GRANT COUNTY, KY (FOX19) - The top two officials in Gr ant County have been sued over comments made months before terminating a 25 year veteran county employee. The lawsuit alleges gr ant County Judge Executive Steve Wood and Deputy Judge Executive Scott Kimmich committed age discrimination when they let Connie McClure go at the end of June.
Conversations about getting rid of Connie McClure and her replacement were captured on video during a budget meeting in February.
McClure also contends her firing was fueled by politics, something she said the secretly recorded budget meeting in February shows. McClure's attorney, Gail Langendorf agrees.
"I don't think there's any question. There's no vagueness, it's not ambiguous at all," Langendorf told FOX19 NOW, "It's right out there, it's set forth clear as day."
The 10 page federal complaint was filed Dec. 28 and Langendorf confirmed Judge Executive Steve Wood was served with his copy Dec. 29. A process server is currently looking for Deputy Judge Executive Scott Kimmich to serve him.
The suit lists five separate alleged counts against Wood and Kimmich: First Amendment rights violation, intentional and reckless conduct of Wood and Kimmich, discharged for a decision to not vote for Steve Wood, "Public Policy Wrongful Discharge," and a violation of state age discrimination statutes.
Langendorf, wrote the county on Nov. 12, advising them McClure would sue if the county didn't agree to pay $750,000 in lost wages and wages she would have earned if the county didn't terminate her. McClure was set to retire in nine years when she reached 65 years old.
Gr ant County Judge Executive Steve Wood told FOX19 NOW, he will fight the case in court. The county has no plans to settle with McClure, Wood confirmed during a Dec. 7 interview.
Calls to Kimmich and Wood were not immediately returned. Wood, in an interview with FOX19 NOW, previously denied the allegations of age discrimination and described his comment on the recording that he planned to replace McClure with a "blonde, 24, big t—s," as "locker room humor."
BIRTH OF THE TAPE
A few months ago, McClure and her attorney found out about a Feb. 14 budget meeting between Grant County Judge Executive Steve Wood, Deputy Judge Executive Scott Kimmich, Grant County Jailer Chris Hankins and jail Lt. Jason Hankins.
The men chose to meet on a Saturday, Jason Hankins said, in order to discuss the jail's staffing troubles without distractions of weekday county business. The discussion unrelated to the budget talks, Hankins told FOX19 NOW, was not something the jailers ever planned to happen.
The Hankins brothers recorded the meeting on the jail's surveillance system. The jail is marked in several places with signs warning visitors of 24-7 audio and video recordings.
After McClure was terminated June 30, she said she found out that the Hankins still had a copy of the video. McClure's attorney sent the jail an open records request and the Hankins had to produce a copy of the recording.
The recording is 124 minutes long and captured the entire meeting, a meeting that was not required to be open to the public, despite the discussion of county business.
"IF I REPLACE CONNIE, IT'LL BE A BLOND, 24, BIG…"
"I told jokes I shouldn't have told. It's not me you see on that tape," Grant County Judge Executive Steve Wood told FOX19 NOW. "That was an idiot trying to make people laugh," Wood said.
Wood contends he meant "no harm" in what he said he was joking about concerning employees and the type of looks in a woman he'd like to see replace Connie McClure. At the end of the 124 minute meeting, Wood tells Jailer Chris Hankins he's already had a conversation with his own wife about how McClure's replacement should look.
"I told her, if I replace Connie, it's going to be a blond, 24, big t---s," Wood said on the recording. Wood then goes on to tell a sexist joke to the Hankins brothers as the meeting moved into a discussion over how to drug test jail employees.
The county held a party for McClure on June 30, the last day of the county's fiscal year. McClure contends she was fired and forced into retirement, nine years before she was eligible to draw full retirement.
Days following McClure's termination, the county hired her replacement, a woman 30 years younger than McClure. The replacement's age was detailed in McClure's settlement demand letter to the county.
"I was fired because of my age and my looks," McClure told FOX19 NOW, "I believe that whole joke came true," McClure said, referring to Wood's claims that he was making a joke about the replacement.
"Those are your words," Barr said to Wood during the Dec. 7 interview, "and for Connie McClure to be replaced days after she left here with a much younger woman, how does this not stack up to age discrimination?" "Do you want to meet the girl I hired," Wood asked, "She's not blond," Wood said.
Wood acknowledged the new employee was "significantly" younger than McClure, "Well, yeah she is. She's younger," Wood said.
MCCLURE: INDICATIONS OF POLITICAL VENDETTA IN TAPE
The video shows several minutes of discussion between the Hankins, Wood and Kimmich related to who particular employees were "loyal" to; Woods administration versus the administration he replaced Jan. 1, 2015. The political impact of firing McClure was also discussed in the meeting, a meeting that happened four months before she was terminated.
"There was no retirement. I had no plans to retire. I was going to work until I was 65 years old and they had the gall to bring over a retirement cake and call it a retirement party from them," McClure said.
What McClure didn't know during that June 30 party, her bosses had discussed retiring her in February during the video recorded meeting.
Those officials also discussed the political impacts of "getting rid" of Connie McClure. That discussion came after Kimmich informed the group the county couldn't afford McClure's $48,000 annual salary.
"Honestly, the woman's being paid $48,000 a year to be a payroll clerk," Kimmich said. "She's way overpaid," Wood replied. Kimmich also told the men that McClure had made unauthorized payroll adjustments for employees.
"Let me tell you something," Kimmich tells the men, "if a county employee in our administration does the stuff that she's done and we don't fire her, we deserve to be indicted and thrown out of office."
