Vernon County Personnel Director Linda Kica was placed on unpaid administrative leave last month in connection the October 2017 firing of a county employee accused of using his cell phone during work hours to view and download nude photographs.

Shane Messer had been employed in the IT department since 2009. His termination was based on the use of his cell phone during work hours to view and download nude photographs. An evidentiary hearing centered around how the situation was handled, or not handled, by Kica’s as head of human resources for Vernon County.

Shane was presented a termination letter on Oct. 20. by Connie McCullick, the Vernon County IT Director. McCullick said in the letter that Shane’s actions violated county policy. She presented initial concerns dating back to 2010, with more recent activity from December 2016, until his release last fall. McCullick testified that on Dec. 2, 2016 she learned that Shane was being investigated by the Department of Justice in connection with possible child pornography after he entered a website and downloaded photos tagged with young children in them. On that same day, McCullick said Shane left her a voicemail asking her to call him, which she did. During the conversation, McCullick said Shane told her they were searching his house, had confiscated his electronics, and that he had downloaded some of the photos in question while at work. Also on that same day, McCullick contacted Kica regarding the situation. Kica was already aware of the DOJ investigation from her assistant, Personnel Specialist Courtney Messer (Shane’s wife).

McCullick said she told Kica she wanted to place Shane on administrative leave. Instead she was told by Kica to let Shane know how upset she was with his conduct, but not to speak about it with anyone else, because if it got out it would be an embarrassment to the county. McCullick said she felt like she had no control over her own department.

Several months later, McCullick was informed of a letter sent by a member of the public with concerns regarding Shane. At that point, McCullick contacted Vernon County Board President Dennis Brault, who directed her to speak with the Vernon County Corporate Counsel, Attorney’s David Abt and Nikki Swayne. Prior to that point, Brault, the Vernon County Personnel Committee, nor legal counsel were aware of situation. After investigating, McCullick was informed she had legal grounds to terminate Shane’s employment. McCullick also contacted Kica about impending termination, but did not receive her support.

Kica said during her testimony it was not her job as the county personnel coordinator to investigate concerns related to employees in other departments. She said it was up to department heads to do their own investigations and report them to the personnel department after they were complete. According to Kica, since Shane used his own personal cell phone and there was no proof of exactly when or what he downloaded she felt there was no need to do an internal investigation.

Kica also claimed she did not have access to the DOJ reports and did not file an open records request to pursue them because it was not her responsibility to do so based only on allegations, even though McCullick told her Shane had admitted he downloaded the photos while working.

During cross examination Attorney Abt asked Kica if it was her testimony as the head of human resources that a county employee accessing nude pictures of children, during work hours, on county taxpayer dollars, would not bring the county into disrepute.

Kica responded that If he was showing them to other people… maybe, but not if he’s doing it privately. She also disagreed that pictures of nude children would bring the county into disrepute since the electronic in question was not county-owned property.

Kica also claimed that as personnel director it is not up to her to contest unemployment benefit requests after someone is let go. She said that job also falls on department heads, not the personnel department. Shane did request unemployment benefits after he was let go. His personnel file was also initially marked for possible rehire, but has since been adjusted.

The Vernon County Personnel Committee is scheduled to meet at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 13. The meeting has been moved to Room 309 of the Vernon County Courthouse Annex. The agenda includes closed session to confer with legal counsel regarding the possible dismissal, demotion, licensing, or discipline of a public employee or the investigation of charges against such person.

Kica has been the subject of numerous closed session meetings over the last several months. Kica can once again opt to have the Feb. 13 closed session meeting in open session.

Editor’s note:

During open session of the monthly Vernon County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 6, Vernon County Corporate Counsel Attorney Nikki Swayne provided a factual summary of evidentiary hearing. In addition, she explained to the entire County Board some of the (relevant) essential duties of a Personnel Coordinator.

The County Board also passed a resolution which may come into play before, during or after the Personnel Committee meeting on Feb. 13. The resolution is attached to this story.