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June 2012
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MOVING ON Suit settlement pricey, but at least it's over

It's hard to parse from afar whether the McCracken County Fiscal Court's intervention and payment to settle a wrongful discharge lawsuit by a former county clerk's office employee was good, bad or indifferent as far as taxpayers are concerned.

The fiscal court voted Tuesday to approve a $345,000 payment - $195,000 from taxpayer funds and an additional $150,000 from the county's insurer - to settle a lawsuit filed two years ago by former clerk's office employee Leslie Hannan.

Hannan sued claiming she was wrongfully terminated by County Clerk Jeff Jerrell for going public with claims of allegedly shoddy practices in the clerk's office. She and two co-workers cited practices such as accepting IOUs or otherwise deferring fee payments from auto dealers and allowing other types of charging privileges for some users of the office. Several months after making the allegations, Hannan, a 20-year employee, was laid off.

Jerrell contended her termination was solely the result of elimination by the fiscal court of Social Security tax reimbursements to his office, which cost him $80,000 and forced him to make staff reductions. Hannan contended her termination was retaliation and sued.

The incident formed the backdrop of what became a bitter and at times personal battle between Jerrell, Judge-Executive Van Newberry and the fiscal court. Newberry appeared to take Hannan's side of the issue in his comments and Hannan was later hired to work at and ultimately administer the newly created county animal shelter.

Newberry and the fiscal court also launched into a court battle with Jerrell in an attempt to gain greater oversight and control over Jerrell's budget, ultimately prevailing on that front in the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

Hannan's suit went to mediation earlier this month and the county exercised its prerogative to intervene and settle the case, over Jerrell's objection. Because Jerrell was being sued in his capacity as a county official, it was the county's general fund, not the clerk's office, that was at risk and that gave the fiscal court the trump card.

As the smoke cleared this week, it became evident that Judge Newberry and Jerrell still don't see eye-to-eye on things.

Newberry said the settlement payment was prudent, and took a shot at Jerrell, saying, "I think it's the best result for the taxpayers, but it's unfortunate that the county clerk's office put them in this position."

Jerrell for his part expressed frustration that the fiscal court settled. "My attorney was ready to proceed (to trial) and we were confident that we would have prevailed," he said.

Given the bad blood between the clerk's office and the fiscal court these past few years, taxpayers can be forgiven for asking whether the court's intervention and sign-off on this sizable settlement was truly in line, or was motivated in part by a desire to publicly embarrass Jerrell. We'll never know.

For her part, Hannan says she is just happy the matter is over and she can get on with her life. Ultimately that may be how the taxpayers feel too.

Jerrell plans to retire when his term ends this year. Judge Newberry will be challenged to return to office after being indicted on a felony charge last week. Perhaps this will all ultimately play out to mean peace in the courthouse in 2015.

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