Courts • Matthew Bell was supervisor of officer suing over termination.
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A Weber County Commission candidate is identified in a wrongful termination lawsuit as the plaintiff's supervisor and part of an alleged network that intimidated subordinates to support one Republican candidate for sheriff over the other GOP hopeful in 2010.
Matthew Bell, a lieutenant in the Weber County Sheriff's Office who also chairs the county's Republican Party, is vying for the county commission seat currently occupied by Craig Dearden, who is not seeking a third term.Last fall, Sgt. Teresa Perkins filed her lawsuit against Weber County in 2nd District Court, alleging that she and 18 other sheriff's employees had been threatened, intimidated and transferred to less desirable assignments because of their support of Brett Haycock, who entered the sheriff's race in January 2010.
Terry Thompson also sought the GOP nomination for sheriff that year and had the backing of retiring Sheriff Brad Slater and other higher-ups in the department, including Bell.
In February 2010, Perkins told Haycock he had her support. Later that month, her annual employee evaluation said she "exhibited a lack of tact or consideration for others." That critique came out of the blue, the complaint states, with no justification for the ratings given by Bell, her supervisor.
In a March 2010 meeting with Bell, Perkins challenged the evaluation. The complaint states that Bell wasn't interested in what she had to say, but did tell her she had "a target on her back."
In a county response to the lawsuit which was transferred to U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City last December and now awaits a 2013 jury trial attorneys confirmed that certain meetings did take place but denied all allegations. Citing 38 defenses, they've asked a judge to dismiss the case.
When asked to comment on the lawsuit this week, Bell declined. But Reed Richards, an attorney in the Weber County Attorney's Office, emphasized that none of the allegations are substantiated and that Bell is not specifically named as a defendant in the lawsuit. "Perkins has not been terminated," Reed added, noting her reassignment to another position within the sheriff's office. "She doesn't get the assignments she likes, but that's something left to the supervisor, not the employee."
In the meantime, people who now support either Bell or challenger Corey Combe a self-described independent running on the Democratic ticket differ on their opinions about the case and its bearing on this year's election.
John Miles, chairman of the Weber County Democratic Party, said that the allegations in the lawsuit are disturbing. For Combe, the lawsuit has been off-limits as a campaign issue.
"I'm trying not to be involved with it," Combe said. However, he too has heard the allegations and in the course of knocking on doors, former sheriff's employees have allowed him to post signs in their yards.
Dearden, who served as Weber County Sheriff from 1991 to 1997, said he backs Bell as his replacement on the county commission."He worked for me at the sheriff's office and I think he'll do a great job," Dearden said.
During his time in the sheriff's department, Dearden said he could not recall any political pressure on subordinates to support one candidate over another, adding that "
it's not something that should happen."
Former Weber County Commissioner Camille Cain, also a Republican, said she supports Democrat Corey Combe for reasons that have nothing to do with the lawsuit that involves Bell.
"One of his greatest gifts is his ability to sit down and reason with people and find compromise," Cain said, "and that is so much the job of a commissioner. I think he would do a very fine job."
According to the complaint, Undersheriff Kevin McLeod placed Perkins on paid administrative leave in May 2010 pending an investigation into a different matter that involved her giving information to an FBI agent about Capt. Klint Anderson. Perkins had provided information about a burglary that Anderson was involved in as part of a cabinet-making business he owned, the complaint states.
Anderson allegedly tried to force his way into a Morgan County home that was facing foreclosure, so he could retrieve cabinets he had made but had not been paid for. While trying to enter the home, he fell off the roof and injured his back, according to court documents.
The FBI contacted the sheriff's office with the information Perkins provided about Anderson. Both agencies chose not to pursue a criminal investigation into Anderson's conduct.
The same day that Perkins provided information to the FBI about Anderson in 2010, Terry Thompson was selected as the Republican nominee for sheriff at the party's county convention and went on to win the job in November.
"I've never understood what people mean by voter intimidation," McLeod said, noting that people go into the voting booth and "vote for whoever they want." As far as an atmosphere of intimidation in the sheriff's office "no, I don't believe that at all," he added.
"But again, you've got a group of 300 to 400 employees that have an interest in who their (next) boss may or may not be," McLeod said. "And its impossible to say to that group what to do in off-duty time and private conversations."One of Bell's supporters includes former Ogden Police Chief Jon Greiner, who challenged Bell for the GOP nomination for commissioner this year but was eliminated at convention.
"I'm a party supporter and will vote for Matt Bell," Greiner said.
Greiner declined to comment on whether voter intimidation occurs in his county, but acknowledged that partisan politics can lead to the granting of favors in exchange for support.
"If you're interested in getting appointed, then you involve yourself in the patronage system," Greiner said. "These things come up with every election, but when you have to prove it I'm the kind of guy who waits to see the proof."
As for Perkins, who headed up the motors program for the sheriff's office, her complaint alleges adverse impacts following her active campaigning for Haycock.
According to the complaint, Anderson told Perkins in April 2010 that she was being replaced as head of the motors program, and Bell allegedly cautioned her to be very careful about bad-mouthing him, Anderson or the administration.
Two months later, Perkins received a letter of reprimand from McLeod, the complaint states, over her conversation with the FBI agent.
McLeod allegedly viewed Perkins' talk with the FBI as "politically motivated," according to the complaint.
In September 2010, Perkins received a reprimand from Anderson. That same month, she was transferred to a position in Corrections.Her complaint alleges transfers and demotions that Haycock and 18 of his supporters experienced that year. However, Perkins stands as the lone plaintiff in the federal lawsuit, which seeks $500,000 in damages, a cleansing of her personnel file and reinstatement to a law enforcement position.
Until his death last month, David Bert Havas, an Ogden attorney who specialized in employment law, represented Perkins in the case. As of Sept. 28, the court gave Perkins 30 days to find new counsel.
The Salt Lake City-based firm of Strong and Hanni is handling the county's defense, which is covered by insurance, Richards said.