Taxpayers take care of dismissed lawyer's settlement
RALEIGH — A former state lawyer got a taxpayer-funded $80,000 settlement after challenging her dismissal last summer amid concerns about whether she would be sufficiently loyal to the new Republican administration of Gov. Pat McCrory.
Karen West, a state employee since 2005, was general counsel at the N.C. Department of Commerce until June 4, when records show she was fired by new Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker.
Decker later hired John Hoomani, a Raleigh Republican who previously served as general counsel to state Labor Secretary Cherie Berry.
West's $113,000-a-year job had been covered under the State Personnel Act, which protects workers from being fired without cause. But earlier this year, the McCrory administration declared the job of West and hundreds of other state employees exempt from the law, meaning she could be fired at the will of the governor.
West, 57, then sued, alleging in court filings that her job reclassification and dismissal was illegal under state law and motivated by partisan politics. West's voter registration lists her as being unaffiliated with a political party.
Decker declined to comment on Friday through an agency spokesman. But in a July 1 affidavit, Decker said she had wanted to fire West since arriving at the agency in January, following Decker's appointment by McCrory.
"I preferred to have a General Counsel of my own choosing who would be uniquely loyal to the new administration and to me and who would be entirely dedicated to my new goals for Commerce, as well as those of the new administration," Decker said, according to court records.
Decker also raised the issue that West, who is licensed to practice law in another state, had not passed the North Carolina bar. State law does not require an attorney to be licensed in North Carolina to serve as a general counsel, though government lawyers are typically licensed by the state bar.
After learning that West was "non-exempt" and could not be fired without cause, Decker said she directed her staff to reclassify the position as "exempt" so that she could force West out. At the time of her dismissal, West was on medical leave tending to a sick family member, according to court records.
Decker signed off on a Sept. 18 settlement agreement that pays West $80,000 in exchange for the ex-employee dropping her lawsuit and filing a voluntary letter of resignation.
West's lawyer, Michael C. Byrne of Raleigh, declined to talk publicly about the legal issues raised by the case.
"The issue has been amicably resolved and the parties are looking forward to moving on," Byrne said.
Senior policy-making jobs in state government have long turned over with changes in the political winds. Since taking office in January, however, McCrory has moved to greatly expand the number of political hires.
The McCrory administration has reclassified more than 500 positions as being exempt from the State Personnel Act beyond those given that classification under his immediate predecessor, Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue. McCrory recently signed a new GOP-backed law giving him direct authority to hire and fire about 500 additional state government employees, bringing the total number of political hires to about 1,500.