Wicomico HR Director decries treatment in audit

Michele Campbell Ennis wants the public to know her story:

  • She did not write the letter that was found in her personnel file that advocated a 12 percent raise for her performance as Wicomico County’s Human Resources Director.
  • Ennis’ colleague Leslie Martin Lewis, the county’s former Finance Director, was fully looped in and even supportive of her raise request.
  • She is disappointed in the conduct of the County Council and its leadership, which she maintains attempted “to discredit me.”

After working for the county in relative obscurity for 14 years, Ennis became a news figure on June 29 when a forensic auditor’s report was released as part of the County Council’s July 5 meeting agenda.

Michele Campbell Ennis

 

The report had been heavily redacted prior to being placed before the public, but anyone with even basic knowledge of the senior figures in county government could decipher whose names were blacked out.

The report detailed how — more than a year earlier — the county’s auditors in conducting a routine review had discovered a suspicious letter in Ennis’ employee file. The raise letter appeared to have been written by Finance Director Lewis, but the document looked somewhat haphazard, unprofessional and wasn’t on formal letterhead.

Though it had been annotated by County Executive Bob Culver, the auditors weren’t certain it was actually Culver’s handwriting or signature on the letter. The auditors felt it was worth further review.

There are conflicting stories on how the County Council was told about the discovery. Either way, once the council was informed, its seven members voted to have an independent forensic auditor, Gross, Mendelsohn & Associates of Baltimore, review the case.

While Certified Fraud Examiner James J. Kern did actually interview Ennis, Lewis and Culver, it was the County Executive who ultimately declined to allow Kern to proceed with further interviews.

The County Council, in turn, accepted the audit but made clear in a statement that it was frustrated by the lack of a discernible outcome.

The following day, Culver fired back, calling the entire exercise, among other things, a “witch hunt,” and suggested it was politically motivated.

At the center of Culver’s anger and frustration was that Ennis’ name was ultimately made public and employee morale had been affected within the executive branch.

Finance Director’s version questioned

The missing link in the episode is Lewis. Culver fired her in May – he has maintained her termination was unrelated to the letter incident – and she has since been unreachable to news reporters.

In her discussions with both sets of auditors, however, those auditors reported that she denied knowing about the letter. Lewis also drafted and sent her own letter to the auditors, suggesting that things had been done in her name without either her consent or knowledge.

Ennis and Culver, however, insisted this week that Lewis was fully informed and involved.

In a statement to be released to local media, Ennis contends that Lewis approached her in 2015, stating she had talked to Culver about a raise for Ennis.

Ennis’ annual salary of $77,800 had been discussed before, as she was being paid less than her male predecessor’s salary of $88,409.

According to Ennis, Culver requested a market analysis for the Director of Human Resources position. The letter was not a formal document meant for anything more than to give Culver the results of a survey conducted on two local Human Resources directors’ salaries. Lewis asked Ennis to perform the market analysis, but Ennis told her it would be inappropriate to have an active role in her own raise.

Ennis asked Lewis if she or another employee could do it. “At this point,” writes Ennis, “Lewis got one of the Human Resources employees to make the calls and write the recommendation to be sent to the County Executive’s office for consideration.”

Leslie Martin Lewis

The letter shows that a survey found the salary of Salisbury University’s HR Director was $90,000 and the county school board’s HR boss was salaried at $111,000.

In a handwritten note, Culver changed a 12 percent recommended raise down to 8 percent, which placed Ennis’ annual pay at $84,204.

According to Ennis, Lewis agreed with the market analysis and was asked by the County Executive to put it in writing for his approval. She requested that a Human Resources personnel write the letter and send it back to her to be placed on her letterhead for the executive’s approval, Ennis said.

But for some reason Lewis failed to transfer this letter to her stationery and, Ennis said, instructed the Human Resources employee to proceed with the letter “as is,” and added the name of the employee who had conducted the actual market analysis.

Lewis, said Ennis, understood this letter would go into the HR Director’s personnel file.

Meanwhile, Ennis also finds fault with Kern’s conduct during his probe: “In cooperation with council and the forensic auditor, Kern was given the chain of events in interviews multiple times by many employees. However, Kern seemed to refuse to accept those interviews and continued to badger employees with accusations that they had engaged in fraudulent activity. After one such incident left an employee in tears, Culver terminated the interviews.”

Blames Council President

At the conclusion of her statement, Ennis expressed disappointment in the County Council and its leadership, bluntly writing: “I am very disheartened by John Cannon’s attempt to discredit me after working for the county for over 14 and one-half years without any incidents. I do realize my job isn’t always popular with employees, but this goes beyond disgruntled employees’ typical upsets.”

In an interview, Ennis said she was used as a political pawn.

“I think he was trying to hurt the (county) executive through me,” she said of Cannon. “I think he was using me as a political ping-pong ball.”

Ennis said she had retained legal counsel to guide her through the ordeal. “I think it will continue,” she said.

“I enjoy my employment,” Ennis said. “I enjoy working for the County Executive. Futurewise? I can’t answer that.”

John Cannon

Ennis also contended Cannon and the council could have taken alternate steps. “I think what he did was irresponsible. It was uncalled for. The Finance Director’s conduct was an internal issue, it was not a matter for council and I believe he went above and beyond to do this, outside of what had to be done to close the case.”

Culver, in a news conference on July 6, said that a lack of communication was to blame for much of the matter. Ennis echoed that. “I also blame the lack of communication. (Cannon) could have come to Bob or down here (to me) and asked what happened.”

Contacted Thursday, Cannon responded that he and the council did what had to be done when confronted by the auditors who uncovered what they considered a suspicious situation.

“It’s really unfortunate that she feels that way,” Cannon said of Ennis. “It’s so hard for me to state unequivocally what happened because the forensic audit was completed without an independent determination of what happened.”

Cannon added: “If there was nothing to the story as she claims, it all could have been settled in 30 days. The fact is the auditors went to (Culver) and expressed concern, and his response wasn’t satisfactory.”

Cannon dismissed suggestions that politics were at play or that the issue was personal. “I have no personal vendetta against her or any county employee,” he said.

While Cannon and Culver are both Republicans, the two branches of government – the legislative council and the executive’s office – have engaged in power struggles for much of their current terms, as each side has competed over who should be viewed as leading the county’s government.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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