As you may have read in the Leader on March 10, the lawsuit against former county circuit clerk Howard Wagner and others alleging a politically motivated firing was dismissed by a US District Court judge in early March. Let me summarize the case, and show that the dismissal does not necessarily mean that politics were not involved.
The case by former circuit clerk employee Jamie Mahn centers around three questions:
- Did county clerk Wes Wagner tell Howard (his dad) how Mahn voted (it is known that she voted GOP and that the Wagners are Democrats)?
- Was party affiliation or loyalty a motivating factor in Mahn’s dismissal?
- Was Mahn fired for reasons other than politics?
For the first question, the court ruled that no concrete evidence was presented that Wes Wagner told Howard how Mahn voted, just speculation, and his portion of the case was dismissed. For the third question, the judge ruled that sufficient performance issues related to Mahn’s work existed to justify termination. Based on the answers to these questions, the judge declared there was no basis for the suit, and thus dismissed it.
However, on question two, the judge ruled that there was sufficient evidence to litigate this issue. Four circuit clerk employees (aside from Mahn) testified that Howard Wagner made various comments about voting. Alleged statements include:
- “I don’t see the ballots, but I know how you vote.”
- “This is a Democrat world, people are Democrat there, and we should support the Democrats.”
- Three employees testified that they felt pressured to vote Democrat and/or pretend they were Democrats.
Wagner testified that trying to influence Mahn’s vote in a primary election in which the Democrat candidate to replace him, Jeannette McKee, was unopposed, would make no sense, but what makes no sense is to assume that any pressure or intimidation would have no effect on employees’ votes in the general election three months later, in which McKee was opposed. The judge also did not seem to understand this point.
The court found that “Mahn has submitted sufficient evidence [to go forward with trial] that political affiliation or loyalty was a motivating factor in her dismissal.” But this was not enough to counteract the other two questions stated above.
So while Wagner won this suit, let’s not come away from this lawsuit with the impression that politics were not played in the JeffCo circuit clerk’s office.
Another lawsuit by Mahn, alleging she was discriminated against for using sick leave during an illness, is still ongoing.