After nearly a full year of controversy, resident concern and numerous investigations of alleged staff misconduct costing the town almost $800,000, Purcellville Police Chief Cynthia McAlister has been reinstated to her position, effective Wednesday.
The town on Monday announced that McAlister would be reinstated this week after being on paid administrative leave since last August.
According to a town statement, the investigation—headed by Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP and retired Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo Sr.—found that “there was no evidence of untruthfulness or misconduct by Chief McAlister.”
To the contrary, the public report issued Monday concluded that the chief acted within her authority, often dealing with staff resistance to her efforts to modernize the department, and that poor morale within the department was more closely related to its under staffing than to McAlister’s management.
“I am looking forward to resuming my position and working with the police department staff as we continue to strive to provide excellent police services to the residents, businesses and visitors of our town,” McAlister said in a statement on Tuesday. “I continue to be committed to the safety of our community and will lead a police department that is engaged, responsive, accountable, transparent, caring and visible.”
The investigation also found that allegations that Purcellville Police Officer Kris Fraley had lied during a polygraph test “were unfounded,” which cleared him of “any and all wrongdoing.”
Mayor Kwasi Fraser commended town staff and council members for supporting the investigation from beginning to end and said that he and the Town Council look forward to fully supporting McAlister’s efforts “in community policing and delivery of public safety excellence to our citizens.”
“We have obtained the truth and identified operational controls to prevent such future risk events from reoccurring,” he said. “It has resulted in operational improvements to achieve citizen trust in our police department and management of our town.”
Town Manager David Mekarksi said he was eager to work with McAlister to strengthen the police department and help it become one of the best in the county, if not the state or nation.
“It’s a new dawn,” he said. “Frankly, there’s no place but up and I think we have all the tools in place—we’re doing everything right.”
The completion of the McAlister investigation comes nearly four months after the conclusion of four other investigations into misconduct allegations against other top town administrators. Those investigations included an audit of the original—and later discredited—investigation of the allegations against McAlister that was conducted by then-Interim Town Manager Alex Vanegas and a hired consultant—and investigations into the alleged misconduct of Vanegas, sexual harassment claims against Town Attorney Sally Hankins and claims that Human Resources Manager Sharon Rauch failed to follow proper procedures to protect records and files.
When investigations into those claims were complete in April, the Town Council voted unanimously to fire Vanegas and to reinstate Hankins and Rauch to their positions after allegations made against them were unfounded.
Vanegas opened the investigation into McAlister’s conduct in August 2017, after he said seven town police officers complained that McAlister: belittled them, gave them additional administrative assignments, made departmental administrative changes, “unduly influenced” the October 2016 investigation of a former police sergeant, strayed from a town code by issuing a special permit for a resident to shoot a BB gun on private property within town limits, allowed a civilian to be sworn in as a law enforcement officer and created a “toxic or hostile environment,” according to the public report released on Monday.
On Nov. 1, 2017, Vanegas reported to the Town Council his findings that McAlister had violated several town and police procedural policies, had intimidated employees, had been untruthful and engaged in selective enforcement. The Town Council unanimously supported a vote of “no confidence” in the chief. Vanegas fired McAlister the next day.
However, on Nov. 19, the town announced that the integrity of Vanegas’ investigation had been called into question after it was disclosed that he was allegedly involved in an inappropriate intimate relationship with Georgia Nuckolls, the human resources consultant he hired for $13,000 to help lead the investigation.
Vanegas was placed on administrative leave three days later. Next, the Town Council reinstated McAlister and placed her on paid administrative leave. The following week, Vanegas filed a formal complaint against Hankins alleging sexual harassment.
Although not in town when that happened, Mekarski said the decision to initially fire McAlister, which was based on the findings of a flawed investigation, was “unfortunate and really deplorable that essentially the aberrant behavior of a few impacted so many people in the organization.”
“Clearly, what we had at the top is a breakdown of professional ethics,” Mekarski said.
Councilman Chris Bledsoe, who was a part of the “no confidence” vote, said that Vanegas and Nuckolls misled the council, which became “a very regretful chapter” in the town’s history.
“We took it at face value that the findings of that investigation were more or less substantiated,” he said. “I regret my part in those prior actions.”
In December, the town hired Wilson Elser on an $80,000 contract to audit the Vanegas investigation and to investigate the new allegations of staff misconduct. Longo was also hired at $125 per hour to help the law firm.
In April, Wilson Elser concluded that the original McAlister investigation did not “represent a fair, unbiased, and thorough investigation” and that Vanegas “failed to properly manage and failed to exercise proper judgment with respect to the investigation into the complaints about the chief.” It also found that complaints against Hankins were “frivolous” and “meritless” and that Rauch had followed proper procedures in her duties.
Wilson Elser and Longo were tapped to conduct a fresh investigation into allegations against McAlister.
“I think citizens should be honored that there is a mayor and a council that is willing to essentially, methodically go on a pursuit for the truth and take that pursuit for the truth and administer justice,” Mekarski said. “This mayor and council wasn’t afraid of the challenge and they’re not afraid of the truth.”
Bledsoe said that while it’s too early to assess the Town Council’s morale, he feels that the police department’s is positive.
McAlister’s reinstatement will come the same day that Police Lt. Joe Schroeck’s retirement takes effect. Schroeck has been the town’s acting police chief since McAlister was placed on administrative leave 11 months ago. When asked if Schroeck’s retirement was related to McAlister’s return, Mekarksi said it didn’t play a factor in the decision. The town manager said Schroeck had told him earlier this year that his retirement “was on the horizon.”
In the final report, Longo and Wilson Elser will provide the town with recommendations on how to improve town policies, procedures and internal controls. These recommendations will be incorporated into the town’s operational audit, which The Novak Consulting Group began this week.
Also Longo made recommendations to improve operations within the police department—including hiring more staff, including two new command positions, to allow adequate operations.
According to the town’s calculations, as of July 27, the government has spent $791,391 on the investigations and salaries of the suspended managers and their replacements. In that time, McAlister alone was paid $102,831 of her $118,190 annual salary.