Dirty Deals for Durham Gov’t Jobs?

There is a dark cloud of controversy hanging over Durham County following a recent decision to fire a high performing Department of Social Services (DSS) Director – Gerri Robinson – and replace her with a member of the DSS Board who voted to fire her.

Durham County DSS is entrusted to handle $390 million of county, state, and federal taxpayer dollars to administer such programs as Medicaid, food stamps, child protective services and child care subsidies.

At the heart of the controversy lie Robinson’s replacement, Gail Perry, and Durham County Commissioner Joe Bowser.

Perry was appointed in June to the Durham Social Services Board (the body that hires and fires DSS Directors) just weeks prior to Robinson’s firing. In her first meeting on the board, Perry cast the deciding vote to fire Robinson, and coincidentally, was voted to replace Robinson as the new Director of Social Services.

Several Durham County officials have alleged that Commissioner Bowser struck a deal with Perry to knock out Robinson and take her job. Such a quid pro quo arrangement is a serious charge and could violate state ethics laws, in addition to raising significant conflict of interest issues.

According to job evaluations performed on Robinson throughout her nearly two-year tenure, she performed well, not failing a single objective criterion on the evaluation rubric. Furthermore her performance reviews described at length Robinson’s “outstanding accomplishments.”

“They’re all very high,” County Commission Chairman Michael Page told Civitas reporters in reference to Robinson’s job evaluations.

Bowser’s motive for allegedly engineering Robinson’s firing dates back several months. Bowser and Robinson were rumored to have been at loggerheads after several employee incidents, including Robinson’s refusal to hire one of Bowser’s friends.  “What I’ve been told is he asked Gerri to hire people, his friends, which is totally unethical as a county commissioner. She wouldn’t do it,”  Chairman  Page told a Civitas reporter. “There are reported incidents of Bowser asking for his friends to be hired in the county and non-profit arena,” Page continued.

Chairman of the Social Services Board Stan Holt admits he had suspicions that a pre-arranged deal could have been in the works. “There could’ve been some planning on Mr. Bowser’s part, I don’t know. I wasn’t for sure that it was happening, but I suspected it could,” Holt told Civitas.

While Holt was suspicious, other Durham County officials were more convinced in their assessment of the situation. Chairman Page denounced the process, which he believes was clearly pre-arranged by Commissioner Bowser.

“They brought her on as a board member and obviously the deal had already been sealed,” Page told Civitas reporters during a phone conversation. Page described the board’s decision as “underhanded” and “unethical.” His statement underscores a swelling of suspicion from people closely involved with Durham DSS.

In a surprising and revealing statement, Commissioner Bowser admitted that prior to the pivotal board meeting that ended up in Robinson’s termination and Perry’s appointment, he and DSS Board Chair Stan Holt had discussions with Perry and decided she was to be selected as director. By negotiating an agreement to make Perry the DSS Director, Social Services board business was possibly conducted by a quorum of three members of the four-member board, without any public awareness or oversight—potentially breaking the state’s Open Meetings Laws.

“This was not a decision made in one board meeting,” Bowser said to a Civitas reporter in a recorded phone conversation. “I spoke with her [Perry] before the board meeting and also Stan [Holt] spoke with her before the board meeting. This was a decision we made after we could not get the other two people to come back that we wanted.” Bowser explained that he had tried to pursue other candidates for the DSS Director position, namely Sharon Hirsch, a former DSS Assistant Director, and Dan Hudgins, former DSS Director, but claims neither of them were interested.

Furthermore, if Perry was aware before the meeting that she would even be considered a candidate for the DSS Director’s position, she had a conflict of interest in voting to terminate Robinson, as she had a personal stake in the matter. This issue could run afoul of state law and could possibly null and void the recent board decision. According to state law, contracts made under a violation of conflict of interest laws are illegitimate.

Perry is no stranger to Durham DSS, having worked there as an Assistant Director until retiring in late 2002. Rumors have circulated that in 2002 she was forced to resign amid accusations she used around $3,000 in county money to buy Chik-Fil-A coupons. These rumors are denied by former DSS Director and Perry’s former boss, Dan Hudgins.

“That’s definitely not true,” Hudgins told Civitas. “Chik-Fil-A gave her coupons, that she gave to staff… There’s no money involved, no cash value.” While denouncing rumors that she was forced to resign, Hudgins complimented Perry’s managerial skill and said she left on good terms.

“I can unequivocally deny that she left under anything other than good standing,” Hudgins added.

Commissioner Bowser had a different take on the story, however. Bowser reported that the amount of county money Perry used was around $65 and it was used to reward well-performing employees, a move Bowser agreed with. “I support that“, Bowser said.

