Under the Dome

Judge rules ex-ALE director improperly fired because he was a Democrat

The McCrory administration was out to get the former director of the state’s alcohol enforcement agency, who had taken a demotion so he could avoid being fired, because he was a prominent Democrat, a judge found Tuesday.

The state improperly fired former Alcohol Law Enforcement Director John Ledford without following its own policy because of his party affiliation, Senior Administrative Law Judge Fred Morrison Jr. ruled. The judge ordered Ledford re-instated as an ALE agent, given approximately $44,000 in back pay, and reimbursed $50,000 in attorneys’ fees.

Ledford “was a marked man, politically, following the 2012 election for governor,” Morrison wrote in his ruling.

The judge said he didn’t find credible the state Department of Public Safety’s contention that it began reviewing Ledford’s job demotion and transfer only after two ALE agents filed grievances because the job he took hadn’t been posted. Instead, Morrison wrote, evidence at a hearing showed the governor’s transition team was unhappy with Ledford’s maneuver from the beginning, and that administration officials took an interest in him until he was fired in April.

Morrison said the agency hadn’t followed its own disciplinary policy nor past practices: Ledford was never notified of what he had done wrong, not offered a chance to tell his side, and his former superiors were not interviewed by the new administration.

It is more likely than not, the judge wrote, that if Ledford hadn’t been such a prominent Democrat throughout his career he wouldn’t have been fired, since the state needs well-qualified ALE agents like him.

One of Ledford’s two attorneys, former state Board of Elections chairman Larry Leake of Asheville, said the department had tried to justify firing Ledford by making false statements about what led to his firing.

“We are obviously pleased with the judge’s decision,” Leake said. “We believe the judge very much found the truth of what occurred. I think it was totally politically motivated.”

A spokesman for McCrory said the governor’s office does not comment on personnel issues. A spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety said the agency is evaluating the judge’s ruling and considering its options.

The state could appeal to a Superior Court judge. Morrison is a registered Democrat.

A longtime Democrat

Ledford, 48, was not a major player, but he was a part of the Democratic Party power structure in North Carolina for many years. He grew up in the mountains of Madison County, registering as a Democrat when he turned 18. His father, who was also a Democrat, was on the county board of commissioners for 20 years.

Ledford became a deputy sheriff in Buncombe County, spent five years as an ALE agent. At 33, he was elected sheriff of Madison County and re-elected twice, also serving as a reserve ALE agent some of that time. In 2009, Gov. Bev Perdue appointed him to head ALE.

In late 2012, in advance of the new Republican administration, Ledford asked to be demoted from director and reassigned as an agent in Buncombe County; there was an existing vacancy for an agent in Wilmington. Then-Secretary of the Department of Public Safety Reuben Young consented, after clearing it with Perdue, her senior staff, his human resources director and the director of the Office of State Personnel.

As a director, a position exempt from state personnel procedures, Ledford would have been subject to dismissal without cause.

Ledford took a 41 percent pay cut to $65,887, which made him the highest-paid agent in the state. The judge found that pay was within the agency’s policy and that the job didn’t have to be posted.

According to Morrison’s ruling, McCrory’s transition team found out about the demotion and transfer when they met with public safety officials. At some point, Kieran Shanahan, who was named last December to be the new secretary of the Department of Public Safety, reacting to a Republican senator’s negative remark about Ledford’s move, said, “That should not have happened,” according to the ruling.

In April, Frank Perry, who has since replaced Shanahan as secretary, fired Ledford for “unacceptable personal conduct” because of the demotion and transfer. Ledford contested his firing.

At Ledford’s hearing in early December, Perry testified that he didn’t know who wrote either the memo dismissing Ledford nor a second version of the memo that was worded differently. Perry said he didn’t know anything about Ledford’s qualifications, and all he knew about the demotion was what he had read in Under the Dome, The News & Observer’s political column.

Grievances a pretext

The judge noted that Perry testified he looked into Ledford’s actions after two “disgruntled” ALE agents who had been disciplined collaboratively filed grievances about Ledford’s demotion, transfer and salary. But in March, Shanahan had decided that neither of the grievances were legitimate, and they dropped their complaints.

Morrison found that Perry’s explanation that he looked into Ledford because of the two agents’ grievances was just a pretext and not a legitimate reason. He noted that Perry also ignored suggestions from state personnel officials to allow Ledford to remain an agent in Asheville or move him to Wilmington, the ruling says.

On April 17, Shanahan received an email with a copy of a story in the N&O about Ledford’s firing, and that night forwarded it to Thomas Stith, the governor’s chief of staff, “to let him and G” know. Morrison said that further suggests there was a “political concern” over Ledford.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer