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Appraisal district faces Whistleblower Act claim

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Three former Bandera County Central Appraisal District employees have sued the appraisal district for violating the Texas Whistleblower Act and for wrongfully terminating them from their jobs early this year and have asked for their jobs back in addition to damages that could total $1 million.

The lawsuit was filed with the 198th State District Court earlier this year by the district’s former Deputy Chief Appraiser Jana Herrera and two former field appraisers working for the appraisal district, Melissa Checkovage and Nelia McNeal.

It stemmed from improper conduct allegedly committed by the district’s former chief appraiser, Wendy Grams, and for the alleged unwillingness of the district’s board of directors to intervene and correct the situation.

Checkovage and McNeal were fired in February after Grams discovered that the pair had been providing information and appraisal district documents to state officials investigating a December 2018 complaint against Grams.

The terminations also were based in part on performance evaluations for the two field appraisers that Grams had arbitrarily downgraded, the suit says.

Grams fired Herrera in January “without any legitimate cause,” according to the filing.

The suit said Herrera initially had been aligned with Grams but eventually became convinced that the chief appraiser had initiated a campaign of retaliation against Checkovage and McNeal for cooperating with the state regulatory agency investigating the office.

Herrera attempted to alert appraisal district board Chairman Bo Mansfield about her concerns but got no response.

But the suit says Herrera’s actions drew the ire of Grams, who accused her deputy chief of “insubordination” and filed disciplinary warnings against Herrera.

“Jana Herrera was terminated in whole or part for refusing to participate in and support Ms. Grams campaign of illegal retaliation against Melissa and Nelia, and for attempting to bring her concerns to the attention of the Board of Directors,” attorney Stephan B. Rogers says in the suit.

“These terminations were retaliatory in nature, designed no only to punish these employees but to send a message to other employees that they should not question or express concerns about any aspect of Ms. Grams’ performance and practice,” the suit says.

It then adds, “By failing to step in and take appropriate action to discipline Ms. Grams and protect the whistleblowers, the board of directors in effect ratified her misconduct.”

Grams’ actions, the suit contends, violates the Texas Whistleblower Act, which seeks to protect public employees who with good cause report suspected violations of the law by another public employee to an appropriate law enforcement agency.

The suit brings into clear focus complaints that have been aimed at the appraisal district and Grams’ conduct over the last several months.

Grams resigned from office in February but continued working with the district for another month as the board mounted a search for her replacement.

Shawn Davis, once the deputy chief appraiser in the Gillespie County Central Appraisal District, was selected by the Bandera board as the new chief appraiser in March.

Davis said last week that he was aware of the suit but referred any questions to the board’s attorney for comment. The attorney could not be reached for comment before the Bulletin went to press this week.

Likewise, Mansfield said while the suit is in litigation, he would allow the district’s lawyer to make any comments.

The lawsuit said a complaint filed with regulators at the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation against the appraisal district by the Bandera County River Authority and Groundwater District in December 2018 was at the root of much of the appraisal district’s discord..

That complaint, which is attached to the suit as an exhibit, implicates Grams in an alleged pattern of fraud, abuse and incompetence at the appraisal district.

Properties in Bandera County were not being uni formly appraised in an attempt to avoid a comptroller audit, official district documents were being falsified and destroyed and the credentials of other employees were being used to conceal Grams’ misconduct, the lawsuit says in summarizing the complaint’s findings.

Checkovage and McNeal, recognizing that they had information that could be relevant to the river authority’s complaint, assisted in preparing the complaint with the expectation that their involvement would remain anonymous, but Grams found out about their involvement during a visit to the licensing department’s office in December 2019.

An enraged Grams began an open campaign of retaliation against both whistleblowers after learning about their involvement and asked Herrera and her human resources director to “assist her in paving their road to termination,” the lawsuit says.

Herrera became increasingly concerned about Grams’ conduct after watching her significantly downgrade the appraisers’ scores in a performance evaluation in opposition to Herrera’s conclusions, the suit contends. Herrera then questioned Grams about her motivations after the chief appraiser’s attacks against Checkovage and McNeal escalated.

When Herrera tried and failed to get the board to rein in the chief appraiser’s “campaign of retaliation,” Grams’ focus shifted to Herrera, and eventually she terminated Herrera’s employment.

The lawsuit says Grams’ dismissal of McNeal and Checkovage were based in part on the downgraded performance evaluation and also on their alleged handling of appraisal district documents, the same documents that the field appraisers had supplied to state regulators.

Those documents were not only relevant to the investigation, they contained information the regulators were entitled to review and the appraisal district was not entitled to hide or destroy, the suit said.

The appraisal district and its former chief appraiser’s misconduct damaged plaintiffs in an amount greater than $200,000 ad less than $1 million, the suit contends.

While it does not specifically request that amount in damages, it asks the court to restore the prior jobs the plaintiffs held to them and to provide plaintiffs with back pay, back benefits, actual damages and compensatory damages.

The suit says the appraisal district’s governmental immunity protections should not keep the court from awarding equitable relief “to vindicate the employees’ rights and to protect the system against abuse of power.”