Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

City Attorney Accused of Politically-Motivated, Retaliatory Staff Directive

Latest issue causes public infighting amongst Common Council.

By - Oct 1st, 2021 10:16 am
City Attorney Tearman Spencer speaks at a press conference on June 12th. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

City Attorney Tearman Spencer speaks at a press conference on June 12th. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

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.

In a letter to the other attorneys in the office, assistant city attorney Christian Thomas details how he felt he was subject to a “politically motivated” and “retaliatory” request to author a memo blaming the attorney he effectively replaced. “There are certain undeniable facts about this situation that fly in the face of the integrity with which I pride myself,” wrote Thomas, who previously worked as a state public defender for 12 years.

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.

Thomas, in early September, said he was “putting out a lot of fires” related to catching up on Gehling’s caseload (the two did not work in the department at the same time). Spencer, according to Thomas, then asked for Thomas to draft a memo about any failings on the part of Gehling. “Mr. Spencer’s request immediately struck me as politically motivated, retaliatory and inappropriate,” wrote Thomas.

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.

Thomas met with McGowan on Sept. 28. “During that meeting Ms. McGowan reprimanded me for failing to complete the requested memo, noting that I had been previously ordered three times to complete it,” he wrote. “I responded that while it was on my list of to-dos, it did not have a deadline and I was currently swamped with higher-priority case work, including deadlines in federal cases that were blown long before I started with this office (which post-date Ms. Gehling’s departure). Ms. McGowan stated that she would have hoped that I would prioritize any request from Mr. Spencer and ordered me to complete the memo by the close of business today October 1.”

“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.

Categories: City Hall, Politics, Weekly

2 thoughts on “City Hall: City Attorney Accused of Politically-Motivated, Retaliatory Staff Directive”

  1. Mingus says:

    I would like to know who are the powers who are supporting him or not choosing to do anything about the chaos in this office.

  2. CraigR says:

    What an embarrassment. And I voted for him. I can’t wait to vote against him at the next opportunity.

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