Panel upholds dismissal of county employee

Albright was fired in January after clashes with superiors

Liz Albright

Liz Albright

KINGMAN - The Mohave County Employee Merit Commission unanimously upheld the county's decision to fire a former employee for lying and insubordination Wednesday evening.

Former county Human Resource employee Liz Albright was fired in January for allegedly lying during two investigations about who had leaked confidential job application information, leaking the information, refusing to cooperate in a third investigation and violating county merit rules. In an attempt to appeal the decision, Albright asked in January for a merit commission hearing.

A merit commission operates in a similar fashion as a court of law. Evidence and witnesses are presented from both sides of the issue and then a commission must make a decision on whether the sanctions against the employee were justified.

Albright has said in the past that she did not leak the information and did not lie. She did admit Wednesday that she violated county merit rules when she refused to take a polygraph test and cooperate in the third investigation of the matter in late 2010.

She claims that two county employees, Risk Manager Richard Weldon and Occupational Health and Benefits Manager Chris Renner were waging a harassment campaign against her for filing an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claim against Renner in 2008, and the two tried to connect her to the information leak in order to get her fired.

At the beginning of Wednesday's hearing, the county's attorney, Kate Baker, asked the commission to limit all testimony and evidence to the events in 2010 that lead to Albright's firing and exclude the events that happened in 2008, including the EEOC complaint.

Albright's attorney, Elana Sears, protested that without the background information from 2008, the commission would be unable to understand the situation that Albright found herself in when she refused to cooperate in 2010.

The commission agreed to limit the scope of the hearing to the three investigations in 2010.

In her opening statements, Baker argued that Albright wanted to blame everyone else for her actions and for her dismissal. Her claims that

she was targeted during the investigations were unfounded and the county had a right and a responsibility to get to the bottom of who had leaked confidential employee information, she said.

Baker then had several county employees testify before the commission about Albright's actions, including Human Resources Director Ray Osuna and Deputy County Manager for Management Services John Timko.

Three probes

Osuna explained that there were three investigations in 2010 that involved Albright. The first dealt with three comments posted on the Miner website in March 2010 stating that the county had already made up its mind to hire Weldon's brother for a security position and that the job posting on the county's website was a sham. Osuna said he investigated the matter after Weldon's brother filed a complaint with the department. After interviewing all of his staff who dealt with employment applications, he was unable to find out who had leaked the information and closed the investigation, he said.

Then in July 2010, while Weldon was investigating a complaint in the Mohave County Recorder's Office about a series of instant messages and Facebook postings, he brought Osuna information indicating that someone in the Recorder's Office may have posted the comments to the Miner website and got the information from someone in Human Resources, Osuna said.

Albright had denied leaking the information in both investigations, Osuna said. But Weldon provided a statement from a Recorder's Office employee, Suzy Gestrine, that indicated the information came from Albright.

While the department was investigating the incident with the Recorder's Office, several copies of the Mohave County Detention Officers Exam were found in the Human Resources copy machine, Osuna said. There was no reason for the test to be in the copier, he said.

Calling 911

Albright was one of seven employees selected to take a polygraph test to determine who left the test on the copier, Osuna said. When she was brought into his office by Renner to sign a form to take a polygraph test, she blew up, called 911 and told the operator that she was being held against her will. Osuna believes Renner, who was also in the office, told Albright that no one was holding her. When Albright finished her call, she left his office. He placed her on administrative leave and had Renner escort her out of the office.

When Albright refused to sign the form when it was mailed to her home and did not show up for her polygraph test, Osuna said he contacted his superior, Timko, because he wanted someone who had not been involved in the investigation to make the final decision on whether Albright should be dismissed.

Sears questioned whether the copies of the investigation transcripts and the polygraph results of the other five employees she received from the county were complete, since she did not have copies of the original audiotapes or polygraph results.

Using statements from witnesses, Sears tried to point out that everyone in the office had access to the leaked application file and even that Weldon had allegedly taken the file home.

She brought forth several former Recorder's Office employees who testified that Weldon acted in an intimidating fashion toward them during the investigation of their office and seemed to be on a warpath to find out who had leaked the information on the security position.

Gestrine testified that Weldon repeatedly asked her where she got the information about the job application during the investigation of the Recorder's Office and told her she might be able to save her job if she wrote a statement saying where she got the information that was posted on Miner website. She wrote a statement saying she got the information from a conversation with Albright and several other employees at lunch.

Wednesday evening, Gestrine said she wanted to recant her statement because she wasn't sure whether the information in it came from her memory or whether it had gotten muddled up with Weldon's suggestion that Albright or someone from Human Resources had given her the information.

Lynne Gregor, another former Recorder's Office employee, testified that Weldon had done the same with her and asked her to write a statement too. She refused.

Sears also put Albright on the stand. Albright testified that she felt she was the target of the three investigations and was terrified when Renner and Osuna confronted her in his office and told her she had to take a polygraph. She said no one would explained why she had to take the polygraph. She said she felt she was trapped in the office with Osuna and Renner, who was already hostile toward her for the EEOC complaint, so she grabbed the phone and called 911. When she saw the path to the door was no longer blocked, she left.

Albright admitted to violating the county's merit rules and committing insubordination by not participating in the investigation process, but felt that she had the right to know what she was being investigated for before being asked to submit to a polygraph test. She denied giving out any confidential employment information.

Before making her decision, Commissioner Charlotte Wells said she found the county's witnesses more credible than Albright's.

Commissioner Miriam Hurtado said her decision revolved around whether Albright had violated the merit rules, which is why she was fired. Albright admitted to violating the rules, she said.

Commissioner Jo Adams said she had several years of experience in human resources matters and had been in similar situations, but the bottom line was that Albright did not take the polygraph, acted in an insubordinate matter and violated the merit rules.

The vote to uphold Albright's dismissal was unanimous.

Albright said Thursday morning that she felt pretty beat up after the hearing, but was determined to take the next step, whatever that might be.