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.