Former Commerce general counsel leaves post with $80,000
Posted September 27, 2013
Updated September 30, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — A lawyer promoted under Gov. Bev Perdue's administration walked away from the state Department of Commerce this year with an $80,000 settlement following a months-long fight over her termination.
Karen West received the payment in early September, three months after she left her $113,000-a-year general counsel post. According to the Sept. 18 settlement, West officially resigned.
"Karen West served as General Counsel of the North Carolina Department of Commerce until June 4, 2013, including the first few months of the new administration, when she resigned under a reorganization initiated by the new administration," agency spokesman Josh Ellis said in an email Friday.
But that wasn't the case on June 4, when Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker terminated West, effective immediately. She pointed out West had no license to practice law in North Carolina.
Decker also mentioned a recent change to West's employment status.
About one month earlier, West's supervisors informed her that she had been designated exempt from the State Personnel Act. As a newly at-will employee, she could no longer contest her removal and could be fired without cause. Her specific designation – policy-making exempt – meant she was expected to be loyal to the governor per state law.
The position is one of about 1,000 new at-will employees that will be designated by Gov. Pat McCrory this year. After the second of two laws raised the cap on these exempt employees to 1,500 in late August, McCrory now has more hiring and firing power than any governor in a quarter-century.
In every case where a current employee is designated exempt, he or she has the right to challenge the decision.
West declined to comment on the settlement Friday. But in the months following her at-will designation, she appealed the decision through the Office of Administrative Hearings, alleging the department improperly exempted her from civil service protections with a specific purpose.
"What they don't discuss, I contend, is the fact that they have said under oath, 'We designated her policy-making exempt to fire her,'" Michael Byrne, West's attorney, argued in a July 10 hearing, according to the courtroom transcript.
He noted that West's evaluations had been outstanding and that she had received no disciplinary action. He also argued that, because West wasn't responsible for implementing policy, as required by state law, she didn't meet the criteria for a policy-making exempt employee.
Deputy Attorney General Terence Friedman, who argued the case for the state, did not return a phone call seeking comment Friday afternoon.
But he noted in the hearing, as did Decker in her termination letter, that West's was the only general counsel position across the state – out of about a dozen – subject to personnel protections at the time it was reclassified.
Friedman chalked it up to a "mistake of history."
"She was dealing with inherently partisan political issues or, if not partisan, at the very least the sort that involve an administration's goals, not merely, as she said otherwise, technical advice," Friedman said during the hearing.
The $80,000 settlement paid to West means neither side admitted fault. It also requires both parties not to make "any statements which disparage or impugn the reputation of one another."
Ellis declined to comment further, and reached Friday afternoon, Byrne acknowledged only the initial allegations and the eventual settlement.
"The case has been amicably resolved, and I think both sides have been ready to move on," he said.
Separately from the case, Byrne noted that the increase in exempt positions – the largest North Carolina has ever seen – could cause problems for the state.
"It comes down to an issue of good government. I think people are best served by having an experienced, stable, long-service civil service corps," he said. "The opposite is a staff that can be replaced at the whim of anyone who comes in."