A former head of the state Alcohol Law Enforcement agency who contends he was fired in 2013 because of high-ranking Republicans’ political motivations won another round in court.
A three-judge N.C. Court of Appeals panel issued a unanimous ruling on Tuesday upholding the findings of an administrative law judge who found that partisan politics led to the firing of John Ledford, a prominent Democrat in the western part of the state. Ledford had demoted himself to a field agent before Republicans gained control of the governor’s office in 2013, but worked there for only four months before he was fired for what administrators called misconduct and a violation of personnel procedures.
The case provides a glimpse of the political patronage and payback that both parties have been known to engage in through the years.
Ledford, a former two-term Madison County sheriff, was tapped by former Gov. Bev Perdue to head the ALE in 2009. He had spent five years as an ALE agent before that and continued to be a part of the agency’s special reserves while leading the county law enforcement agency.
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Ledford, who grew up in the mountains of Madison County, had connections among state Democrats. His father, also a Democrat, held elected office as a member of the county board of commissioners for two decades.
In 2012, with an eye toward the new Republican administration coming in, Ledford asked to be demoted from director and reassigned as an ALE agent in Buncombe County.
As director, Ledford would have been subject to dismissal without cause when the new administration took over. The position is exempt from state personnel procedures.
Rueben Young, who was secretary of the Department of Public Safety at the time, consented after clearing it with Perdue, her senior staff, his human resources director and the director of the Office of State Personnel.
Though Ledford took a 41 percent pay cut to $65,887, he was the highest-paid agent in the state.
“In the months following his return to the field, Ledford led all agents in his new district in arrests made, and his supervisors did not receive any complaints about his performance,” according to the ruling issued Tuesday by the appellate judges.
Mikael Gross, the chief operating officer at the state Department of Public Safety in December 2012 and the liaison for Gov. Pat McCrory’s transition team, testified in court hearings that Ledford’s name came up when he was asked about any people who had been moved from positions where they could be fired “at will” to non-exempt positions.
“Gross testified further that after news broke of Ledford’s reassignment, he received a phone call from Henderson County Republican State Senator Tom Apodaca, who informed Gross that Ledford’s reassignment ‘shouldn’t have occurred and that they’re going to fix that if they even have to just get rid of the position in the budget,’” appellate Judge Linda Stephens wrote in the ruling issued Tuesday.
Gross also testified in court hearings that he told Kieran Shanahan, who served briefly as McCrory’s secretary of Public Safety.
“When Gross conveyed Apodaca’s statement to Shanahan, Shanahan agreed, stating, ‘Well, you know, [Ledford’s reassignment] really shouldn’t have happened,’” Stephens’ ruling further states.
In early April, Ledford received a call notifying him that he was going to be fired from ALE, that moving him to the lower post had not been done in accordance with state procedure.
There were complaints that the job had not been posted internally for competitive applications as required by law and departmental policy.
Frank Perry, who was commissioner of law enforcement at the time and now is McCrory’s secretary for the Department of Public Safety, sent a memo to Ledford in which he concluded that Ledford’s “so-called ‘reassignment’ was nothing more than an attempt to circumvent the provisions of the State Personnel Act.” Perry continued in his April 2013 memo to Ledford: “…at the time you submitted your request, you knew a new Department Head would be appointed effective January 1, 2013 ...and that it was inevitable that you would be separated from state service.”
Perry’s memo also referred to “unacceptable personal conduct.” In 2012, while still ALE director, Ledford and then-deputy director Allen Page were criticized in a state audit for failing to keep adequate records to show that they had not used state vehicles for personal travel between Raleigh and their homes in the Asheville area.
After the Asheville Citizen-Times wrote about Ledford’s dismissal, Shanahan sent an email to Thomas Stith, McCrory’s chief of staff.
“Thought you and G should be aware of Ledford dismissal – done by the book. Assume it will be appealed.”
Stephens, in the ruling supported by appeals court Judges Donna Stroud and Lucy Inman, addressed what many parties in power have done through the years, protecting and rewarding employees for their political patronage.
“While acts of old school political patronage that turn the highest levels of State government into a revolving door through which well-connected acquaintances of those in power can gain prestige and lucrative remuneration at the taxpayers’ collective expense are perhaps more publicized, on an abstract level the prospect of the old guard embedding itself bureaucratically on its way out the door in order to stall its successors’ progress strikes us as potentially being every bit as corrosive to the goal of representative self-governance,” Stephens said in her order.
“Nevertheless, on a practical level, we find it difficult to discern how this rationale applies in the case of a veteran law enforcement officer who has dedicated his entire career to serving and protecting the people of this State, wishes to continue doing so in a role that has no clear impact on effectuating either party’s policy priorities, and, unlike more common stereotypical well-heeled political appointees, has no proverbial golden parachute to guarantee a comfortable landing in the private sector.”
Stephens’ ruling further states: “If our General Assembly is truly concerned with protecting North Carolinians against such harms as DPS forewarns, it can take appropriate legislative action, but this Court declines DPS’s invitation to turn Ledford into a scapegoat for all that ails our body politic.”