By Michael Howell
Deputy County Attorney Geoffrey Mahar’s human rights complaints against County Attorney William “Bill” Fulbright and Ravalli County were released to the public by the Human Rights Bureau last Thursday, December 15. Several entities sought the release of the complaints but were refused based upon an objection by Mahar that it would violate his right to privacy. The Bitterroot Star, RC Watchdog and the Bitterroot Human Rights Alliance appealed that decision to the Department of Labor and Industry Hearings Bureau and won release of the documents.
Existence of the complaints came to light only after Mahar had reached a settlement agreement with Fulbright and the County in which he agreed to withdraw the complaints in exchange for a complex employment package variously estimated at $180,000 to $250,000 in value. The County has never released any estimate of the total cost of the settlement package.
In the complaints, filed with the Human Rights Bureau on March 28, 2011, Mahar accuses Fulbright of discriminating against him on the basis of his political beliefs, adding in an amended complaint charges of age discrimination as well.
Mahar campaigned for former County Attorney George Corn in the last election who lost his position to Fulbright. Mahar states in his complaint that shortly after the election he received a personal letter from Fulbright’s wife, delivered to him at work and read by office staff, informing him that his “words and behavior towards Bill have been very hurtful and shameful.” He also mentions a deputy in the Sheriff’s Office who supported Fulbright in the campaign and began circulating an e-mail stating that Mahar should resign. All this, according to Mahar, caused him concern that Fulbright was upset about his political activities. He claims to have approached Fulbright and “informed him sincerely” that it was his intention to serve Fulbright as the County Attorney “loyally and industriously, just as I have served George.”
Nonetheless, according to Mahar, he was approached by Fulbright and Human Resource Director Robert Jenni on December 31 and again on January 3, asking him to submit a description of his job duties as Chief Deputy Attorney, which he did on January 4. That same day, he claims, Fulbright informed him that his position was being eliminated and he was being demoted and would be receiving a reduced salary. The decrease, which was stated to be retroactive to January 3, was originally calculated by Jenni to be a $6,340 reduction, but this was recalculated by Fulbright to be $9,006. Mahar claims that although he was told this, his paycheck for January 15 did not reflect any changes. He states that he was subsequently told by Jenni that the next paycheck would reflect the new pay reduction, but that it would not be retroactive. As of the time of filing his complaint, Mahar states the pay reduction had still not been implemented.
What did happen, according to Mahar, is that he was no longer assigned to any new criminal prosecution cases that came through the office. Then, on March 18, he was informed by Fulbright that he was being removed from all criminal prosecution duties and reassigned to handle involuntary mental commitments and civil litigation. He was told the new position would then be reevaluated in six to eight months.
“He said I needed a break, but then told me he didn’t want me to think he was ‘being benevolent’,” wrote Mahar. Mahar claims that he was then told to cease all work on existing criminal prosecutions and those duties were turned over to a new hire. He claims no business reasons were given for the change nor was he given any new job description.
“At this point it was clear that Bill was replacing me, age 58, with twenty years prosecutorial experience, with two attorneys both thirty years younger. One of these attorneys had little or no felony experience in our office; the other had no felony experience and no experience in our office whatsoever,” wrote Mahar.
Mahar sums it up saying, “My demotion, removal of all my work duties and responsibilities, the stated reduction in pay, the dramatic changes in my job duties with no explanation, as well as Bill’s references to “reevaluation” and potential elimination of my position, have caused me and my family a great deal of worry and financial uncertainty. We have experienced sleepless nights and are extremely fearful that the disparate treatment I have received and appear destined to receive from the County Attorney will ultimately result in the loss of my job and income.”
Mahar claims that word began circulating among courthouse employees that Fulbright was trying to get rid of him or force him to resign and that the whole thing had become very embarrassing to him and his wife. He claims that he was never advised of any problems or deficiencies in his performance prior to these actions.
Mahar claims that although he has and is still willing to serve the County Attorney “loyally,” he does not believe it is legal for Fulbright “to stop assigning duties to me to justify eliminating my position and reducing my pay, all the while reassigning those same duties to other deputies with less experience and hiring new attorneys. Nor does it seem lawful to move me into a completely different position, only to ‘reevaluate’ or potentially eliminate that position after hiring a new attorney in five months. There is no doubt in my mind that the disparate treatment I am receiving from Bill is because of my political activities during the last election and my age.”
Mahar includes the County Commissioners in his complaint for having “failed to require an elected official to supervise his staff in a manner that complied with the County’s personnel policies and procedures adopted by the governing body to prohibit illegal discrimination.”
The settlement agreement between Mahar and Fulbright and the County is currently in effect. But it has been challenged in court. The Bitterroot Star, RC Watchdog and the Bitterroot Human Rights Alliance have asked the District Court to void the settlement agreement on the grounds that the public notice of the meeting was legally insufficient. That case is currently being briefed.