There’s a lesson government officeholders should learn from Trumbull County Engineer David DeChristofaro’s abuse of power in laying off three employees on his first day in office: Dumping a public worker can be a costly proposition if it is done on a whim.
While DeChristofaro keeps insisting that he laid off Amanda Latell, Matt Dohy and Nicole Klingeman on the advice of the lawyer, Enzo Cantalanessa, he hired in January 2009, his willingness to settle lawsuits filed against him by the three is an acknowledgment that he did not do his due diligence as county engineer before taking the action.
On what basis was DeChristofaro able to walk into the office Jan. 5, 2009, and determine there wasn’t enough work for Latell, Dohy and Klingeman? It now turns out that he did not have a basis for arriving at that conclusion.
It did not help his case that Latell is the daughter-in-law of former Engineer John Latell, and Dohy is the son-in-law. The former engineer had supported DeChristofaro’s opponent in the primary election, Randy Smith, who was his chief deputy.
And in a further blow to the county engineer’s effort to justify his decision to get rid of Klingeman, who also supported Smith in the 2008 Democratic primary, his lawyer in the lawsuit filed by her notified the Ohio Personnel Board of Review that DeChristofaro’s justification for letting Klingeman go was not supported by the facts.
In his notice, Charles Richards of Howland said he learned since first being hired to defend DeChristofaro in the lawsuit filed by Klingeman that the “no funds, no work” defense given for her firing is “inapplicable.”
The lawyer, who is no longer representing the county engineer, said the OPBR should give Klingeman her job back and award her back pay dating to Jan. 5, 2009, the date she was fired.
The whim has been costly. Last month, Dohy settled his federal lawsuit against the county engineer for $315,000 — $66,203 in a payroll check minus payroll deductions, $121,000 for his lawyers, and $127,797 in damages and emotional distress he claimed to have suffered.
Amanda Latell settled her federal lawsuit for $175,000.
Klingeman’s suit is still pending.
Cost of doing business badly
The argument has been made that the settlements will largely be paid by CORSA, the County Risk Sharing Authority, the county’s insurance pool. While that might be true, it would be foolish to believe that there will be no cost to the county’s treasury. Unless CORSA is some benevolent organization, the county’s cost of participating will go up. Why? Because the engineer did not act in good faith when he got rid of the three employees.
Ex-Engineer Latell’s hiring of his daughter-in-law and son-in-law was an inexcusable breach of public trust. He said he didn’t see anything wrong with hiring these relatives since he knew them to be qualified to do the jobs.
David Freel, Ohio Ethics Commission executive director, said at the time that public officials are not allowed to hire a member of their family, but it would be up to a prosecutor to decide whether “family member” includes a daughter-in-law or son-in-law.
Nonetheless, DeChristofaro’s action against the three on his first day in office is just as egregious — as the settlement payments to Dohy and Amanda Latell and, probably, Klingeman illustrate.