Fired county worker who backed DiFabio reinstated
YOUNGSTOWN — A fired Mahoning County maintenance employee who supported the Republican opponent of Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti had his job reinstated effective today.
Ricky Morrison of Poland was fired Dec. 2 by the county solely because of his support of Geno DiFabio, who unsuccessfully ran against Rimedio-Righetti, the Democratic incumbent, according to Subodh Chandra, Morrison’s attorney.
Chandra said Saturday that if Morrison, who is undergoing cancer treatment, wasn’t reinstated to his job by this Friday a lawsuit could be filed.
He said Tuesday that Morrison would return to work today and that a lawsuit still was possible.
Acting county Prosecutor Gina DeGenova said Tuesday that after getting a Sunday letter from Chandra, she investigated the matter and determined county Administrator Audrey Tillis — and not the county commissioners — fired Morrison. DeGenova also said Tillis’ decision was not proper.
In a Tuesday letter to Chandra, DeGenova wrote that Tillis’ “action was not politically motivated.” But that Morrison’s firing was void because Tillis doesn’t have the authority to fire him. That decision rests with the commissioners, and they “will not ratify the action taken by” Tillis, DeGenova said.
Morrison “will suffer no loss in pay or interruption of health care benefits,” according to DeGenova’s letter.
After DeGenova’s decision, Chandra said: “The county backed down because they were dead wrong and caught red-handed in a First Amendment-retaliatory firing. Commissioners and the prosecutor are throwing the administrator under the bus when there was no reason for the administrator or Mr. Morrison’s supervisor to fire Mr. Morrison other than to wrongly implement retaliatory direction.”
He added: “While it’s a relief that, after our demand for his reinstatement, Mr. Morrison — after enduring terror for 11 days — will apparently have his health insurance and cancer treatment restored, the emotional harm will be hard to recover from and the chilling effect on freedom of speech continues. Mr. Morrison didn’t attend the county elections board meeting (Tuesday) because of that effect.”
In a Sunday email to DeGenova, which included a link to an article that day in The Vindicator about Morrison’s questionable firing, Chandra wrote the “county commissioners engineered the firing … in express retaliation for him exercising his First Amendment rights” by supporting DiFabio.
In that email, Chandra wrote to DeGenova: “You have the opportunity to act in the public interest here. After all, as the county’s lawyer, you are in a position to correct this injustice by telling the county commissioners and administrator that they must correct this and correct it now. Based on this taxpayer-demand letter, you even have the authority to bring a lawsuit against them to correct this abuse of power.”
Asked Tuesday to comment, DiFabio questioned DeGenova’s explanation that Tillis fired Morrison with the commissioners having nothing to do with it.
Tillis couldn’t be reached Tuesday to comment.
After the county board of elections certified Rimedio-Righetti’s 130-vote victory over DiFabio early Tuesday she was asked about Morrison’s firing. She said the prosecutor’s office had it “under review” and would have a statement later in the day.
Rimedio-Righetti couldn’t be reached to comment after DeGenova determined Morrison’s firing was improper.
On Saturday, Rimedio-Righetti said: “Not everything you read in a letter is completely accurate.” Rimedio-Righetti also said Saturday that the commissioners didn’t fire Morrison and that he was on probation. That was backed up by county Commissioner David Ditzler.
Rimedio-Righetti beat DiFabio by 0.14 of 1 percent in the closest countywide election in 30 years.
Morrison, who was hired Sept. 12 by the county and fired Dec. 2 during his probationary period, sat next to DiFabio at a Nov. 28 elections board meeting.
At that meeting, the board voted to certify the results giving Rimedio-Righetti the win, but also scheduling an automatic recount because the margin of victory was so close. Automatic recounts occur when the margin of victory is within 0.5 of 1 percent.
Morrison was there as a private citizen as his work day was done, but his “presence and association with Mr. DiFabio in the meeting apparently spoke volumes,” Chandra wrote in a letter to the commissioners.
Chandra wrote that Morrison congratulated Rimedio-Righetti, who told him he looked familiar. When he identified himself, Chandra wrote that Rimedio-Righetti said “in a disgusted tone, ‘Ricky Morrison. You work for us. Unreal,” and then walked away.
Morrison was fired Dec. 2 with his supervisor saying “the commissioners” had decided to terminate him, Chandra wrote.
While working for the county, Morrison “performed exceptionally well, was on time every day, was never written up or disciplined in any way” while another co-worker hired around the same time, who wasn’t fired, “was repeatedly late for work and received several reprimands for his poor performance,” Chandra wrote in the letter to commissioners.