Nevertheless, former DSS employees who worked with Perry throughout that time contend the story was true and that Perry was forced to pay back $3,000 to the county and resign after her mishandling of county money. While the county finance department destroys records after a five-year period of time so no copy of the supposed check exists, there was a $3,000 transaction to the county government on November 12, 2002, according to the Durham County Finance Department. This transaction took place around the time of Perry’s retirement. Repeated calls to Gail Perry for comment were not returned. The County HR Department did not return Civitas’ calls inquiring about Perry’s resignation by the time of this posting.

Perry began her current position as Director of Durham DSS on August 8th. Additionally, Perry asked to be compensated at a pay grade of $10,000 more than Robinson, totaling $139,000 per year salary, according to County Commissioner Page.

It remains to be seen what will come of the Durham DSS scandal and whether or not there will be an answer to the dubious doings of some of the city’s politicians. Blogs and letters to the editor, and various other media publications have whispered impropriety and point fingers at Commissioner Bowser. Even Commissioner Chairman Page has openly alleged that something foul has taken place in the hiring of the new DSS Director.

The political turf wars and backroom dealings suggested by the firing of a highly-rated director like Gerri Robinson reveals the at times corrupt underbelly of well-intended government programs. Everyone agrees on the importance of helping children and others in need, but few are willing to scrutinize the flaws in how these politicized programs are administered. We may need to reconsider whether politicizing care for needy children is the most efficient and compassionate means of providing help, or if there is a better way.

This article was posted in Corruption & Ethics by Andrew Henson on August 23, 2011 at 2:13 PM.

© 2011 The Civitas Institute. Visit us on the web at www.nccivitas.org.
This article can be found at http://www.nccivitas.org/2011/dirty-deals-for-durham-govt-jobs/

Comments on this article

  • 1

    Tom Glendinning
    Tom Glendinning Aug 24, 2011 at 11:12

    Another scandal swept neatly under the rug.
    The prevalent practice or persuasive propaganda is rife in local governments. Bureaucrats who should be prosecuted, or at least reprimanded, are given a clean bill of health or a retirment party with recognition. What is so sacred about county or city bureaucrats that they should be protected? Is there a secret power group of them running the whole government of the state? Are they classified as sacred cows? Do they elect the commissioners or board members?
    I have seen retirement ceremonies lauding the service of employees who should have been strung up, drawn and quartered for their actions in government service.
    The tacit policy seems to be to protect the cadre of bureacracy at all expense. The SS of local government needs scrutiny in 640 locations (members of NCACC & NCLOM) instead of the protection granted by some archaic and privileged value system. The self-perpetuation of this cow is a detriment to the herd of devoted honest government workers. When the production of the farm is threatened, the herd is culled.

  • 2

    Verne Strickland
    Verne Strickland Aug 24, 2011 at 11:16

    Civitas Friends: For me, your reports are becoming the most reliable and broad-ranging news and commentary source on the Internet — certainly where the focus is on state and local issues. What you guys are doing is very impressive. I am a conservative Christian Republican blogger, and am always grazing in your pasture for good stuff. Never disappointed. God bless you, Verne Strickland. USA DOT COM http://usadotcom.blogspot.com/

    Thanks, Andrew Henson!

  • 3

    Jerry Alexander
    Jerry Alexander Aug 25, 2011 at 1:51

    So what? Don`t expect any one to help her.Americans will go about their daily business like nothing happened…unless it happens to them…you can take that fact to the bank!

  • 4

    Lois Murphy
    Lois Murphy Aug 26, 2011 at 0:24

    It is truly amazing how media outlets ignore the ongoing corruption at the North Carolina School of Science & Mathematics (NCSSM) where in the recent years only blacks have been fired. Now that is something to inform your readers about because this is a fact not an opinion.

    It is beyond my understanding why Commissioner Page did not inform the author of this post that Ms. Robinson forced three white female managers out of their positions during her tenure at DSS. Commissioner Page should have remained neutral in this matter and not allowed his personal feelings against Commissioner Bowser to cause him to make statements of opinions not facts, which certainly is unbecoming of a minister. Furthermore, it is unfortunate Commissioner Page has reduced himself to a level of spreading and endorsing rumors, particularly since he claims he is a Christian. He of all people should know the power of “tongue” and how the word of God tells us to chasten it. In addition, he should also know that God wants us to spread brotherly love not rumors and hate.

    It is my understanding Commissioners Heron and Reckhow along with County Manager Mike Ruffin encouraged the dismissal of Ms. Robinson because she was not a good fit for the county.

    Considering the fact that Ms. Robinson’s friends hired her, it is understandable that constructive criticism would have no place in her evaluations. Furthermore, I encourage the author of this blog to contact her former employers in Baltimore, MD and Nashville, TN, to ascertain why she is no longer employed with either city.

    I challenge the author of this blog to investigate the ongoing corruption at NCSSM and report his findings based upon facts as he should have done in this matter.

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