BOISE -- An attorney for the former Director of the Department of Administration of Ada County says "backroom politics" and retaliation resulted in him losing his job in violation of Idaho's Whistleblower Act.
Rich Wright is suing Ada County for more than $1.5 million, arguing Commissioners Jim Tibbs and Dave Case eliminated his position after he launched a misconduct investigation into another employee - a close friend of the commissioners, his lawyer says.
Ada County has denied the allegations, responding that commissioners voted to get rid of an unneeded position as part of routine department restructuring.
The wrongful termination trial began Wednesday, and is continuing this week.
In his opening statement, attorney Eric Rossman told jurors Wright's termination came as a shock after years of positive reviews and praise from others in his department.
"This man was an excellent public employee, exactly the kind of employee that you or I as taxpayers would want in that position," he said.
Wright, a former journalist, spent five years as a public information director for the county before being promoted to director of the department of administration, a role he held for three years. It was a good job, Rossman said: a $93,000 yearly salary, good benefits, and a PERSI retirement plan.
"He was on top of the world until Jan. 15, 2013, when that job was taken from him," the attorney said.
Rossman said Wright was targeted after investigating a one-time manager in the department of administration accused by her employees of "oppressive, harassing behavior."
The first investigation in 2009 resulted in the former manager receiving a written "improvement letter," according to Rossman. But after a second investigation in 2010, initiated after she was again accused of creating a hostile work environment, commissioners gave her a choice: Resign or be fired.
She took the first option.
Rossman said the retaliation against Wright did not occur until 2013, when two new commissioners were sworn into the three-person board.
Case was appointed as an interim in May 2012 after a commissioner stepped down due to health issues. He went on to win a seat in November, ousting Sharon Ullman. Tibbs also won a spot on the board in the same election.
Rossman said both men were friends with the woman, who had worked for both their campaigns. The lawyer said at one point before the general election, Case showed up in Wright's office angrily demanding to know who had ordered the investigation.
"I did," Wright responded.
"Dave Case said 'thank you' and stormed out of the office, closed the door," Rossman said.
Rossman said Wright made several requests to meet with the new commissioners after they were elected, but was told by both Tibbs and Case that the meeting would have to wait until after they were sworn in on Jan. 14, 2013.
"Little did Rich know, the die had been cast and they were deciding to terminate his employment the day after the new administration was in place," the attorney said.
The same day as the swearing-in, Tibbs and Case announced the hiring of Larry Maneely to the newly-created position of Chief of Staff of the Department of Administration - a decision that had not been run by the third board member, Rick Yzaguirre, or the human resources department, Rossman said.
Wright was told the next day his position had been terminated, effective immediately. He was not allowed to say goodbye to his coworkers or go back to his desk to get his belongings, Rossman said.
The lawyer argued the position was the same as Wright's job as director of the Department of Administration in all but name, and charged that Tibbs and Case had created the job title as a way to get rid of Wright without firing him outright.
In addition, he said, the commissioners did not post the required ads for the $85,000-salary job, which would have allowed other taxpayers or Wright himself to apply for consideration.
Rossman described Wright as "broken" after losing his job. He lost his home, struggled to pay bills and sank into depression, the lawyer said. Wright is seeking damages for his emotional distress in addition to the compensation for his lost wages.
"He intended to retire from this job," Rossman said. "It was everything to him."
But Bruce Castleton, the defense attorney for Ada County, said Wright's theory about why his position was eliminated would not be backed up by the evidence in the case.
The decision to do away with the role was based on the commissioners' desire for increased efficiency in the county government and a more robust effort to be involved with the community, he said.
"Efficiency in government would eliminate a position that wasn't necessary, which essentially existed as a middleman go-between between the commissioners and the directors of five separate departments for Ada County government," he said of Wright's position.
The change, which saw department heads dealing with commissioners directly instead of going through Wright, has improved communication and accountability in the years since, Castleton said.
He rejected Wright's account of being confronted by Case over the investigation, saying that Case was speaking to the plaintiff about an entirely different employee. In addition, Case and Tibbs had only a "minimal" relationship with her, rather than being close friends, he said. Neither knew her before she began working on their 2012 campaigns.
Castleton also defended Maneely's hiring without the job being posted as "not an uncommon practice:" Elected officials often hire direct reports without an expansive candidate search, he said, and Wright's own position was not advertised before he was promoted into it.
Idaho is an at-will employment state, meaning workers can be fired at any time, with no warning or cause from their employers. But the Idaho Protection of Public Employees Act, also known as the Whistleblower Act, mandates that an employee can not be fired or otherwise penalized for participating in an investigation.
Castleton said that's not what happened.
"At the end of the case, this will be a conspiracy theory that has nothing more than speculation to support it," he said.
Jurors will ultimately be asked to decide whether Wright's termination was legal. The trial is set to continue Tuesday.
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