The Purcellville Town Council tonight voted 6-0-1 to hire the Wilson Elser Law Firm to investigate a series of allegations of staff misconduct that have left both the interim town manager and the police chief on administrative leave. The council also set aside $80,000 to cover the cost of the work.
“Within our town’s administration, we have systemic issues,” said Mayor Kwasi Fraser. “Having expressed their concerns about these issues, senior staff have asked for help to fix them, and we are reviewing their concerns to move Purcellville forward.”
The law firm will conduct an audit of the town’s investigation that originally led to the firing of Police Chief Cynthia McAlister. The integrity of that investigation was called into question three weeks ago, when allegations surfaced that Interim Town Manager Alex Vanegas had an improper personal relationship with the human resources specialist hired to lead that probe. Questions were also raised about the consultant’s qualifications because of a criminal history that included felony convictions of fraud and forgery.
Following those allegations, McAlister was reinstated to her position but continued on leave. Vanegas was placed on administrative leave as well. Retired Chesterfield County Police Chief Thierry Dupuis also will lead the audit of the McAlister investigation. He is a board members and former president of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.
Wilson Elser also will investigate a subsequent complaint filed by Vanegas alleging sexual harassment by Town Attorney Sally Hankins. Hankins has denied that allegation.
According to the staff report prepared for Thursday’s meeting, the law firm also will investigate “other complaints made by Town staff members against Town Attorney Sally Hankins.”
The council majority preferred Wilson Elser because of its Tysons Corner location, lower rates, experience working with municipalities, lack of affiliation with the county and electronic discovery capabilities.
“That’s a relevant issue at play,” said Councilman Chris Bledsoe. “I think that’s going to be critical.”
Councilman Doug McCollum abstained from the vote because he was in favor of contracting with the Jackson Lewis law firm, which has been used by the county government for this type of work and was recommended by the county staff.
Wilson Elser has proposed to begin the investigations with an initial team of three attorneys who, according to a Dec. 6 letter to the town, have extensive experience investigating instances of sexual harassment and discrimination, leading investigations of government agencies and using electronic discovery.
Council also voted to amend the town budget to transfer $80,000 from reserves and set it aside to pay the law firm and Dupuis for their services. The town’s budget amendment shows that $15,000 will go toward the McAlister investigation audit, $50,000 toward the other three investigations and $15,000 toward county support.
Wilson Elser indicated it would charge the town up to $40,250 for all four investigations, while Dupuis charges $125 per hour plus expenses.
Newly appointed Councilman Ted Greenly was the only council member to mention the investigations’ financial impact on residents. “As a taxpayer, I want this done right,” he said.
“This mayor and Town Council acknowledge to our citizens that we own these issues and take full responsibility for resolving them in a timely and appropriate manner,” Fraser said. “In the meanwhile, our staff and management team continue to deliver excellent service to the community as per usual.”
Fraser also said the media has “over-amplified” the issues in town throughout the past few weeks.
“I know a lot is said in the media, but as I stated to someone, ‘down goes Fraser’ sells more ads than the truth and the facts,” he said. “I’m committed to the truth and facts.”
The town has indicated it would like for the investigations to wrap up by Jan. 31 next year.
Also on Thursday night, the council was scheduled to discuss hiring an individual or a consulting firm to provide the services of an interim town administrator while the town searches for a permanent replacement for Robert W. Lohr, who retired in June amid friction with the council. The council did not take up that issue, but is expected to discuss it during its regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday.