– By Valerie Cury
In July, seven members of the senior staff of the Purcellville police force approached Interim Town Manager Alex Vanegas, detailing their allegations about intolerable working conditions, a hostile work environment, and violations of Town policies and Police General Orders. The staff reported that the alleged violations had been going on under Chief Cynthia McAlister for quite some time, starting under former Town Manager Rob Lohr.
There were also claims that McAlister had acted outside of the scope of her duties as Chief of Police. In late September, in accordance with the requirements of the Town Human Resource Manual, Vanegas launched a formal investigation of McAlister, who had been employed by the Town for two and one-half years.
According to the manual, “Upon receiving a report of a violation of a department or disciplinary regulation … the appropriate manager shall investigate … the purpose of ascertaining the true facts relative to the circumstances surrounding the alleged offense.” The manual also states that “employees are obligated … to report instances of disciplinary infractions.”
Alex Vanegas was appointed by the Town Council to serve as Interim Town Manager in July 2017. Early on, according to numerous sources, he met challenges, one of which was that the office computer he inherited from the former Town Manager – who worked for the Town for 24 years – was virtually wiped clean. In addition, there were only a hand full of hard copy records in Lohr’s office.
In cases such as this, a town typically requests bids from outside companies to conduct an HR investigation into alleged improprieties, procedural violations, and the possibility that an individual acted beyond her scope of duties.
The Town Council itself does not have authority to request bids or control over the hiring of vendors or contractors – that is the responsibility of the Town Manager.
Vanegas received quotes from three companies for the HR investigation, completing the procurement procedures form for the project, estimated at less than $25,000. Town policy allows for quotes to be received by phone for projects in that cost range. It has been reported in the press that one of Vanegas’s quotes was a “phantom bid,” meaning that one of the bids – from a Margie Hamner, Starfish Consulting – did not exist. In fact, Hamner did provide Vanegas with a quote. The BRL contacted Hamner to confirm that she gave a quote to Vanegas. “Yes I did,” said Hamner.
A company named ProHR was the lowest bidder of the three, and had the most experience in this kind of investigation. It was awarded the contract.
The Investigation Into McAlister
The complaints against McAlister allege several things.
Illegal Hiring Practices
It is first alleged that the Chief of Police operated outside her scope of duty when she violated recruitment and selection processes with the transition of Barry Dufek into the position of Detective. The Detective position was neither budgeted nor approved by the Town Council. Dufek was hired in the summer of 2016 for a civilian position of Business Manager. This left the Town of Purcellville vulnerable to both discriminatory and grievance complaints, from both internal and external candidates who, by law, were eligible to participate in the application process. The Town Council had also specifically turned down requests for a new Detective position in the budget. In assigning one, the Police Chief had effectively violated Police Department procedures. Dufek was also issued police gear, including a firearm, a uniform, etc., allegedly violating the Town’s General Orders and Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) regulations, since only law enforcement officers are to be issued police equipment.
In December 2016, Dufek was sworn in as a law enforcement officer and given a firearm, even though this was an unauthorized position, and this enabled him to enter the Law Enforcement Officer Retirement System, which benefits only full-time officers. It is also alleged that he participated in law enforcement activities such as pursuits, securing crime scenes, etc., which could have made the Town liable to lawsuits because he would not have been protected by Law Enforcement Immunity. McAlister also allegedly leased a Dodge Charger for the Department for Dufek’s use, without permission from then Town Manager Lohr. The Town Council did not approve this expenditure in the budget.
Intimidation And Harassment
In an incident that may be related to Dufek and his vehicle, at a Council Meeting in the spring of 2017, then-Town Council Member Kelli Grim noted, on record, that she had seen an unmarked Dodge Charger police vehicle. It was then that it came to light that McAlister had leased the vehicle. Several weeks later, Grim met with Town staff and McAlister regarding an allegation that the Chief had declared in a meeting that she would like to punch Grim in the face. In the same meeting, as confirmed by several people present, McAlister slid a dash-cam video over to Grim. The video showed someone – who McAlister claimed was Grim – failing to make a complete stop at a four-way stop sign.
It is alleged that McAlister was told about the incident, requested a copy of the dash-cam video, and ordered the officer to swear out a warrant for Council Member Grim. It is alleged that the police officer refused the Chief’s request, because swearing out a warrant was not common practice for a minor traffic infraction – committed by any citizen. The officer’s refusal resulted in the officer allegedly being harassed and intimidated by McAlister. Afterwards, the officer relented, and a case file was opened on the matter. The copying of dash-cam videos is typically done for training purposes, in connection with court subpoenas, or, in some cases, via Freedom of Information Act requests. At the time of this incident, Town Manager Lohr said he had completed the investigation into Grim’s complaint, found no wrong doing, and closed the case.
Police Officer “Garrity Rights”
The concept of “Garrity Rights” emerged in the late 1960s, and established Constitutionally protected rights for police officers facing investigations by their employers – in this case, the public/government-controlled police department.
In compliance with the Garrity case, the Fifth Amendment’s right against self-incrimination applies to public employees, including police officers during investigations of their conduct while on duty, if the investigations relate to potentially criminal conduct.
One of the allegations against McAlister is that one of her officers was not given notice that he was being investigated, and not informed of his Garrity rights. It is also alleged that the investigation involved evidence tampering, which compromised the integrity of the process, and resulted in the officer’s wrongful termination.
The firm chosen to investigate the allegations against chief McAlister, ProHR, is owned and operated by Georgia Nuckolls. It came to light that more than 20 years ago, Nuckolls had some criminal convictions. The BRL contacted Nuckolls, who gave us this statement: “My past of over 20 years ago, that was a result of an abusive relationship, has no bearing on who I am today, who I am as a professional, and has nothing to do with this case. The reason I got into human resources is that I love helping and working with people. I am an HR consultant. I do everything from setting up HR departments, to setting up benefits, employee training, employee counseling, and HR investigations.” Nuckolls has been in the human resources field for 19 years, and has worked for numerous companies over that time. This has included passing a security clearance required for at least one of her previous positions.
“During the investigation, the tires on my car were flattened, and I had threatening anonymous notes left on my windshield,” said Nuckolls.
This isn’t the first-time anonymous letters have circulated around Town Hall or have been mailed to certain elected officials. Some citizens and public officials report that when they have become active in Town matters, they have become the target of anonymous mailings to their residence or Town Hall. Retaliation has also occurred – for example, when Town Council Member Karen Jimmerson had her tires punctured. Also, former Council Member Kelli Grim has been the recipient of anonymous mailed attacks.
County Reaches Out
According to Mayor Kwasi Fraser, Town Attorney Sally Hankins reached out to him, and said that Loudoun County Administrator Tim Hemstreet had contacted her to offer assistance from the County. Fraser then contacted Blue Ridge Supervisor Tony Buffington, who asked Fraser to put the Town’s potential needs in writing. Fraser’s interest was in two strong managers – one in Human Resources and the other with project management experience. Buffington replied that he would bring the issue up to the Board of Supervisors for consideration. Hemstreet volunteered to sit with the Town’s management team to access the Town’s needs.
The Blue Ridge Leader has made numerous calls to Cynthia McAlister’s attorney, John V. Berry of the Berry & Berry Law Firm in Reston, but our calls have not been returned. McAlister has been reinstated and is on administrative leave, pending the outcome of the investigation review.
The Town has begun the process of interviewing independent investigators to conduct a thorough review of the initial investigative report.