Jim Nahas is fired by county, and it’s a mess. He lawyers up as supervisors hunker down.3/23/2021
Jim Nahas has been fired as head of human resources for Polk County.
It’s complicated, it’s messy, it’s unusual — it’s hard to get fired by the county — and, like many things in the county, it’s political. It’s full of intrigue, allegedly with secretly taped interviews and unannounced meetings, and there’s a lot more to it than just the firing of the 52-year-old Nahas from the $160,000-a-year job he had held for more than six years.
It revolves around, among other things, an allegation from a female employee that Supervisor Matt McCoy made a particularly vile comment that involved her.
It all dates back to early October, but still nobody at the county is talking out loud. Several of them are hiring attorneys, though. Nahas has hired two strong lawyers — one has a solid record of winning suits against governments — and he isn’t going quietly.
According to a “termination of employment” letter to Nahas, a letter CITYVIEW obtained through a Freedom of Information request, Nahas made “inconsistent statements” when questioned about what happened at an Oct. 6 meeting he attended with McCoy and Frank Marasco, a McCoy supporter who had just lost out on a three-to-two vote to John Norris in his bid to become county administrator.
The purpose of the meeting itself is insignificant — Marasco, who is a top guy at the Sheriff’s Department, wanted a higher job classification, and McCoy wanted to know how to go about getting that done. It was a short meeting, 15 or 20 minutes, and Nahas spent most of that time preoccupied on the phone on other subjects with Supervisor Tom Hockensmith, who was vacationing in Florida.
The letter says a female county employee overheard conversations at that meeting, and it says she alleges McCoy said “I won’t blow my head off like Hockensmith does. I’ll take the high road, but the first chance I get, I’ll take the kill shot.” According to the letter, “the complainant alleged that this statement was made in reference” to Norris, who was backed by Hockensmith in that 3-to-2 vote.
The termination letter also says the employee “further alleged that at this meeting Supervisor McCoy made the following statement that was targeted at her: ‘This is her fault; she is going to regret this. I’m going to stick it up her pussy and break it off.’”
The woman, Sarah Boese, director of community relations for the county, alleged that “based upon additional conversations she overheard” the statement was based on “the wrongful belief that she had convinced a majority of the Board of Supervisors to” support Norris instead of Marasco, the termination letter says.
Following the Oct. 6 meeting, she complained to Hockensmith “that she had been the subject of a hostile work environment and had been retaliated against” by McCoy, according to the letter. Boese, who has worked for the county since 2008, has hired Matthew Sahag of the Dickey law firm. “Sarah is a victim of workplace sex harassment in an unimaginable manner,” he told CITYVIEW. He added: McCoy’s comments “shook her to the core in a way that made her want to withdraw from her job and social and personal interactions out of fear, intimidation and humiliation.”
The county then began an investigation, and it twice interviewed Nahas. The questioning occurred several weeks after the Oct. 6 meeting, and Nahas told the investigators he had been on the phone with Hockensmith for 11 minutes and the conversation at the meeting was just “white noise” to him. In March, he told CITYVIEW the same thing. He didn’t hear it, but he wasn’t really listening.
His answers to investigators were inconsistent, the letter says, and then the tables turned. “An investigation was initiated into your conduct,” the letter told Nahas. That investigation determined that Nahas was “either evasive or dishonest” in answering questions, particularly his answer about the alleged McCoy quotes.
The investigators secretly taped the interviews.
“Your inability to recall whether the inflammatory and discriminatory statements referenced in the complaint occurred, or did not occur has raised questions of your honesty and credibility,” the letter says.
And so he was fired.
The firing came just a few months before Nahas was to become fully vested in IPERS, the public-employee pension system. He took the county job in 2014 after 20 years with the Iowa Cubs, where he rose to become vice president and assistant general manager.
The termination letter was signed by Norris, who joined the county in the middle of all this.
“I sought input from Board members regarding Mr. Nahas’ performance and my decision to terminate Mr. Nahas but no formal, or informal vote was taken as that is not required and has not been a practice of the Board,” Norris told CITYVIEW.
The five supervisors — Democrats McCoy, Hockensmith and Chair Angela Connolly and Republicans Bob Brownell and Steve Van Oort — were asked by CITYVIEW if they favored or opposed the firing, but only McCoy replied. He sent along an email that he sent to Norris on Dec. 30 “to establish a record of my opposition” to the decision “that my colleagues have made” to get rid of Nahas.
