‘Were public funds used as a vendetta against these employees?’

Fairhope council president questions invoices, investigation into former city employees by mayor

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Fairhope City Council President Jack Burrell clarified details and raised more questions about a set of invoices submitted to the city by IT company Elias Technologies during a radio interview on WABF 1480 AM on July 6.
Two invoices from Elias Technologies to the City of Fairhope were recently given to The Courier and appear to show work equipment used by former city employees Sherry Sullivan and Jennifer Fidler was sent to be examined and searched by Elias, a IT forensics company, at the request of Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson.
The invoices from the company both have the same invoice number, billing date and case title, but the details and amounts charged for the work differ between the two.

July 6 Radio Interview
In the interview with WABF’s Lori DuBose, DuBose referenced The Courier article and asked Burrell and Councilman Robert Brown if they had any comments on the matter.
Burrell said Elias Technologies was hired to help separate the IT department for the police department from the city’s IT department.
“We hired that company to do work for the police department so it would not involve our IT department,” Burrell said. “We wanted to separate our IT department from the police, and this company would handle some of that information.”
Burrell said Elias Technologies was not approved by the council to be used to investigate former Community Affairs Director Sherry Sullivan and former Public Works Director Jennifer Fidler.
“I don’t believe they were hired to go into computers and cell phones from the employees that were fired by the mayor,” Burrell said. “If they’re hired to help the police department, why were they looking into the computers and cell phones of employees that had just been fired? It’s almost as if this second invoice was done to cover up what had been done.”
Burrell said questions were raised by several Fairhope city employees when the original invoice was submitted.
“This all came about when (Fairhope Police) Chief Petties saw some charges to his account that he was not certain of,” Burrell said. “He went to the city treasurer’s office and asked what these charges were, and the treasurer provided invoices to the chief. The chief then went to the city attorney with the invoices.”
Burrell said he became aware of the invoices after they were shown to City Attorney Marion “Tut” Wynne and alluded to an investigation that may be being undertaken about them.
“Because these invoices raised such a flag, this was being investigated by certain authorities I won’t name,” Burrell said.
Burrell said he could not divulge who was conducting the investigation.
“But, the council may want to convene their own investigation,” Burrell said. “We have the right to do so, and may choose to act on that.”
Burrell said Wilson had accused him and other city officials of meeting about the claim filed with the city by Human Resources Manager Pandora Heathcoe about the alleged assault on her by Wilson, but Burrell said the original purpose of the meeting was to discuss the invoices.
“We weren’t there to have a meeting about her (Heathcoe),” Burrell said. “I don’t know where the investigation stands now. It may still be under investigation. If it’s not still being investigated, it needs to be investigated.”
Burrell said he asked Chief Petties if either Sullivan or Fidler was under any type of investigation.
“His answer was flatly no,” Burrell said.
Burrell said he was unsure why Mayor Wilson felt the need to try to use police department funds to investigate Sullivan and Fidler if that was the case.
“The mayor had previously stated these people were fired for a reason, so was she trying to go in after the fact and create a reason?” Burrell questioned. “That’s a question that needs to be asked.”
Burrell said he believed the two sets of invoices raised a number of questions that needed to be answered.
“The suspicious thing about the second invoice is that it removed all of the details,” Burrell said. “The question needs to be asked - were public funds used as a vendetta against these employees?”
Brown said he hadn’t looked at the invoices in detail but added he had many questions.
“What these show, in my opinion, are more bad decisions by the mayor,” Brown said.
Burrell did shed some light on the revised invoice sent to the city that showed zeroed-out charges for most of the work done on the equipment that had previously been used by Sullivan and Fidler, saying Elias Technologies had credited the city back the charges for that work.
“The IT company came back and gave us a credit, which I have found out in the last few days,” Burrell said. “They didn’t want to be on bad terms with the City of Fairhope, but they still don’t deny that the work had been done. The invoice still shows the work was done, but they have removed the charges and some of the details from that.”
Burrell told The Courier he had heard from sources inside the city that Wilson was searching for who may have given the invoice copies to The Courier and that Wilson could be seeking to start her own investigation into that.
“I think the important thing to investigate in all of this are the invoices themselves,” Burrell said. “There are just so many questions here that need to be answered, and that information has not been forthcoming from the mayor’s office.”

Public records request
The Courier submitted a public records request to the city of Fairhope on July 5 asking for any and all email communications, invoice copies and meeting records involving the Elias Technologies company and contract, as well as a copy of the statement of work submitted to the city referenced in the invoices.
The Courier has received a copy of the retainer Elias Technologies submitted to City Treasurer Deborah Smith on April 6 that included three “areas of specific concern identified by client,” which included:
“1. Creation of an evidence network for the handling of Police Department information,” the document shows. “2. Assess telecommunications resources and internal communication workflow to reduce burden placed on Police Communications call management and storage. 3. Assess the security of the City’s email service.”
Burrell said based on those parameters, it was difficult to see how investigating Sullivan and Fidler fit into those categories.
“I don’t think the investigation of those two former employees fits in with any of what is outlined there, so, again, this raises questions as to why this was investigation was being done by the mayor,” Burrell said.

Mayor Wilson’s response
The Courier reached out to Mayor Wilson for her response July 6 via phone and email, and on the afternoon of July 10, the mayor's office responded with the following statement:

"Confidential information regarding security measures being implemented by Mayor Karen Wilson for the City of Fairhope and have been leaked to the media and publicly discussed on the radio and published by Fairhope City Councilman Jack Burrell.
 
"Such leaks are not in the best interests of the City of Fairhope, and the information released was made public without going through the public records request process.  
 
"The information concerns Elias Technology, a company hired to perform confidential security IT services for the city and the police department.  The Mayor and Council’s previous discussions about this matter have not been made public, and had been handled in executive sessions, until now.
 
"Elias Technology submitted an invoice to the City for work performed. When it was brought to the mayor’s attention that some of the work listed on the invoice was outside of the scope of work accepted by Elias, the mayor said we could not be charged for work outside the scope, and company submitted a second invoice without the unauthorized work. The work that was done outside the scope was not nefarious and will be implemented as part of our procedure for all departing employees.  
 
"Per Elias Technologies, 'Though it is normal for us as a company to image and preserve terminated employees’ phones and computers and have contractually done so for government agencies and private corporations, [we] requested those hours be backed out of the invoice and the money be returned to your retainer as a show of good faith on our part because it was a new contract and we desired a good relationship with the City of Fairhope.  The second invoice was sent to the Treasurer to show that the balance had been adjusted in the City's favor and reflects the changes to the layout that were requested.'
 
"'There is nothing wrong with that,” Wilson said'. 'Elias simply corrected an invoice that had been submitted that showed work that the city was not going to pay for. Even though some have tried to say that this involves an investigation of me, that is not true.  They are trying to make a mountain out of a molehill for political purposes, but at the same time, they are releasing confidential information about the security of the City of Fairhope.'
 
"Fairhope’s attorneys are reviewing the documents to determine what can be released at this time, and what can be released later.  The Mayor has urged the attorneys to release as many documents as possible, and as soon as possible, while keeping secure those documents that must be held confidential. 
 
"The documents to be released later are protected from disclosure because they: (a) concerned the security of the City of Fairhope, or (b) were created in anticipation of litigation.
 
"As soon as the attorneys have reviewed these documents, based on their advice, we will release those portions which do not jeopardize the security of the City’s operations, and which do not jeopardize the City’s position regarding pending litigation."