The chaos in Purcellville’s Town Hall continued Tuesday when Interim Town Manager Alex Vanegas was placed on administrative leave, pending the outcome of an independent administrative investigation into his conduct since taking the post in May.
The action follows revelations that Vanegas had an inappropriate personal relationship with the human resources consultant, Georgia Nuckolls, hired to lead the investigation that resulted in the firing of the town’s police chief three weeks ago. It also was revealed that Nuckolls had a prior criminal history that was not disclosed.
Now, the integrity of that investigation has been called into question—both by the Town Council and the attorney representing Cynthia McAllister as she appeals her termination.
The Town Council was briefed on the allegations during a three-hour emergency closed session Saturday morning. At that time, the council took no formal action in public and did not place Vanegas on leave.
“The employee involved in the relationship will be disciplined in accordance with the Town’s personnel manual and procedures. Further, the Town will implement measures that will govern all future contract awards, designed to prevent the recurrence of these issues,” according to a town statement released following that meeting.
Vanegas did not return to work on Monday.
Mayor Kwasi Fraser met with department heads and other staff members Tuesday morning and expressed his confidence in their ability to continue serving with the “highest level of care and professionalism.”
“As we work to rebuild a positive, collaborative and stable organization, I want you all to know that my and Town Council’s commitment with this effort will be to you, the employees,” Fraser said, according to a statement released by the town. “With your help, led by incredible department heads and management team, we will rebuild and move forward in a positive direction.”
Fraser said the town would hire another interim town manager “as soon as possible.”
Until then, Hooper McCann, the town’s long-serving director of administration will have the full authority to conduct town business in the capacity of an interim town manager, he said.
All this comes seven months after 24-year town manager Rob Lohr retired, amid friction with a newly seated Town Council majority whose members were highly critical of past town policies and actions.
Vanegas’ relationship with the HR consultant, Georgia Nuckolls, was initially discovered by the town staff late last week in “emails from persons outside the Town which contained allegations of employee wrongdoing and statements of potentially criminal threats,” according to a town statement.
After the emails were disclosed, Town Attorney Sally Hankins opened an investigation and informed Town Council—prompting Saturday’s emergency meeting. Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman also attended that closed-door session.
During the session, the town confirmed that Nuckolls had “multiple old, but serious, criminal convictions.” Loudoun Now has confirmed three felony convictions from 1997 against Nuckolls in Onslow County, NC—financial credit card fraud and two counts of forgery of instrument. She was given a suspended sentence of 60 days of supervised probation. Plowman briefed the council on more than a dozen prior charges against her.
Concerns about Nuckolls’ prior criminal history surfaced about two weeks ago. In an interview Nov. 10, Vanegas told Loudoun Now that he was aware of information that Nuckolls may have had prior felony convictions, but he was nevertheless confident in the finding of the investigation of McAlister’s conduct.
Vanegas said he knew little about Nuckolls’ criminal history, specifically the felony convictions.
“I don’t know that there is any verity to that,” Vanegas said when asked about Nuckolls’ criminal history on Nov. 10. “It is up to you guys to do your due diligence.”
“I know that in looking at the information that was provided that she did have security clearance recently,” he added.
“Someone said that was 20-something or 22 years ago. I’m sure that if I dug in to everyone’s past I would find something,” Vanegas said during the Nov. 10 interview. “We don’t go do a thorough vetting of every individual. We didn’t do it with our police chief. Maybe that brings up opportunities moving forward to do those kind of things.”
In that interview, Vanegas also denied having a friendship with Nuckolls. He acknowledged they were friends on Facebook, but then said he has 5,000 people on that list. “I’ve known of her,” he said.
When asked specifically whether he shared a personal relationship with Nuckolls, Vanegas said, “We are not close friends.”
The new allegation that Nuckolls had an intimate relationship with Vanegas further clouded the probe of the police chief.
“With this knowledge, the Town recognizes that the integrity of this investigation may be called into question, and will promptly hire an outside independent firm to audit and review the investigation,” the statement said.
McAlister was fired Nov. 3, after the investigation was said to have “substantiated” allegations against her. Those included that she acted outside of the scope of her job as chief of police; engaged in selective enforcement; violated General Orders concerning internal affairs investigations; practiced employee intimidation; had been untruthful; and violated town and police procedural policies, according to a statement from the town.
McAlister has formally appealed her termination. Under the town’s grievance procedures, her first appeal would be heard by the town manager, although it was unclear how the town will proceed under the circumstances.
McAlister has hired attorney John V. Berry of Berry & Berry to represent her in the appeal. “The unfolding events in this case are very troubling and cause great concern regarding the validity of the investigative process as well as the potential motives of Mr. Alexander Vanegas and Ms. Georgia Nuckolls,” Berry said in a statement Tuesday.
Berry alleged that McAlister was terminated without due process, that the investigation did not follow standard law enforcement procedures and that the claims made against McAlister will be shown to be without merit. If the appeal is moved to a grievance hearing, Berry said it is likely McAlister would request it be open to the public.
Councilwoman Karen Jimmerson said that she was “disappointed” by the series of events. “That’s about it, really—like a bad soap opera,” she said.
One option under consideration to ensure the town government keeps moving efficiently is to seek assistance from the county government. Fraser on Sunday emailed Supervisor Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) and County Administrator Tim Hemstreet to request help in the form of “two strong managers with Human Resources and Project Management background … over the next 2 months.” Fraser also later requested additional support for the town’s police department.
Buffington, a Purcellville resident, said he’d like to provide any support needed. Hemstreet said he would take the request to the full board.
Jimmerson said she was confident the existing town staff could carry on without the outside help sought by Fraser. “Our staff is extremely competent,” she said. “They’re doing a great job.”
Councilman Doug McCollum, however, said he hopes the county does lend some support. “Any help that we can get would be appreciated,” he said.