Ousted Wicomico Finance Director files wrongful termination lawsuit

By Liz Holland
Posted 5/18/21

Wicomico County’s former Finance Director has filed a lawsuit against the county, claiming she was wrongfully terminated by the late County Executive Bob Culver for refusing to perform illegal …

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Ousted Wicomico Finance Director files wrongful termination lawsuit

Posted

Wicomico County’s former Finance Director has filed a lawsuit against the county, claiming she was wrongfully terminated by the late County Executive Bob Culver for refusing to perform illegal administrative acts.

Leslie Martin Lewis, an Onancock resident who worked for the county from 2015 to 2017, is seeking compensatory damages in excess of $75,000, plus attorney’s fees and court costs.

She has more than 30 years experience as a Certified Public Accountant and served as the Director of Finance for Northampton County in Virginia, before going to work for Wicomico

“Ms. Lewis excelled at her position and had no issues with Mr. Culver or any other

county employee until she discovered what she believed to be gross financial mismanagement and fraudulent behavior and reported it to Mr. Culver; Paul Wilber, the County Attorney; and internal and external auditors,” according to the lawsuit filed in Wicomico Circuit Court.

In October 2016, the county’s external auditor approached Lewis about a letter purportedly signed by Lewis about a substantial pay raise for Michele Ennis, who was the then-Director of Human Resources for the county.

Culver has expanded some of Ennis’ responsibilities in helping oversee another county department.

The letter was found in Ennis’ official personnel file while the external auditor -- representatives PKS & Co. of Salisbury -- was performing payroll testing.

Lewis, who had never before seen the letter, instantly determined it was a forgery and immediately reported it to Culver, according to the lawsuit.

“To Ms. Lewis’ utter shock, Mr. Culver asked Ms. Lewis to lie and say she wrote

the letter,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit maintains that Lewis then reported the situation to Wilber.

On Nov. 4, 2016, she emailed and hand-delivered a letter to the county’s external auditor – with copies to Culver and Wilber – stating that, as required by the County Charter, she was responsible for detecting all payroll items that were fraudulent, unauthorized by law, or otherwise invalid, and was reporting the Nov. 19, 2015, letter as a forgery.

“From that point forward, Mr. Culver became openly hostile toward Ms. Lewis. He routinely raised his voice at Ms. Lewis, attempted to strip her of her duties, and threatened Ms. Lewis (that) she ‘better never say another word about that letter or else,’” according to the lawsuit.

On Jan, 23, 2017, Culver told Lewis she was no longer responsible for any payroll issues and that Ennis had full authority to handle all payroll and benefits matters – without approval or oversight from Lewis.

During the next two weeks, according to the lawsuit, Lewis and her staff were denied all access to payroll records, and she sent a number of emails to Wilber notifying him of that.

In the meantime, the County Council learned of Lewis’ report and hired a forensic auditor to look into the matter.

But, according to the lawsuit, Wilber — acting on behalf of Culver -- advised Lewis and other staff members not to participate in interviews.

Lewis, however, had already spoken to the auditor and told him she did not write or sign the letter and did not conduct the research to justify the pay increase for Ennis.

On April 28, 2017, Culver came to Lewis’s office and began cursing at her and told her that if the audit did not stop, he would close the Finance Department and subcontract their work.

On May 18, 2017, just one week after the auditor wrote his report, Culver asked Lewis for her resignation. When she refused, he fired her on the spot, and then called a news conference to announce he had fired her.

When the auditor’s report went public in July 2017, Culver again went to the media and tried to make it appear as though the forensic audit was because of misconduct on Lewis’ part, the lawsuit states.

Culver died last July after a six-month battle with liver cancer.

The lawsuit was filed in August 2020, but scheduling has been delayed due to Covid-19 restrictions in the court. Lewis is represented by Salisbury attorney Robin Cockey.