A monthslong saga between the Union County Quorum Court and the tax collector’s office continued this week, with many signs pointing to future legal action.
At Thursday’s Quorum Court meeting, issues stemming from an earlier decision to impose background checks on all county employees and officials resulted in two votes: a 6-4 vote not to issue back pay to Conor Gleason, executive administrator in the tax collector’s office, who had failed to turn in his background check form by the specified date and was removed from the payroll as a result, and an 8-2 vote to explore and take a legal action to force Tax Collector Paula Beard to remove Gleason from her office.
“What that will entail right now, I don’t know,” said Union County Judge Mike Loftin, noting that he has met with attorneys to see how to proceed. He also noted that the vote allows him to resolve the issue once the county is advised on how to proceed without an additional vote from the Quorum Court.
The issues began in September, when the Quorum Court approved Ordinance 1457 requiring all county employees and officials to submit to a criminal background check and sign written consent forms. After it became clear that at least one employee had failed to comply, the court approved a new resolution to withhold pay from those who do not consent to the check.
The resolution allows the county judge and county clerk to be “authorized and directed to withhold … salaries of employees who refuse to consent to the criminal background check” and “wages owed through the close of business on Oct. 19 shall be paid.”
Beard and Gleason had objected to the original ordinance on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. They also objected to Loftin receiving the background checks.
Gleason eventually filled out the required form and, at the end of November, it was submitted to Loftin, who has said a committee will review the checks and discuss the reports with elected officials in each office. But Gleason has not been paid.
The back pay issue
In November, Beard requested that the court agree to pay Gleason for 130 hours in back pay. Gleason said he has been in contact with the federal Department of Labor, which has advised him that he should be paid. Loftin said a representative of the Department of Labor who tried to settle the issue and told him that he should pay Gleason had contacted him. Loftin said he disagrees because of the county ordinance and resolution that were passed.
“If he wants to fight it, he’s going to have to file a lawsuit,” Loftin said of Gleason while noting that he isn’t concerned about that possibility because the attorney who would represent the county would be paid for through the county’s risk management insurance.
Gleason said the county is now breaking state and federal labor laws by refusing to pay him and while an attorney’s fees may be covered for the county, any possible damages awarded if Gleason were to file and win a lawsuit would be on the county.
“We don’t want to sue the county,” Gleason said. “We represent the county and I think anything that … could hurt the county is defeating the purpose of us representing the county. But there are things that just shouldn’t happen … We’re still evaluating the situation.”
In addition to speaking with the Department of Labor, Gleason said he has made an appointment to meet with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Gleason also said he questions why he is the only one having their pay withheld, as justices of the peace also had not turned in the required forms by Oct. 19. The justices of the peace said in November that they had only received the forms a few days prior to the Nov. 16 meeting.
The liability issue
After regular business had been concluded Thursday, Loftin said the court met in executive session with Beard. While in the executive session, Loftin said, prosecuting attorney John Thomas Shepherd received an email from the attorney for the county’s bonding company that provides liability insurance. The email, which was later viewed by a member of the News-Times staff, stated that Gleason would not be covered by the county’s liability insurance because of a prior embezzlement charge.
Loftin said that would mean that if anything happens in the tax collector’s office that involves missing money or anything of the sort, the county would not have any liability coverage.
“We are now in a situation where we have a liability in the courthouse and I can’t do anything about it because he doesn’t work for me,” Loftin said.
Loftin said the court soon returned to open session to further discuss the issue with Beard, who was asked what she would do considering the information from the bonding company.
“She said ‘I will not fire him,’” Loftin said. “She refused to fire him knowing that he will not be covered under the bond.”
But Gleason questioned what that determination had been based on, as his record is clean.
Gleason has previously said that more than seven years ago, he was charged with offenses, which he said were later dropped and have been expunged from his record.
“I do not have a criminal record,” Gleason said Thursday. “I have no convictions on my record.”
Loftin confirmed that the decision was not based on the background check, but on information gathered from the Internet about Gleason’s past offenses. Loftin said the county was required to disclose that because they knew about it and could not hide it from the insurance company.
“His background check came back clean because his record had been expunged,” Loftin said. “We had to disclose that to the bonding company because if we knew it and did not tell them, then if we had a problem they would not pay anyway.”
Gleason said the information provided to the company was “libel and defamatory articles that have been passed around the courthouse.”
Beard said she would continue to stand by her employee, as she would do for anyone in her office.
Loftin said he isn’t sure exactly how the situation will be resolved, but the county will pursue all available options to remove the liability from the courthouse.
“Whether that legal action is going to be a court order that requires (Beard) to do her job as tax collector and remove him from that office, I don’t know,” Loftin said. “I suspect that’s the way we’ll go.”
Loftin said the county does have to hire a private attorney to deal with the issue, which will have a cost to taxpayers.
Madeleine Leroux can be reached at 870-862-6611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.