The tale of North Carolina's $45 million 'seat-warmer'

SEPTEMBER 06, 2014 4:00 PM

The tale of North Carolina's $45 million 'seat-warmer'
By Ned Barnett - nbarnett@newsobserver.com

For a man who spent 14 years in public service as mayor of Charlotte, Pat McCrory brought an oddly skeptical attitude toward public employees when he became governor.

In his first State of the State speech in 2013, he said, “We want to reward our talented state employees, but seat-warmers must be a thing of the past.”

The implication was clear. Accountability would be the watchword. State employees would have to demonstrate their value.

Toward that end, the governor asked that more employees be put on edge. The number of employees who serve at the pleasure of the governor was expanded from about 330 during the administration of Gov. Bev Perdue to 1,500 today.

That meant stripping many employees of the job security they had under the state personnel law. That law stipulates that an employee who is fired must be dismissed for cause – either poor performance or unacceptable behavior – and that those fired have a right to appeal. Further sharpening the effect was a new state law that bars employees from appealing when their job status is changed from civil service to exempt.

But taking a hard line with state employees hasn’t led to an uptick in accountability. Rather it has created more spots to add political favorites to the ranks. Meanwhile, bureaucrats stripped of their civil service protections feel intimidated about acting against politically connected companies and individuals.

The hazard of assuming that state government is more prone to unmotivated workers than any other large enterprise is that it becomes self-fulfilling. When employees feel they are not respected and not trusted, their productivity suffers

At the state Department of Health and Human Services, the falseness of the governor’s push for productive employees has been writ large. Young campaign aides have been given $80,000 jobs. Senior employees with deep institutional knowledge have left or been pushed out. Vacancies abound. Expensive consultants try to fill the gaps.

But the most damning indictment of the new “accountability” can be found in lawsuits filed against the N.C. Department of Public Safety by former state employee Joseph Vincoli of Clemmons. A prison health care official, Vincoli, 57, had his employment status changed from civil service to exempt after McCrory took office and was fired in December. He has filed two lawsuits. One challenges his dismissal as retaliation against a whistle-blower and another challenges the constitutionality of the law that blocks appeals by employees who have had their job status changed to exempt from civil service protections.

This could be a typical fight between a poor-performing employee and his bosses, but it’s really the complete opposite. Not only was Vincoli rated as “outstanding” in his last review, he also made a change in how the state contracts with hospitals for prisoner medical care that is saving the state $45 million a year. Yes, it’s true. The McCrory administration changed the work status of a civil servant and then fired the “seat-warmer” who was saving taxpayers $45 million a year.

Vincoli’s offense? He never got a stated cause, but his firing apparently arose from his attempt to save the state even more money. As The News & Observer’s Craig Jarvis reported earlier this year, Vincoli previously worked for privately run Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, where he identified overpayments by the state. He urged the hospital to adjust its charges but was ignored and eventually dismissed. After becoming a state employee in 2010, he continued to press for a reimbursement. The state auditor found that the state might have overpaid Baptist Hospital by $1.34 million over five years. The hospital denied it, and no money was recovered. But when the state auditor expanded the inquiry to other hospitals, the results showed the state health plan might have overpaid hospitals as much as $49 million over three years.

When Vincoli obtained emails strengthening the case against the Winston-Salem hospital, he sought to have the state investigate. Instead, the general counsel at the state Department of Public Safety told him to cease and desist. When Vincoli did not, he received an email that said: “You are NOT to waste any further government time on this issue. Every time you raise this topic, you force the leadership of DPS to waste time thinking about it and responding to you. Do not do it again.”

Clearly, the new accountability isn’t about accountability. It’s about giving political appointees leeway to do whatever they want to cowed civil servants. Vincoli, though, didn’t back down because he really does believe in, of all things, accountability.

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