant Thompson, as the county government administrator, intended to control what information was given to the prosecuting attorney.

Nichols claims his Jan. 8 firing came just hours before he was slated to turn over documents requested by the prosecutor’s office showing misappropriations of funds.

Among other complaints, the plaintiff said he was vocal about concerns that Thompson intended to hand “full control” of the payroll accounts to a third party, which he claims is a violation of West Virginia law that requires money in possession of the sheriff must be kept in his or her possession.

In previous commission meetings, commissioners approved a contract with C&A Benefit Group and Business Services, a payroll provider out of Dublin, Ohio. Thompson said the company would be in charge of direct deposits as part of a new payroll system.

Nichols also said he reported to the prosecutor’s office concerns that the employees would be required to pay more for medical insurance in 2018, although there was a refund given on insurance claims the previous year. The plaintiff said Thompson had him transfer medical insurance account funds to the general fund to pay the county’s jail bills.

In another complaint, Nichols said he questioned the legality of taxpayers paying large amounts of insurance for approximately $30 million of fixed assets when there had allegedly been no physical audit to verify if the assets existed.

Nichols claims it is the commission’s custom to retaliate against individuals who report waste, wrongdoings or engage in protected speech. As an example, he claimed an employee was also fired in 2016 for reporting the commission for what was allegedly a repeated failure to purchase an adequate backup system for financial data, which resulted in loss of public financial data.

Nichols requests a trial by jury and to be awarded monetary damages for lost wages and benefits as well as emotional distress. In turn, the defendants request the complaint be dismissed and they be awarded costs for hiring an attorney in the lawsuit.

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.