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Five Top Clay County Employees Resign, Alleging Harassment By The Presiding Commissioner

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Julie Denesha
Laurie Portwood, assistant county administrator, asks a question during a Clay County Commission budget meeting Thursday, December 19, 2019.

The resignations came shortly before a countywide vote Tuesday to adopt a new county constitution, fueled by voters’ frustration with the current county government. The three-member commission is being audited by the state over concerns about transparency and spending.

Clay County government will pay out more than $350,000 to five top county employees in settlement agreements approved Monday.

The resignations include assistant county administrators Nicole Brown, Laurie Portwood and Brad Garrett. It marks a significant shakeup in county government — these are the top three appointed posts.

Portwood oversees the county’s finances. She was charged with record tampering in 2017 but kept her job and completed 40 hours of community service in exchange for the attorney general deferring prosecution, according to the Kansas City Star. Brown and Garrett faced outrage from county leaders when KCUR revealed the commission quietly gave the two free housing on top of their more than $100,000 salary.

Brown has also been a central figure in the state audit. A Missouri judge ruled in late October that Brown had to comply with audit subpoenas issued almost a year ago.

In separation agreements, Brown and Portwood alleged Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte sexually harassed them. Nolte denied the allegations and said the two administrators didn’t provide proof. Nolte also said the county shouldn’t have paid out such a large sum without documentation and “independent reports.”

“I think this kind of practice needs to end where we are making huge payouts,” Nolte said. He opposed the settlements and didn’t sign the documents.

Brown alleges Nolte gave “private personnel information to a third party who then used that information to stalk” Brown. Portwood alleges Nolte physically intimidated her by “forcing papers into her chest after a public meeting.”

Two other employees — Nikki Thorn and Melissa Mohler — don’t name a specific commissioner. Thorn alleges gender discrimination and “ethical misconduct.”

UMKC law professor Mikah Thompson said the allegations are troubling. Overall, the separation agreements are “fairly standard,” according to Thompson. She teaches employment law and has about 15 years of experience as an employment attorney.

“The drafters of this agreement may have felt that they needed to lay out those allegations in detail so that the employee would understand what they were waving, in terms of their claims,” Thompson said.

Nolte said the allegations are not true and said he wasn’t aware of any complaint filed with county HR or the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, which investigates employment discrimination. A spokeswoman for the commission said because of state laws she “cannot confirm or deny whether or not a complaint has been filed.”

Nolte also took issue with the process of approving the settlements. According to Nolte, the vote to approve the agreements occurred during a closed commission session with “less than an hour” of discussion.

“With a lack of full discussion, with the lack of any evidence, the lack of any outside independent reports, it feels like this is just … golden parachutes being passed out.”

Neither Commissioner Luann Ridgeway nor Commissioner Gene Owen responded to KCUR’s request for comment.

“Due to the confidential nature of employment matters, the County has no other comment at this time,” an unsigned statement from the county released Tuesday said.

The settlement agreements say the five employees should “without comment, direct all Media Inquiries to the County Counselor.”

Two lawyers who typically represent the county, however, declined to comment. County spokeswoman Nikki Thorn did not respond to respond to a request for comment, including a question asking who is handling media inquires. Thorn was among the five employees who resigned. She will leave her post in December.

As part of the settlement agreement with Brown, the three commissioners have to participate in two hours of in-person training on topics like diversity and inclusion, unconscious bias and microaggressions.

Sheriff’s office complaint

In addition to the complaints against the presiding commissioner, Brad Garrett alleges “pervasive harassment and intimidation by the Clay County Sheriff’s Department.” Because of Garrett’s claims, which also include complaints of harassment by Nolte, the county is paying Garrett three months of severance pay and $50,000.

Clay County Sheriff Paul Vescovo said Garrett never filed an official complaint with the sheriff’s office.

“He's claiming that one of my deputies was harassing him,” Vescovo said. “...If that's going on, actually, it's very serious and we investigate it. He never did [file a complaint]. He just said it happened. And I guess they paid him $50,000.”

Vescovo sent KCUR a May 2019 email chain with Garrett in which he does informally raise concerns about harassment. Garrett said he “noticed patrols of my apartment” after the 2019 commission budget was approved.

“That night at around 10:00 the spot light came through the window waking me up, I pulled the blinds back to the point the officer could plainly see me. The spot light stayed on me for several more seconds then moved to the next window where again I pulled the blinds back to be seen,” Garrett wrote in a May 14 email.

In the email, Garrett said the officer “did not identify himself” and told him “he did not know someone was living there.” The county leases an apartment at the Mt. Gilead historical complex to Garrett.

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Aviva Okeson-Haberman
The county leases an apartment at the Mt. Gilead historical complex to Brad Garrett, one of three assistant county administrators.

An employee with the sheriff’s department wrote back on May 16 and said it would be helpful to have a list of employees living in county properties.

“There is very distinct possibility some of the patrol personnel do not know which county owned buildings or sites have a person living on-site,” Capt. John Teale said. “If you would have contacted me when the incident(s) occurred I could have followed up on it to determine if it was anything other than a mistake on the deputy’s part or something more nefarious.”

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