Allegations of unethical and possibly illegal conduct have surrounded the leadership of Durham's Department of Social Services in recent weeks. So on Monday, County Commissioner Joe Bowser asked the county to investigate recent changes at DSS, including the firing and hiring of a new director.
Bowser himself serves on the DSS board and has been under scrutiny since July 27, when he and two other members of the board voted to fire the department's former director, Gerri Robinson. In the first meeting for new board member Gail Perry. Just minutes after she also voted to fire Robinson, she resigned from the board and was appointed the new interim director for DSS, where she had worked for 37 years. She took over the role Aug. 8.
"I admit to anybody that what we did looked suspicious, but no one gave us an opportunity to explain before they started talking," Bowser said at Monday's commissioners' meeting. He assured his colleagues that once an investigation was complete, his actions, as well as those of Perry and DSS board Chairman Stan Holt, would be deemed "squeaky clean."
Bowser and other commissioners listed more than 10 issues that merit investigation, starting with the commissioners' decision to appoint Perry to the DSS board in June.
They agreed an independent investigator needs to clarify several points:
Bowser has denied all the allegations against him. He has told the Indy, and has repeated publicly, that the DSS board tried to recruit two other former DSS supervisors to take the interim director's role prior to choosing Perry. Those individuals, Dan Hudgins and Sharon Hirsch, have not responded to interview requests from the Indy.
Bowser also says no illegal meeting was held, as was suggested in a recent report from the conservative Raleigh-based Civitas Institute. The article's writer, Andrew Henson, has circulated a taped phone interview with Bowser, which he says indicates that Bowser, Perry and Holt may have held an illegal meeting. Henson sent the audio clip to Durham's county attorney and county manager, and has also lodged a complaint with the N.C. State Ethics Commission, he said last week.
Perry Newson, director of the State Ethics Commission, said that legally he can't acknowledge whether he has received a complaint. But even if Henson made one, the commission doesn't investigate actions by local officials because they are not covered under state ethics laws.
On Tuesday, Holt acknowledged that he, Bowser and Perry met for coffee on Sunday, July 10, before Perry was sworn in a week later. The three shared concerns about the department and made no agreements about whom to appoint as interim director, he said. Holt walked away from the meeting with the assignment of asking two people whether they would consider serving as interim director, he said. Perry was not discussed as a potential candidate in that meeting, Holt said.
The four county commissioners were quick to agree to launch an investigation—but not before recent personal attacks resurfaced.
Bowser repeatedly said local newspapers were not reporting the facts of the issue.
"It's obvious that they want to mud myself, and keep it looking as bad as it can against me," said Bowser, who is one of four candidates for mayor running in a primary on Oct. 11.
Page responded to Bowser's criticisms of the media.
"I think you should commend the papers, because, actually, I read in the paper where they printed for you that you called me a flat-faced liar," Page said. His comments referred to an article in The News & Observer in which Page said he heard Bowser tried using his connections at DSS to get jobs for friends. In an interview with the Indy, Bowser said he had once suggested the name of a consultant to Robinson and never mentioned it again. Page said he had no proof that Bowser had tried to influence Robinson, but that as a public official, he felt he had the responsibility to investigate.
"I have had a number of people come to me and say things about you, but I have never gone to the press and reported it," Bowser responded to Page. "Innuendo, rumors and stuff and people have come to me with. And the press, if they ask me, I do not say anything."
Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, who sits between Page and Bowser at the commissioners' dais, interjected with a few short words.
"This has created a rift on our board and a cloud over our government," she said. "This investigation needs to be done quickly. I would hope that the manager, by the end of September, can bring forward a plan on who's going to investigate, and a time frame of having it done no later than by the end of October."
Just who would conduct the investigation is uncertain. The commissioners suggested County Manager Mike Ruffin speak with the state attorney general's office and seek advice from the UNC School of Government.
A professor at the school might do such an analysis, said UNC professor Frayda Bluestein, but if the matter involves possible criminal activity, "there are private law firms that might be willing to investigate and give a report."
While observers have questioned Perry's ethics, an investigation would also likely delve into whether she broke the law. "There are rules about having conflicts of interest in voting," Bluestein said. "I suppose someone could be considered to have a financial interest in terms of future employment."
According to Bowser, Robinson was an embattled director who cut off community partnerships that DSS had long worked to build, belittled employees, reassigned workers to jobs for which they were not qualified and drove valued, experienced DSS staff to quit. Bowser's claims are supported by a letter from Hirsch, a former DSS supervisor, who wrote that she was forced to quit the organization because of Robinson's leadership. The letter also named other staff who had left under similar circumstances.
Former DSS board member Newman Aguiar was on the board when it hired Robinson in 2009. Soon after she took the post, problems began to arise, he said. Within six months of her hiring, Aguiar says he considered firing her. "Should [Robinson's termination] have been a surprise to anybody? Probably not. Clearly, the board members knew there were issues," he said. "The relevant question for each board member is, Did those concerns rise to the level to terminate her? To me they did. For others, I don't know when they reached that point."
Like Bowser, Aguiar says he received complaints from DSS staff that morale was extremely low. But that depended on whom you asked, Page said Monday. In earlier interviews with the Indy, Page said he had received complaints about Robinson's leadership, but he had also received compliments.
"I just think there was a morale issue there for some people, and there was an issue for them with her demeanor," Page said last week. "And there were a lot of people who felt they were being held accountable for their work and appreciated her."
Page has said repeatedly that Robinson's evaluations from members of the DSS board had always been high, and he wanted a reason why someone with strong reviews would be terminated.
"What justifies that? That's what I'm asking," Page said.
But the board didn't have to give a reason—Robinson was just short of a two-year milestone with the county, only after which the board would have to show cause to fire her. Robinson has not responded to requests for an interview from the Indy.
Bowser has also produced several emails from current and former employees of DSS thanking him for Robinson's ouster. One current supervisor in the department wrote that Robinson created an "environment of fear and retaliation."
"I do believe that the change made will be positive not only for the staff or the community; but for the staff, the agency and the community as a whole," Tammie Tate wrote. "I believe that Ms. Gail Perry can and will help bring Durham County DSS back to the high standing agency that it has been over the years."
After discussing the potential investigation, Durham commissioners were scheduled to vote on a one-year contract that would give Perry a prorated $129,000 salary and some benefits, but the board adjourned without taking action. It was unclear when the commissioners would reconvene on the matter.