It is believed the supervisors met without notice at least twice to discuss the mess. One meeting was about the allegations against McCoy, CITYVIEW was told. He brought a lawyer to that meeting, and at one point both he and the lawyer were told to leave, CITYVIEW was told. The other meeting might have been about firing Nahas.
But closed meetings to discuss personnel were never on the agenda, which would have been required. The board has gone into closed session only twice since October, board minutes show, and each of those was to discuss “strategy with counsel in matters where litigation is imminent.” After each meeting, the board took no public action. (Under Iowa law, votes cannot be taken in closed sessions.)
Nahas initially hired lawyer Nick Mauro to look at the case. (Mauro is the nephew of former supervisor John Mauro, who was responsible for hiring Nahas and who was defeated in the 2018 Democratic primary by McCoy.) Nick Mauro then brought in Michael Carroll, an employment-law specialist who has a strong record of winning suits against governments. Most recently, he won a $2.2 million jury verdict against the state in the sexual-harassment case brought by former Iowa Senate Republican staffer Kirsten Anderson.
So this is serious stuff. The board itself has turned for advice to Michael Galloway, a former labor-relations lawyer for the county and now with the Ahlers firm, as well as Ralph Marasco, an assistant county attorney who regularly represents the board. (Ralph Marasco is no relation to Frank Marasco.)
There are a lot of cross-currents on the five-person board these days. The Democrats still control it, as they have for decades, but they are fractured. McCoy and Hockensmith don’t have much use for one another, which might be an understatement, and the relationship between Connolly and her two Democratic colleagues isn’t particularly warm. Her relationship with McCoy, which had been workable, was fractured, when at the last minute, she decided to be the third vote in support of Norris.
The board misses John Mauro, who seemed to hold things together and who could smooth over disputes before they became public, insiders say.
Indeed, in recent years, the supervisors “didn’t always trust each other,” says a person who knows them all, “but now it seems that they actually don’t like each other.”
And employees and visitors alike to the third floor suite of offices in the Polk County office building readily attest that the language from some of the supervisors can be more ribald than refined.
Norris simply got tossed into the middle of all this. At 62, he is a political pro. He was chief of staff to Gov. Tom Vilsack, had some big jobs in Washington, has consulted for presidential campaigns and has run (unsuccessfully) for governor and Congress. He has a law degree from the University of Iowa. But “he probably didn’t know what he was getting into” when he took the county job, says an outsider who always seems to know what’s going on at the county.
And outside lawyers say he certainly shouldn’t have signed that letter to Nahas. Nahas was an “at-will” employee, they note, and could have been fired without reason. The county simply could have told him it had decided to “go in a different direction” or “seek someone with different credentials,” they say.
Instead, the county sent the letter — who actually wrote it is unclear — that brought the dirty linen into the open. Conspiracy theorists think the letter is really an attempt to force McCoy to resign, that the Boese allegations were added in the hopes the letter would go public. Under this theory, Nahas, Boese and Frank Marasco are just collateral damage. (The supervisors are “fuckin’ with everyone, they’re out of control,” one high county official told a person on the edges of the mess.)
At any rate, in all likelihood the letter will be the basis for a lawsuit by Nahas. Indeed, in his note to Norris opposing the firing of Nahas, McCoy wrote: “I have seen individuals routinely retained as county employees for much more serious infractions, including violation of Polk County’s established Employment Policies. I am fearful that if litigation is pursued by Jim Nahas that this represents a liability to Polk County and the taxpayers.”
Any suit would probably include a claim of wrongful termination, of failure to pay wages, of violation of the open-meetings act and one or two others, say lawyers briefed on the situation. And they say the letter signed by Norris could open him to a charge of defamation.
Meantime, at the March 16 Board of Supervisors meeting, Connolly announced that Jeff Edgar is the new head of the human-resources operation. He is an employment lawyer who had been acting head of the department. He is in his 30s.
And that could add another element to any suit: Age discrimination. Nahas, at 52, is in a protected group in terms of discrimination suits. …
NOTE: Lawyers and other people who watch such things think that Des Moines lawyer Nick Sarcone will be picked by President Joe Biden to be the next U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa. They think Emily Hughes will be tapped for the job in the Northern District, in Cedar Rapids. She is associate dean for academic affairs and a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, where she has been on the faculty since 2010.
CITYVIEW joins those saddened by the death of Robert Larson, an Iowa farm boy who fell so in love with opera that in 1973 he founded the Des Moines Metro Opera and for the next 37 years was conductor and stage director for all 120 productions as it grew to international fame. Eccentric and charming, he was a great story teller and a great Iowan. He was 86 when he died on Sunday, March 21. ♦