Spending thousands to recoup hundreds

Published 9:27 pm Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Beaufort County owes a Winston-Salem-based law firm $5,370.67 for services provided to the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office as it tried to collect $350, or a part of the amount, from one of its former deputies.
In a related matter, Beaufort County paid $245.88 to the office of the Beaufort County Clerk of Superior Court on Friday to satisfy a judgment against the deputy and to have the deputy withdraw his appeal of that small claims-court judgment to Beaufort County District Court. Check No. 162366’s invoice description indicates it was issued to pay a judgment.
The county’s decision to pay the $245.88, which includes the judgment and court costs, stops the clock on the mounting legal costs associated with the court case that resulted in the judgment.
Last year, Alan Jordan, in his capacity as sheriff, filed a complaint alleging breach of contract and unjust enrichment against former Deputy Tony Keech.
While serving as a deputy, Keech voluntarily signed up to participate in a program in which the sheriff’s office agreed to purchase a $350 gym membership for each participating officer, according to the complaint.
In return, each officer was required to spend 240 minutes each month at the gym training to be able to satisfy the fitness requirements of his or her employment with the sheriff’s office.
“Officers who failed to meet the 240 minute per month requirement were required to repay the $350.00 value of their gym membership,” reads the complaint.
The complaint states that Keech was terminated from the sheriff’s office for cause Jan. 13, 2010. That meant he was unable to go to the gym and meet the sheriff’s office’s fitness requirements because he was no longer employed by the sheriff’s office, the complaint states.
Keech failed to repay the $350, according to the complaint.
The small-claims court entered a judgment for the sheriff’s office in the amount of $172.50. Keech appealed the lower court’s judgment.
In Beaufort County District Court on Monday, Judge Christopher McLendon allowed Keech to dismiss his appeal.
Seeking reimbursement
Chief Deputy Harry Meredith, spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said the sheriff’s office sought reimbursement from Keech as a matter of policy and that Keech was treated no differently than other deputies in similar situations. After Keech declined to reimburse the sheriff’s office after several requests to do so, the sheriff’s office decided to file a complaint in small-claims court.
After Keech hired an attorney, Meredith said, the sheriff’s office decided it needed legal counsel to look after its interests in the matter. The Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice law firm was chosen because it has performed — and continues to perform — various legal work for the county, Meredith said.
“I was a bit surprised,” Meredith said about Keech’s decision to make the matter a legal battle, adding that other deputies who failed to meet the requirements of the gym-membership agreement reimbursed the sheriff’s office. Meredith said he personally monitors deputies’ compliance with the agreement.
“At every point, we tried to negotiate it. He did not negotiate with us,” Meredith said Wednesday.
With the case being protracted in the court system, the county’s legal fees continued to mount.
“Didn’t want that to happen. Disappointed it happened,” Meredith said when asked about the law firm’s charges related to the Keech matter reaching $5,300.
Meredith said a suggestion he made several years ago would have prevented a situation like the Keech case from developing, but that suggestion was rebuffed.
“We wanted this money (reimbursement) taken out of the final paycheck,” Meredith said.
In the wake of the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners’ Feb. 7 meeting, that suggestion is now policy, Meredith said.
Other deputies — eight current deputies and 20 former deputies — have reimbursed different amounts to the sheriff’s office for gym memberships for not meeting the requirements imposed by the sheriff’s office, according to records provided by the county.
Acting, reacting
In a Feb. 18 memorandum to Jim Chrisman, the county’s assistant county manager and finance officer, County Manager Paul Spruill wrote the following:
“I anticipate that during the day today I will need to deliver a check in the amount of $245.88 made payable to the Beaufort County Clerk of Court to Billy Mayo, County Attorney.
“Should I request it, Mr. Mayo will need the check to reflect the following description: ‘Judgment: 10 CVD 1182’.
“Mr. Mayo intends to satisfy an outstanding judgment against an individual in exchange for the individual and his attorney taking necessary steps to withdraw an appeal of this judgment to district court.
“I anticipate that you will receive a phone call from me prior to 12:00 noon requesting that the check be delivered to Mr. Mayo.”
The reference to 10 CVD 1182 apparently refers to the file number of the Jordan-Keech case appealed to District Court, but that case number is 10 CVD 1162. The Washington Daily News received copies of the memorandum, the check and a statement of services rendered by the law firm, Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, on Tuesday afternoon. The law firm provides other services to the county.
A receipt from the clerk’s office indicates the $245.88 was applied to the judgment in case number 10 CVD 1162.
Based on action taken by the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners at its Feb. 7 meeting, Spruill wrote Keech’s attorney, Peggy T. Smith, informing her the county was willing to settle the case by paying the judgment and court costs in exchange for Keech withdrawing his appeal.
At the board’s Feb. 7 meeting, Commissioner Hood Richardson offered a motion that any future lawsuits filed by third-party specialist attorney(s) hired by county staff or agencies must have prior approval of the commissioners. That motion was agreed to unanimously.
Richardson offered another motion that called for the county manager and finance officer to be directed not to pay any outstanding invoices from attorneys not previously approved by the commissioners. That motion failed. Richardson and Commissioner Stan Deatherage voted for the motion. Commissioners Jerry Langley, Robert Cayton, Ed Booth, Jay McRoy and Al Klemm voted against it.
Spruill, in an interview Tuesday, said the commissioners’ actions will help prevent similar incidents from occurring. Until the commissioners acted Feb. 7, there was no written county policy dealing with the authority of any county employee or county agency to enter into a lawsuit against a private individual on behalf of the county, Spruill said.
Spruill said he considers the commissioners’ actions on Feb. 7 as “reasonable direction to end the litigation.”
Asked to cite a policy, state law or any other regulation that authorizes a county manager to use county funds to pay a judgment and court costs against a private person, Spruill provided an answer that Mayo provided to the Beaufort Observer.
“A private third party initiated an appeal resulting in continuing litigation expense for the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office and the County Government,” reads the response. “The County Attorney and County Manager generally have discretion in accordance with the wishes of the County Commissioners that such litigation and its associated expenses be minimized by taking reasonable steps to terminate the ongoing litigation. Any future expenditure of public funds, should it occur, related to an existing judgment against a private third party would only take place in the form of consideration for the withdrawal of the appeal originally filed by the third party resulting in the ongoing litigation.”

About Mike Voss

Mike Voss is the contributing editor at the Washington Daily News. He has a daughter and four grandchildren. Except for nearly six years he worked at the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., in the early to mid-1990s, he has been at the Daily News since April 1986.
Journalism awards:
• Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, 1990.
• Society of Professional Journalists: Sigma Delta Chi Award, Bronze Medallion.
• Associated Press Managing Editors’ Public Service Award.
• Investigative Reporters & Editors’ Award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Public Service Award, 1989.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Investigative Reporting, 1990.
All those were for the articles he and Betty Gray wrote about the city’s contaminated water system in 1989-1990.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Investigative Reporting, 1991.
• North Carolina Press Association, Third Place, General News Reporting, 2005.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Lighter Columns, 2006.
Recently learned he will receive another award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Lighter Columns, 2010.
4. Lectured at or served on seminar panels at journalism schools at UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Maryland, Columbia University, Mary Washington University and Francis Marion University.

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