City Attorney Accused of Politically-Motivated, Retaliatory Staff Directive
Latest issue causes public infighting amongst Common Council.
City Attorney Tearman Spencer‘s office continues to be a place of turmoil and turnover.
Another attorney has resigned, this time after only eight weeks on the job, and accuses Spencer of committing an “abuse of power” aimed at getting back at a former attorney that accused him of sexual harassment.
Spencer was first elected in April 2020, replacing 36-year incumbent Grant Langley. Since then the City Attorney’s office, which is authorized to have a roster of 40 attorneys, has seen substantial and sustained turnover. Spencer, who is Black, has blamed the issue on race and said Langley loyalists were those leaving. “The facts will speak for themselves if you really want to look at the facts,” said Spencer to a Common Council committee on Sept. 15.
But the facts aren’t helping Spencer, and Thomas’ complaint is just the latest. A number of Spencer’s own hires are leaving. As we reported last month, the office lost 12 attorneys in 2021 (now at least 13), up from nine in 2020. Of the 13 attorneys who left in 2021, eight were hired in 2020 or 2021 and three were deputies, the department’s top rank.
Thomas was given the caseload of former assistant city attorney Naomi Gehling. In her April resignation letter submitted to the Department of Employee Relations (DER), Gehling said she was fleeing a “toxic and hostile work environment” created by Spencer. Gehling, who now serves as chief of staff for the Fire & Police Commission, has publicly said Spencer placed his hand on her knee during a meeting. It was one of a series of complaints from female staffers that triggered a DER investigation of Spencer that concluded not that allegations were unfounded, as he has claimed, but that the city’s anti-harassment policy does not apply to elected officials. The council has since sought to change the policy.
He said Spencer returned a day or two later and again asked for the memo, which Thomas said he demurred on and asked for the request to come from his direct superior, deputy city attorney Yolanda McGowan.
Thomas, in his letter, said that he discussed the matter with McGowan on Sept. 14. “I informed Ms. McGowan that I was uncomfortable with the request,” he wrote.
“It was my assumption that Ms. McGowan would provide ‘cover’ for me to focus on my casework. I was wrong,” he wrote. He said McGowan informed him that the memo could aid in office management, but did not give a timeline for its completion.
“Due to this conversation, and this directive, I submitted my resignation the following morning. I will not be writing any such memo,” wrote Thomas. “This is an intolerable abuse of power and I will not be a party to it.”
Thomas’ letter also reveals a contradiction in another repeated claim from Spencer. At multiple points, the City Attorney has told the Common Council that he no longer directly interacts with assistant city attorneys, instead routing communication through his four deputies.
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- City Hall: Latest City Attorney Controversy Causes Council Infighting - Jeramey Jannene - Oct 1st, 2021
- City Hall: City Attorney Accused of Politically-Motivated, Retaliatory Staff Directive - Jeramey Jannene - Oct 1st, 2021
- City Hall: Turmoil, Toxic Work Environment at City Attorney’s Office - Jeramey Jannene - Sep 15th, 2021
- City Hall: Council Ends City Attorney’s Review Power - Jeramey Jannene - Jul 7th, 2021
- City Hall: New Ordinance Could Remove Elected Officials - Jeramey Jannene - Jun 28th, 2021
- City Hall: Ethics Board Must Hire Outside Counsel. Why? - Jeramey Jannene - Jun 8th, 2021
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- Op Ed: Push To Change City Attorney Office Resisted - Tearman Spencer - May 5th, 2021
- City Hall: Council Wants New Harassment Policy - Jeramey Jannene - May 4th, 2021
Read more about Turmoil at the City Attorney's Office here