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12/04/2019

Citing Whistle-Blower Act, Finance Director's Attorney Warns Judge Nelson Against Retaliation

 

An attorney for Mississippi County finance director Kelli Jones has penned a letter to embattled Mississippi County Judge John Alan Nelson notifying him that she will utilize "all remedies available under the Arkansas Whistle-Blower Act" if the judge terminates her.

At 9:47 p.m. Wednesday, Zachary W. Morrison of Rees Law Firm of Jonesboro sent the letter via email to Judge Nelson on behalf of Jones. He also copied members of the Mississippi County Quorum Court on the email, which followed a story in the Wednesday NEA Town Courier that reported, according to Justice Michael White, Judge Nelson threatened to fire Jones if White refused to help his son, John David Nelson, get on the county payroll.

Judge Nelson has denied the accusation.

"It is...reported that you have threatened to fire Ms. Jones as finance director if the Quorum Court did not amend the county nepotism policy to allow your son, John David Nelson, to be placed on the county payroll," Morrison wrote. "I have questioned why you have singled out Ms. Jones as the purported political bargaining chip for getting your son hired. The answer that I have been able to ascertain is that she is well-liked and respected by the Quorum Court, and thus, a bargaining chip in your 'negotiations' to get what you desire. Your alleged threats to fire her under these circumstances, and replace her with former finance director Brenda Burke, are not well-taken by Ms. Jones or myself as her attorney."

"Additionally, I understand that you believe that Ms. Jones, as finance director, communicates too frequently with members of the Quorum Court," the letter continues. "It seems to me that you desire to keep her on a short leash and under your command, as you vetoed the Quorum Court's recent attempt to remove the position of finance director from under your hiring and firing authority. Please allow this letter to serve as official notice that, in the event of any retaliatory behavior by you or anyone on your behalf, or termination of Ms. Jones' employment, that Ms. Jones will assert any and all remedies available under the Arkansas Whistle-Blower Act, Ark. Code Ann. § 21-1-604."

The letter notes the Whistle-Blower Act prevents a public employer from taking adverse action against a public employee if the individual acts in good faith in communicating the existence of waste of public funds, property, or manpower, including federal funds, property, or manpower administered or controlled by a public employer; or a violation or suspected violation of a law, rule, or regulation adopted under the law of the state or a political subdivision of the state.

"In sum, I will not tolerate Ms. Jones' employment status being threatened, or she being retaliated against in any shape, form, or fashion, for political gain or any other improper motives by you or anyone on your behalf," Morrison wrote. "Additionally, if you terminate Ms. Jones' employment with the county as retaliation, or if you or anyone on your behalf retaliate against Ms. Jones, you can expect service of process under the Whistle-Blower Act. Please conduct yourself accordingly. I hope you will avail yourself to the generosity of this measured response. You may direct any inquiry as to this correspondence to my attention."

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."

On Wednesday, Justice Bubba Norvell told the newspaper that he confronted Judge Nelson on the allegation that he threatened to fire Jones.

"I asked the Judge did he do that, and he said, 'yes,'" Norvell said. "I said, 'why would you say that? Kelli does a good job.' He said, 'I would never fire Kelli, but I knew Michael White would do what I asked him if I threatened to fire Kelli,' because he wouldn't want (former finance director Brenda Burke back) because Michael couldn't work with Brenda. I don't know if that's true or not; this is all coming from the judge."

Norvell said one day he had a message to call Judge Nelson.

"He asked me to support two things," Norvell said. "The sheriff wanted to make a captain position for Chuck Brown out of Leachville and he was going to create a captain position for John David and John David was going to be over court security. He asked me to support those two things and I told him I would not. I told him I don't think the Sheriff's Department needs any more upper echelon positions; he needs more patrol positions. So I told him I could not support those things. And that never came up during any of the meetings."

Norvell added Judge Nelson called him after last Tuesday's Quorum Court meeting when the court moved the finance department from under the county judge's office to the treasurer's office - an act that Judge Nelson vetoed on Monday.

He said he told Judge Nelson that the reason they moved the finance department was "to protect Kelli, to protect you, and to protect the county, because after you made that statement you're setting the whole county up for a lawsuit. If Kelli does do something wrong, now you can't discipline her or fire her because you've made this statement...He then made the statement to me, 'well, I was just kidding when I made that comment.'"

"All this was a big surprise to me," Norvell added.

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 was not an employee and "had no standing with the county," he wanted Thomas to look over the legalities.

Thomas drew up a proposed ordinance that never made it before the quorum court.

The proposal read, "WHEREAS, John David Nelson has previously provided services for Mississippi County free of charge on an unofficial basis as a non-employee of the County;

WHEREAS, Mississippi County wishes to employ the services of John David Nelson to provide services on an official basis as an employee of the County;

WHEREAS, Arkansas Code Annotated 14-14-1101(a)(6) authorizes the County Judge to hire county employees, except those persons employed by other elected officials of the county;

WHEREAS, Arkansas Code Annotated 14-14-801(b) authorizes the Quorum Court to appropriate public funds for the expenses of the county and to fix the number and compensation of county employees;

WHEREAS, John David Nelson is the son of County Judge John Alan Nelson;

WHEREAS, notwithstanding said relationship, pursuant to Arkansas Code Annotated 14-14- 1202, the Quorum Court believes it is in the best interest of the County to retain John David Nelson as an employee of the County;

WHEREAS, Section Two (2), Subsection E of the Mississippi County Employment Policy provides that "[n]o elected official or department head shall be allowed to employ any relative in his immediate family to work within the County office or department he or she supervises and for which he or she is responsible"; and,

WHEREAS, the Quorum Court wishes to waive the restriction set forth in the above-referenced section of the Mississippi County Employment Policy on a one-time basis to permit the employment of John David Nelson.

NOW, THEREFORE, be it enacted by the Quorum Court of Mississippi County, Arkansas: I.

1. That circumstances exist to justify the employment of John David Nelson by the County;
2. That the restriction on hiring family members, as set forth in Section Two (2), Subsection E of the Mississippi County Employment Policy, is hereby waived on a one-time basis to permit the employment of John David Nelson by the County;
3. That John David Nelson is hereby retained as an employee of the County to serve at the direction and discretion of the County Judge;
4. That John David Nelson's salary is hereby set at the amount of $_ per year, to be paid on a bi-weekly basis through ordinary payroll procedures;
5. The funds necessary to pay the salary of John David Nelson are hereby appropriated;
6. All actions previously taken by John David Nelson on behalf of Mississippi County are hereby ratified as if approved beforehand;
7. The restriction on hiring family members, as set forth in Section Two (2), Subsection E of the Mississippi County Employment Policy, shall remain in place for all future employment determinations of Mississippi County.

II.

All appropriations previously authorized, approved and made as to all other offices, departments, and agencies of county government, and all other funds not hereinabove changed, are to remain as previously appropriated. Detailed provisions of said appropriations are reflected in the schedule of specific items listed by account numbers within the category for each office and filed in the Office of the County Court Clerk.

III.

This Ordinance, being an appropriation ordinance, shall be in full force and effect immediately from and after its passage and approval by the County Judge."