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McCrory agency spokesman resists patronage firing

David Prickett. November 2016 photo.
David Prickett. November 2016 photo. Office of State Human Resources

A former spokesman in the McCrory administration is fighting his dismissal in a case that could redefine which employees can be laid off when a new governor takes office.

David Prickett, who was communications director for the Office of State Human Resources until Jan. 19, claims he was fired by the Democratic administration of Gov. Roy Cooper because he is a Republican.

He also contends, in legal filings last week, that he is protected from being dismissed without cause under a new law that the GOP-controlled General Assembly and former Gov. Pat McCrory enacted in a special session last month. That law excluded the state human resources and budget offices from the agencies where Cooper can designate workers as exempt from personnel protections.

Prickett’s filings also say the Cooper administration didn’t follow proper procedure when it failed to give him 10 days of notice before taking action against him.

“This type of arbitrary or politically motivated dismissal of employees who have done nothing wrong is exactly what our state personnel laws were passed to prevent,” said Prickett’s attorney, Michael C. Byrne, a Raleigh lawyer who represents state workers.

The number of positions that will turn over under the new administration is still in flux, as the new executive-branch leaders have just begun to assess their departments. Twenty-eight people have been replaced on the governor’s staff, in addition to the 10 Cabinet secretaries and the director of the human resources office, governor’s spokesman Ford Porter said Friday.

“It’s not uncommon for new administrations to make personnel changes,” Porter said.

He declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Governors are expected to make a certain number of patronage hires. The legislature last month slashed the number of executive-branch employees that Cooper can hire from the 1,500 that were allocated for McCrory to just 425 for Cooper. Those “exempt employees” can be fired without just cause and do not have the right to appeal.

The General Assembly said the governor cannot exempt employees in the human resources office or the Office of Budget and Management from personnel protections. Legislators also safeguarded employees who were vulnerable to dismissal by the Cooper administration by giving personnel protections to those who had been continuously employed in a permanent job for the previous year, one of several restrictions on his authority that Cooper is suing over.

Separately, some state officials have taken demotions to lower positions with personnel protections, including former Department of Environmental Quality secretary Donald van der Vaart and his two top aides.

Prickett’s claim that he was dismissed for political reasons echoes that of John Ledford, a Democrat who was director of state Alcohol Law Enforcement and was fired four months after he received permission to demote himself to agent to avoid the house-cleaning of top agency officials with the arrival of the Republican McCrory administration. Ledford sued to be reinstated, saying he was let go because of his party affiliation. His case is pending before the state Supreme Court.

Prickett began working in the McCrory administration in October 2014. He says on Jan. 19, Cooper’s human resources director, Barbara Gibson, wrote him a letter saying the governor had determined his position was exempt and that he was being separated from state employment.

He has filed a petition with the state Office of Administrative Hearings to contest his dismissal and a grievance with the human resources office. The legal actions ask that he be rehired with back pay and benefits, as well as court costs and attorney’s fees.

A Raleigh resident, Prickett is married to former Wake County Board of Education member Deborah Prickett, who is a program administrator at the state Department of Public Instruction.

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO

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