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12/04/2019

White: County Judge Threatens to Fire Finance Director if Son Not Hired

 

Mississippi County Quorum Court Justice of the Peace Michael White alleges Mississippi County Judge John Alan Nelson threatened to fire finance director Kelli Jones if White didn't assist in getting the judge's son, John David Nelson, on the county payroll.

On Tuesday, White told the NEA Town Courier that during a meeting with Judge Nelson at White's place of business, Sanders, several weeks ago, the county judge asked for his help in removing the nepotism policy and then solicited the longtime justice of the peace's assistance in getting John David on at the Mississippi County Sheriff's Office.

"When he came into my office and closed the door, he told me he wanted me to help him get John David on the county payroll one way or another and that he had spoken to the sheriff about hiring him out there," White said. "Because the sheriff could legally hire John David under different supervisory positions. And I actually asked the judge at that time, 'Judge, don't you think that people will see that as your attempt to get around our employment policy?' He said, 'that's exactly what it is and I'll tell anybody that asks. That's exactly what I'm doing. It's not illegal.' I said, 'No, but is it right?''

"He said, 'you will either help me get this done or I will fire Kelli Jones as finance director and bring back Brenda Burke,'" White added. "I just looked at him. I was just dumbfounded. Truly dumbfounded. And I said, 'Judge, that's blackmail.' He said, 'no, that's not blackmail, that's negotiations.' And I said, 'no, that's blackmail.' He said, 'that's just politics. You give me something, I'll give you something. If you want to keep Kelli Jones as finance director, then you'll help me get my son hired.' And he said, 'I'm not bluffing.' He left and I was just stunned."

Judge Nelson denies the allegations.

"Immediately, my thought is, what would John David being hired at the Sheriff's Department, how would Michael White have any say-so over it," Judge Nelson said.

Judge Nelson said he did ask White to change the nepotism policy, explaining that John David had been volunteering at the county and White suggested county attorney Jeremy Thomas draw up paperwork showing he volunteers in case needed by auditors.

Judge Nelson said Thomas suggested just "paying him something," though he noted White did not want to do that.

White said Jones had concerns that John David was signing off on invoices, and because John David "had no standing with the county," he wanted Thomas to look over the legalities.

So Judge Nelson never threatened to fire Jones?

"No, I'm not saying that," Judge Nelson said. "I'm saying that Michael wouldn't have...If I threatened him, if I did, that would be like me threatening you with something if somebody else didn't hire my son. You wouldn't have any say-so over it."

Judge Nelson acknowledged that he met with White in his office.

The county judge also addressed an apparent conversation with White after Judge Nelson was elected last November.

"He said, 'John, whatever you do when you get up there, don't hire Brenda Burke,'" Judge Nelson said. "Of course we all kind of laughed about it. I think it was just kind of a flippant remark, and I didn't think a whole lot of it. He had continued to use that phrase several times since then."

Judge Nelson said his family is good friends with the Burkes. "It had kind of gotten irritating that Michael thought that this was funny, and I didn't," Nelson said. "There was a conversation that Michael and I had and at one point, I just looked at him. And I wasn't laughing, because it wasn't funny to me. But I said, 'I'll hire Brenda Burke.' But I never threatened to fire Kelli. Not only did I never, but I'm also not now and I'm not in the future. It was never any plans; it was a flippant remark. It kind of took on a world of its own."

After the meeting with Judge Nelson, White said he emailed fellow JPs Bill Nelson, Molly Houseworth Jackson, Neil Burge and Rick Ash.

The Oct. 3-dated email reads, "I just had a pretty bad conversation with our County Judge, John Alan Nelson. He basically tried to blackmail me to win my support for hiring his son, John David Nelson, through the Sheriff's Dept. I asked him if he didn't think it would be perceived as he's trying to circumvent County Personnel Policy and he said that "that's exactly what this is and I want everyone to understand that!' The blackmail portion came as a threat to fire Kelli Jones as Finance Director and put Brenda Burke in her place. If I would support his move to get his son on the County payroll, he would leave Kelli in, at least for the moment, but would probably go ahead and let Leslie Lawrence go in payroll and put Brenda in that position. He stated that Brenda was also his kinfolk."

"I told him that I simply could not work with Brenda Burke due to the manner in which she has previously ran the Finance Office and then the way in which she just suddenly quit her job last time, leaving the County in a vulnerable position both in working for the County and working with law enforcement officials during the official investigation," he continued. "He said that would be fine and basically he intends to replace me as Chairman of the Finance Committee. He said he needed someone in his 'corner' and that person was going to be Brenda Burke. Keep in mind that John Alan was Chairman of the Finance Committee working directly with Brenda Burke as Finance Director when the County ended up so broke we couldn't make payroll. There were several times that John Alan would call me and simply tell me that he had instructed Brenda to transfer $500,000 from the County funds to the Hospital without taking it to Finance Committee or anyone else. He wasn't asking my opinion, he was just letting me know what he had done. I guess that is why he wants Brenda back in his 'corner'. He apparently feels that she will help him move funds around as he feels without question."

