Mesa County hired outside investigator for allegation

FRANK WHIDDEN Former county administrator

The silence from Mesa County officials is deafening as to why their top executive, County Administrator Frank Whidden, was placed on paid administrative leave in May and why he abruptly resigned two months later.

Despite numerous questions and three Colorado Open Records Act requests from The Daily Sentinel, the county is not disclosing why its highest paid employee, someone who received a 37% pay increase less than a year ago, was suddenly placed on paid leave for two months and then unexpectedly resigned.

County leaders said it was a "personnel matter," and they couldn't, by law, comment further.

The first CORA request made by the Sentinel resulted in two copies of Whidden's already released one- sentence resignation letter, which said he was resigning "in order to pursue other opportunities."

The Mesa County Attorney's Office said the newspaper's second open records request would cost about $50,000 to comply with, while the third request of all correspondence since May between Whidden and the three county commissioners — Rose Pugliese, Scott McInnis and John Justman — produced only three emails, all of which were news articles published by the Sentinel about Whidden's resignation and a federal age discrimination lawsuit filed against Whidden and the county.

Initially, county officials said Whidden, who could not be reached for comment, was out for medical reasons, but McInnis and Pugliese said that wasn't the case.

The attorney's office also said it couldn't review text messages on Whidden's county- issued cellphone "due to technical issues," but was trying to resolve that problem.

The attorney's office withheld three emails about Whidden on grounds that releasing them would violate its attorney-client privilege under CORA.

"We can confirm that the three messages were generated and sent by the county attorney or through persons working under his direction to his clients, or were responses of the clients to those messages. No third party received or otherwise was involved in the messages," Assistant County Attorney John R. Rhoads wrote in an email to the Sentinel.

"If is further the county's position that providing details you requested in your August 21, 2019, email would necessarily violate these privileges. The county therefore is unable to release this information."

Denver attorney Steven Zansberg, who specializes in media law, said that's not the case. He said such information as sender, recipient, date and time of an email doesn't violate attorney-client restrictions.

The discrimination lawsuit, filed last year by a longtime county Office of Information Technology worker, revealed that while Whidden was laying off IT employees and finding ways to cut the county budget by $1.4 million, he was simultaneously being reimbursed by the county to obtain a master's degree in marriage and family counseling.

He already has undergraduate and master's degrees in computer information systems and business management.

Whidden was reimbursed by the county over several years for courses he took through Northcentral University, a San Diego-based online school, according to Paula Greisen, the attorney who filed the case on behalf of Debra Bouricius, who worked for the county for about 26 years, before being laid off in 2016.

In a July deposition for the age discrimination lawsuit, Whidden said that reimbursement was not taxable, meaning he didn't have to declare it as income on his tax returns.

Whidden was earning $180,000 a year when he left county employment.

Since earning that Northcentral degree, Whidden has started a private business in family and marriage counseling. He got a temporary permit to work as a therapist from the State Board of Marriage and Family Therapist Examiners last year that is valid until July 2022.

In a Psychology Today website advertisement of Whidden's practice, in which he charges $50 to $100 per session, Whidden says he specializes in divorce, family conflict and depression, including 26 specific issues, such as peer relationships, narcissistic personalities, racial identity and infidelity.

While McInnis said the commissioners couldn't comment on why Whidden was placed on paid leave, he was not happy with the former administrator when he learned of that degree and private business.

"I knew about the training, but was surprised about the private business and felt personally deceived by omission," McInnis said. "He was less than honest in not disclosing that. I don't recall that we had an open meeting about it, but if I had known, I would have objected. If he were still a county employee, I would ask for the money back."

In the deposition, Whidden said he wanted to get educated on mental health issues because of a suicide problem in the county, and sought and received permission from commissioners to be reimbursed for the degree. He said that degree required 500 hours of clinical experience, which he said he fulfilled on weekends working at the local Mind Springs Health.

But a month before that, Justman said in a deposition for the same case that while he knew Whidden wanted to learn about such matters, he, too, didn't know Whidden had earned a master's degree and had opened his own practice.

"Do you have any opinion as to if that business, private business being conducted was paid for by taxpayer dollars, would that cause you any concern?" Greisen asked Justman in his May 3 deposition.

"Yes," Justman responded.

"And it's fair to say there's been no discussion, at least no public discussion, by the Board of County Commissioners about Mr. Whidden's private practice, whether it's appropriate or not; is that correct?" Greisen said.

"Yes," Justman replied.

On Nov. 17, 2015, Justman, Pugliese and McInnis all signed a training approval request by Whidden to be reimbursed for tuition charges of "up to $10,000 per year."

The county's policy on tuition reimbursement, however, has a $2,500 annual reimbursement cap for full-time employees and limits their lifetime reimbursement to no more than $10,000. That increases to $12,000 for employees with 15 or more years of employment with the county, which doesn't include Whidden. He first began working for the county in 2011, starting as head of its IT department.

A few days after that Justman deposition, Whidden was placed on paid administrative leave.

At the same time Whidden was employed as county administrator, he also acted as the county's human resources director and headed its information technology department.

Pugliese told The Daily Sentinel that she knew Whidden was getting training in such matters, but she said she was told by Whidden that it was needed for his duties as human resources director. Pugliese said there was nothing in his employment contract that barred him from starting his own business, as long as it didn't interfere with his duties as administrator.

"The reimbursement that we had authorized a couple of years ago was at least told to us to be in relation to human resource training," Pugliese said. "It made sense in relation to that position. I don't know what courses he took, but mental health issues are related to human resources issues affecting the county. It could be used internally as well as externally."

McInnis said that he, too, thought Whidden was getting specific training on human resources matters, not a full-blown master's degree.

He said training is crucial for certain county workers, such as sheriff's deputies, attorneys and human services experts. But there was no need for Whidden to get a degree in marriage and family counseling, McInnis said.

"That's not part of his job description as an administrator or a human resource director," he said. "It seems like a gross abuse of his discretion."

At the time the commissioners increased Whidden's annual pay from $131,000 to $180,000 last year, commissioners said it was justified because he was doing the job of three people, all while working without a deputy administrator.

"We felt it was only fair to increase his compensation accordingly," Justman told the Sentinel at the time. "Were he to leave, we would likely have to hire four people to replace him. I think Mesa County is getting a bargain."

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