Documents and interviews raise questions about who initiated the release of confidential personnel information about county commissioner Jim Pendergraph, a vocal critic of County Manager Harry Jones.
Last week, on the heels of controversy over a post-resignation payout to former mental health director Grayce Crockett, Jones released a statement saying Pendergraph received extra pay beyond what county policy allowed when he retired as sheriff in 2007.
Jones told commissioners the information about Pendergraph's sick and vacation leave payouts had been requested by commissioner George Dunlap, a Democrat, on Thursday, Feb. 10.
But according to a copy of the personnel record that Pendergraph said he obtained from Jones, that record was actually printed from the county computer system on Wednesday, Feb. 9.
Pendergraph and fellow Republican commissioner Bill James said they're troubled by the discrepancy.
"Anyone with half a brain can figure there's something wrong here," Pendergraph said. "Who's requested what - at what time?"
"I'm asking the tough questions of our county manager," Pendergraph said. "And all of a sudden my file is brought into it. That smells like retribution."
Pendergraph says he's also troubled that Jones released his personnel information - and he's considering whether to pursue criminal charges.
Last week, The Observer sent Jones questions about whether he or his staff looked at Pendergraph's personnel file before Dunlap's request. Jones did not respond.
Reached Friday, Dunlap said the following before hanging up on an Observer reporter: "There is nothing to it. I don't have anything further to say about it ... I'm not interested in getting in a debate with Bill James in your paper."
James said he recently quizzed Dunlap about when he requested the information.
"George wouldn't really answer," James said. "I would call what he said as hemming and hawing around."
When questioned about the date discrepancy last week, Jones told commissioners that he may have misstated the date when Dunlap requested the information, according to both Pendergraph and James.
James said he wants to know whether the request for the personnel file was driven by a desire for "retaliation on the part of Harry or on the part of George, or both of them."
"Politicians can go after other politicians," James said. "But a county manager can't go after an elected official because it undermines the democratic process. The central question is: 'Is that what happened?'"
Commissioner Dumont Clarke, a Democrat, declined to talk about the date discrepancy, saying commissioners have a duty not to talk about confidential matters that had been discussed between the board and the county's attorney in closed session.
But in an e-mail to James on Thursday, Clarke questioned why his Republican colleague didn't request that his concerns be included in the public statement that commissioners issued Tuesday night to reprimand Jones. "I am feeling like a schnook who has been schnookered," Clarke wrote.
Commission Chair Jennifer Roberts said Saturday she would try to determine whether Pendergraph's records were pulled before Dunlap requested them. "If it really did turn out that way, that would be something we would need to discuss," she said.
Mulling criminal charges
Jones told commissioners he granted an exception that allowed Pendergraph to get paid for an additional 18 days of unused vacation leave.
But Pendergraph said he never requested any extra money.
In a statement issued Tuesday night, county commissioners concluded that Jones "seriously erred" when he released information from Pendergraph's personnel file that was protected by N.C. privacy laws.
Pendergraph said Jones released at least two pieces of confidential information: the taxes and the payroll deductions on the additional payment from the county.
Part of the information released - the total amount of his additional pay, for instance - was releasable under N.C. law.
Under state law, it's a misdemeanor for public officials to give other people access to an employee's confidential personnel file. Those found guilty can be fined up to $500.
Pendergraph said he planned to meet with officials at the Mecklenburg District Attorney's office to determine whether criminal charges are warranted. He said he's also talking with private attorneys to determine whether he wants to pursue that course.
"I want the public to know that bad acts aren't tolerated," Pendergraph said. "And there are consequences. We have to have the trust of the public. And I'm afraid it's been terribly eroded."
Crockett announced her resignation in December after federal housing regulators faulted her department for poor oversight of a large mental health contractor. County officials say she was paid about $99,000 after resigning.
A county attorney initially said all of that money was for Crockett's vacation and accrued sick time. But officials later said about $63,000 of the final pay was negotiated to protect the county's legal interests and to bring about an immediate change in leadership.
Jones, 61, has served as county manager since 2001. He's being paid $283,011 in total compensation this year.
He isn't new to controversy.
He was criticized in 2009 following investigations into spending at a Department of Social Services program that bought Christmas gifts for needy children. A former county worker who volunteered with the Giving Tree program pleaded guilty to embezzling money from the charity.
Jones later apologized for two e-mails. After receiving an e-mail from a resident critical of the alleged DSS misspending, Jones forwarded the note to the man's employer. In 2010, the manager was chastised by county commissioners after sending an e-mail expressing distrust of library leaders.
On Tuesday, he apologized again, this time for releasing Pendergraph's personnel information and for leaving the public with a misleading impression about Crockett's final pay.
But in a video to county employees Thursday, Jones said he planned to remain on the job.
"I have not and will not consider resigning," he said. Staff Writer April Bethea contributed.