"I can tell you right now, if you got rid of Connie, it would hurt you the next time around," Chris Hankins tells Wood in the meeting. "Why?" Wood asked, "She wasn't for him this time," Kimmich rebutted.
"Well, I can tell you right now, I'm ready for her to retire," Jason Hankins said. The statement brought laughs from around the table.
Wood questioned the group more in regards to the Hankins' statement about the political implications of cutting McClure, "You think it's going to hurt me politically," Wood asked. "I think it could," Chris Hankins answered, "Yeah, but I don't care about politically," Wood responded.
"She's a little old lady that lives down in Corinth in a shack on the lake," Chris Hankins explained. "She voted against you, she voted against me," Wood told Hankins.
Kimmich interrupted the conversation between Hankins and Wood, shooting down any talk that terminating McClure could be seen as politically motivated, "The fact he's kept every employee is a testament to the fact that he didn't do political firings," Kimmich said.
"That's true," Wood agreed.
Wood denied McClure's claims that her political affiliations led to her termination. "So, the discussion about who she supported, who she voted for, her political affiliations; it was talked about in that video at length by you and the deputy judge executive—that's not the reason she was fired?," Barr asked Wood.
"I cannot comment on that right now, because I've been advised…" Wood said, never finishing the sentence.
When asked why McClure was terminated, Wood said the county's attorney advised him to not talk about the matter.
WOOD DEFENDS HIS ADMINISTRATION AND SCOTT KIMMICH
During our Dec. 7 interview with Steve Wood, the Republican denied all claims that he participated in a political firing when it comes to Connie McClure. McClure told us she's a registered Democrat, but never brought her politics into the office.
McClure, who served the county as a payroll clerk and human resources clerk, said in 25 years of service to Grant County, she'd received hundreds of hours in training related to office conduct, specifically related to the discussion of politics.
When Wood took office on Jan. 1, he said he walked into an office "full of Democrats." In his 11 months in office, Wood said he only lost one employee because he let her "get away." That employee, Wood confirmed, was not Connie McClure.
"I don't do political firings, my record proves that," Wood said.
In the video, Kimmich tells the group that there are several employees under his supervision that he's "suspicious" of. Kimmich names several employees, including Connie McClure.
"We've only got two employees in the administration that I still am very suspicious of—in the total administration, county government. There's still two I'm very, very suspicious of running stuff to Darrell (former Grant County Judge Executive Darrell Link)," Kimmich said.
Kimmich admitted one employee was Connie McClure, the other is Grant County Highway Department Supervisor Steve Tatum.
"I just don't trust him," Kimmich said of Tatum during the meeting, "I'm done with him, he's a snake," Kimmich continued.
Kimmich explained, he was angry over where Tatum stacked road cones outside the county administration building the week before, calling Tatum "f---ing lazy."
Both Wood and Chris Hankins defended Tatum, questioning Kimmich's version of the story.
"Was he having a bad day, because that just don't sound like him," Chris Hankins said. "He's loyal to Darrell," Kimmich replied.
We attempted to interview Kimmich in the day before the Dec. 7 Grant County Fiscal Court meeting. Kimmich declined the request, telling FOX19 he was "too swamped" to schedule an interview. We found him leaving his office heading to the meeting later that evening.
"I'm not commenting on anything, We're now involved in litigation, or the threat of litigation, so I'm going to make no comment and go to the county commission meeting," Kimmich said.
When questioned about claims Kimmich was targeting his employees for their "loyalties" to political opponents, Kimmich denied those claims, "Absolutely not. Look at our record. We have appointed and re-appointed a number of quality, good people and that's all I have to say at this time, thank you," Kimmich said.
Kimmich also denied McClure's claims that she was targeted for her politics, "That's absolutely untrue and that will be tried in court and we will be proven to have done everything that was appropriate, according to law," Kimmich said as he walked into the public meeting.
Judge Executive Steve Wood, who attended the Feb. 14 meeting with Kimmich, said he's "talked with" Kimmich about what he said about his employees during that Feb. 14 meeting.
"He has already saved his salary already by the contacts he has in Frankfort. He's been a valuable employee. I'm glad I've got him, I'll never turn back on that statement," Wood told FOX19 NOW.
MCCLURE: LAWSUIT IS THE ONLY FIX
"I'm not backing down," McClure told FOX19 NOW. McClure said she has no plan to drop her settlement and if the county misses her Dec. 12 deadline to settle, she and her attorney will file an age discrimination suit against the county.
During the Dec. 7 fiscal court meeting, Wood and Kimmich apologized for what they said on the recording. Wood also apologized earlier that day when he interviewed with us, "I want them to know that I'm still the Steve Wood they elected and I certainly said some inappropriate things that I'm sorry for and I'm actually—frankly—they were stupid and I want them to know in the future, I will not embarrass them or myself anymore. And, I would like them to know nobody's been harder on myself. I've beat myself up over it and I don't think anybody can beat me up more than I have myself," Wood said.
"What you saw on that tape, it's not me," Wood said.
In an August 7 letter to McClure, Kimmich explained that her position had been "eliminated" by an executive order voted on by the fiscal court on May 18, 2015. The office, according to Kimmich, underwent a "reorganization and restructuring," driving the salary for the position McClure held to "the low 30's," Kimmich's letter stated.
Kimmich quoted McClure as stating to him, "I can't live on that." McClure told FOX19 NOW that discussion never happened and that Kimmich's letter "was a lie."
McClure's replacement, Kimmich wrote, was approved during the "budgetary process."
Wood told FOX19 NOW he will not settle and plans to fight McClure and her allegations in court.