Circuit Clerk Lawsuit and Longevity in Office

30 Oct

Jamie Mahn, former employee of the 23rd Judicial Circuit (which covers Jefferson County, has filed a lawsuit in US District Court against longtime circuit clerk Howard Wagner, county clerk (and Howard’s son) Wes Wagner (who is up for re-election), and Jeanette McKee, employee of the 23rd circuit who is running to take the place of Howard Wagner, who is retiring. Mahn alleges that she was called into H. Wagner’s office to discuss a Facebook post in which she supported a GOP candidate for circuit clerk. He is said to have advised her “forcefully” to vote for McKee. He also stated that she only had her job because of her family’s longtime Democratic ties. Her cousin Todd ran briefly for the Democratic nomination for the 8th Congressional District in 2012 and again unsuccessfully in the 2013 special election.

Narrative from the Lawsuit

You can read the lawsuit here.

Mahn claims that another employee told her she got the same threat, and subsequently put Democratic signs in her yard. Mahn, however, went ahead and pulled a GOP absentee ballot for the August 2014 primary election. She then went on medical leave for about three weeks. When she returned, H. Wagner told her “I know how you voted” and expressed his “disappointment and frustration.” Later, Mahn’s coworkers told her she “has a rude awakening coming.”

Three days later, on August 29, Wagner had a meeting with the whole office, told them he knew how they all voted, and said that if GOP candidate Mike Reuter won that he would “clean house.” On September 19, Wagner gave Mahn a termination letter with that day’s date, but the text of the letter said August 29 – the day of the whole-office meeting. Mahn was escorted from the building.

Later, she applied for unemployment benefits, but McKee told the Missouri Department of Employment Security that Mahn was never employed by the circuit, which delayed Mahn’s benefits (she has since begun to receive them).

It is noted in the suit that the only way Howard Wagner would know how people voted was if Wes Wagner, who runs county elections, told him.

Defendant Reaction

KMOV report on the suit here.

Howard Wagner told the Post-Dispatch that “The timing of this lawsuit prior to the election by a disgruntled ex-employee is suspicious to me.” Wes did not return the paper’s call. McKee denied that she denied Mahn’s employment to the state.

It is true that this suit comes close to the election (it was filed October 24). But Mahn was fired on September 19. I wouldn’t expect her to wait until after the election to file. And besides, elections are what this whole suit is about.

I’m not sure about the allegations that Howard Wagner knew how “everyone” voted. Wes Wagner could have looked at absentee ballots that were cast by circuit clerk employees, including Mahn, at the time they were cast (or found out what party was selected), I reckon, but I don’t believe there is any way for him to know how anyone who showed up on election day would have voted. So perhaps if Howard made the claim to know how everyone voted, he was exercising a bit of bluster (or he saw it on Facebook).

Advantage of Incumbency

It would seem rather foolish of the trio of defendants, particularly Howard Wagner, to act so blatantly as described in this suit. However, he has been in the job since 1987. Someone who’s been in political office that long can develop a certain sense of being untouchable. And if these allegations are true, this is highly likely not the first time he has used these tactics. This is why it is important to regularly turn out incumbents. No person should hold the same elected office for decades. In Jefferson County, we have Howard Wagner (28 years in office), Beth Mahn, collector for 28 years (also up for re-election), Dorothy Stafford, 20 years as county auditor (also up for re-election), and Sheriff Boyer, who has been there for 22 years. All Democrats. Besides the sheriff, these offices get very little attention from the media, and nobody really knows what they do there all day. So it would not be hard for these officeholders to set up little empires of unaccountability and do as they please without fear.

Howard Wagner is retiring, but McKee, who is running to replace him, has worked in the office for 15 years. She might tinker a bit if elected, but we can expect to her maintain Wagner’s style of control over the office, as the lawsuit describes. And she won’t want to uncover any misdeeds or mismanagement she finds, like a fresh face would do. So a vote for her is a vote for another term for Wagner. Here’s a website set up to oppose McKee.

And another Wagner protege, Mike Bone, is running for county recorder. Do we want to export Wagner-style management to another part of county government? Bone says in the Leader election preview that he will “retain all current staff if elected.” Will that continue to be true if said employees express intent to vote for Republicans?

Despite the recent GOP resurgence here, in which the party won the county executive seat, a supermajority on the council, and three state House seats, not many Democrats holding county office have been swept out (the exceptions being the county recorder and public administrator positions). I think it would help if the county GOP establishment spent more time and money on recruitment and campaigning for those races and less on intra-party contests over committee seats. That $2,800 the JCORCA PAC spent on the committee races at the end of July might be useful now. The JCORCA PAC is a puppet PAC controlled by the county GOP establishment, since they can’t use the Central Committee PAC for committee races.

Here’s hoping that a few long-time officeholders are retired next week.

UPDATE: Here’s an interesting comment from Facebook:

wagner sister comment

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3 Responses to “Circuit Clerk Lawsuit and Longevity in Office”

  1. JC Penknife October 31, 2014 at 9:42 pm #

    Interesting note from the Post-Dispatch article: McKee “said she had been on leave since the beginning of October to focus on campaigning full time.” How nice that she can just drop her duties and go campaign. Perhaps she’s not that essential.

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