Editor’s Note: Read an updated version of this story in the Sept. 14 issue of the Indy, on newsstands Wednesday and online Wednesday afternoon.
With rumors circulating the past three weeks about possible unethical and illegal conduct among the leadership of Durham’s Department of Social Services, Durham County Commissioner Joe Bowser requested Monday that the county recruit a state agency to investigate the situation.
Bowser himself serves on the board of the Department of Social Services and has been subject to scrutiny since July, when he and two other members of the DSS board voted to terminate the department’s former director, Gerri Robinson. One member who voted Robinson out was Gail Perry, who had just been appointed to the board. Then in the same meeting Perry was named as the interim director for DSS, where she previously had worked for 37 years. She took over the role Aug. 8.
“I admit to anybody that what we did looked suspicious, but no one gave us an opportunity to explain before they started talking,” Bowser said Monday at a regularly scheduled commissioners’ meeting. He assured his colleagues that once an investigation was complete, his actions, as well as those of Perry and DSS board Chairman Stan Holt would be found “squeaky clean.”
Bowser and other commissioners listed more than 10 items that they would that deserve investigation, starting with Perry’s appointment to the DSS board, and including: the suggestion that Perry voted Robinson out with prior knowledge that she might herself be named as the director’s replacement; whether Bowser intended to inflate Perry’s starting salary to $10,000 beyond the former director’s salary; whether Perry, Bowser and Holt held a closed meeting with at least three board members prior to Perry’s appointment, which would have been a violation of state open meetings law; relationships that Robinson may have had with two previous members of the DSS board who had given her favorable reviews; allegations that during her employment, Robinson tried to solicit county money to pay for private attorneys; statements Page made to newspapers, including the Indy, that he heard Bowser tried to use his position on the DSS board to get Robinson to hire his friends; and allegations that Perry herself improperly used county money to purchase fast food coupons as employee rewards before her retirement in 2002.
Bowser has denied all the allegations against him. He has told the Indy and repeated publicly that the DSS board had tried to recruit two other former DSS supervisors to take the interim director’s role prior to choosing Perry. Those individuals, Dan Hudgins and Sharon Hirsch, have not responded to interview requests from the Indy. Bowser says there was no illegal meeting, as was suggested in a recent report from the conservative Raleigh-based Civitas Institute. Writer Andrew Henson circulated a taped phone interview with Bowser, which he asserts is evidence that Bowser, Holt and Perry may have had an illegal private meeting. Henson sent the audio clip to Durham’s county attorney and county manager, and has also lodged a complaint with the N.C. State Ethics Commission, he said last week. The director of that commission has not returned a call from the Indy.
From the audio included in the clip, Bowser says he met with Perry prior to the meeting, and Holt also met with Perry prior to the meeting during which she was appointed. The portion that has been made public does not clearly indicate that all three met together, which would have constituted an illegal closed meeting by a quorum of the board.
At their Monday meeting, the four commissioners eventually agreed to launch an investigation, but not before the personal attacks some have made in recent weeks resurfaced.
Bowser repeatedly said local newspapers were not reporting the facts of the issue.
“It’s obvious that they want to mud myself, and keep it looking as bad as it can against me,” said Bowser, who is running for mayor and faces a primary on Oct. 11.
Page responded to Bowser’s criticisms of the media.
“I think you should commend the papers, because, actually, I read in the paper where they printed for you that you called me a flat-faced liar,” Page said. His comments referred to an article in which Page said he had been informed that Bowser had used his connections in DSS to get a friend hired there. In an interview with the Indy, Bowser said he had once suggested the name of a consultant to Robinson and never mentioned it again. Page said he had no proof that Bowser had tried to influence Robinson.
“I have had a number of people come to me and say things about you, but I have never gone to the press and reported it. Innuendo, rumors and stuff and people have come to me with,” Bowser said to Page in the meeting. “And the press, if they ask me, I do not say anything.”
Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, who sits between Page and Bowser, interjected to summarize the situation in a few short words.
“This has created a rift on our board and a cloud over our government,” Reckhow said. “This investigation needs to be done quickly. I would hope that the manager, by the end of September, can bring forward a plan on who’s going to investigate, and a time frame of having it done no later than by the end of October.”
According to Bowser, Robinson was an embattled director who cut off community partnerships that DSS had long worked to build, belittled employees, reassigned employees to jobs for which they were not qualified, and drove valued, experienced DSS staff to quit. Bowser’s claims are supported by a letter from Hirsch, a former supervisor with DSS, who wrote that she was forced to quit the organization because of Robinson’s leadership. The letter also named other staff who had left under similar circumstances.
Many employees claimed that morale was at an all-time low. But that depended on who you asked, Commissioner Michael Page said Monday. In earlier interviews with the Indy, Page said he had received complaints about Robinson’s leadership, but he had also received compliments.
“I just think there was a morale issue there for some people, and there was an issue for them with her demeanor,” Page said last week. “And there were a lot of people who felt they were being held accountable for their work and appreciated her.” Page has said repeatedly that Robinson’s evaluations from members of the DSS board had always been high, and he wanted a reason why someone with strong evaluations would be terminated.
“What justifies that, that’s what I’m asking,” Page said. But the board didn’t have to give a reason—Robinson was just short of a two-year milestone with the county, only after which the board would have to show cause to fire her. Robinson has not responded to requests for an interview from the Indy.
Bowser has also produced several emails from current and former employees of DSS thanking him for Robinson’s ouster. One current supervisor in the department wrote that Robinson created an “environment of fear and retaliation,”
“I do believe that the change made will be positive not only for the staff or the community; but for the staff, the agency and the community as a whole,” Tammie Tate wrote. “I believe that Ms. Gail Perry can and will help bring Durham County DSS back to the high standing agency that it has been over the years.”
Also in their meeting Monday, Durham commissioners were scheduled to vote on a one-year contract that would give Perry a $129,000 salary and some benefits, but the board adjourned without taking action after meeting for more than three hours. It was unclear when the commissioners would reconvene on the matter.