"I am very concerned for the Financial Health of the County and feel that the Judge is definitely taking us down expensive paths that will lead us to being broke again. It only took a little over 18 months of Terri Brassfield as Judge to take the County from basically no cash to a position of over $3.3 Million in reserve CDs. It may not take John much longer than that to put us back where we were."

"I think it is a shame, as I had hoped that John would end up being a good Judge that looked out for the citizens," White continues. "Looks more now that he is looking out for himself and his family. When he left my office a few minutes ago, he said he was going to pull the request to hire John David from the Personnel Committee and then go ahead and call Brenda and tell her he wanted her to come and replace Kelli. I guess he probably will go through with his blackmail threat and I will no longer be your Finance Chair. Kelli has no knowledge of this and I really hope that she doesn't just hear it through the grapevine. I really don't know what to say more than the facts, but I wanted all of you to know as this may take place this afternoon. Who knows?"

White said when the late Randy Carney was county judge, Burke, as finance director, noticed large invoices from companies, leading to White and the finance committee quizzing Carney.

"He looked at Brenda as more or less a spy," White said. "He felt like she was tattling on him, pointing out these discrepancies, pointing out these large expenditures. He put a tremendous amount of pressure on Ms. Burke because she could lose her job."

He said the amendment to move the financial management office from under the county judge to the treasurer allows the finance director to speak more freely to the quorum court.

"With Judge Nelson, we're back in a similar position," White said. "He's putting the same kind of pressure on Kelli Jones as finance director that we saw Randy put on Brenda Burke and I don't know why exactly."

White said he has tried to work with Judge Nelson and give him all the tools he needs to be successful, even allowing him to hire two employees when the new county judge took office.

White said Judge Nelson wanted the quorum court to eliminate the nepotism policy that White says is modeled after the state's policy.

"He told me, 'I want to get my son, John David, hired on the county payroll,'" White said. "I said, 'Judge, you knew when you were elected and we talked about this, that we have a nepotism clause.' In fact, John Alan was on the court when we enacted that particular clause. I said, 'elected officials can't hire their immediate relatives' and it is specifically spelled out in the employment policy handbook. He said, 'then we need to change the policy.' This isn't about John David. We love John David; we really do. John David has honestly been an asset to the county judge's office (as an unpaid volunteer). He has been a big help to the judge."

Judge Nelson and White worked together on the quorum court for 16 years, White pointed out.

"He had already made it known that he would like to get John David hired," White said. "Just in casual conversation, none of the JPs were in favor of changing the policy. Again, it had nothing to do with John David or John Alan. It's just a bad idea in county policy. Who is your next sheriff going to be eventually and who in their family would they want to hire? Who is the next treasurer going to be? Who is the next assessor going to be? What can of worms are you opening for future administrations down the road? It's bad policy."

White said Judge Nelson wanted John David to join the Sheriff's Department as a captain and head of security at the Blytheville courthouse.

Judge Nelson denies the claim.

White said he told Judge Nelson there were no captains positions available but did say there were two male jailer slots open if Sheriff Dale Cook wanted to hire John David for one of those openings.

White acknowledged he spoke to Sheriff Cook about John David.

"I told him he could hire John David in a jailer's slot and we would have nothing to do with that; he doesn't even have to tell us he does it," White said. "He said, 'well, it's just $30,000.' I said, 'well, the attitude that I've been seeing, I don't know that it will matter.' He said, 'well, that's not anywhere near the money he was asking me for.' I said, 'I'm not telling you what to do, Sheriff, but if you wanted to try to help the judge out then that's up to you. You might at least make the offer if that's what you want to do.' He said, 'well, I think I may go ahead and do this. John David has been out and John David told me it would be in Kelli's best interest if I hired him.'"

White said he called Judge Nelson then and told him that he thinks Cook will hire John David in a jailer's slot at $30,000 and "he said, 'it doesn't matter, I just need him on the county payroll. Money is not a problem.'"

White said the sheriff later rescinded the offer and there have been tensions with the county judge ever since that day.

"I was just holding my breath to see if Kelli got fired or not," White said.

Sheriff Cook told the NEA Town Courier that Judge Nelson did approach him about hiring John David, "but it didn't work out."

The sheriff added he didn't believe John David was interested in the jailer position but was mainly wanting to keep his certification. Sheriff Cook said he didn't want to get involved in the quorum court dispute.