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Posted at 11:08 AM ET, 07/06/2012

Why did Loudoun County fire Todd Kaufman?


Todd M. Kaufman, the Loudoun County assessor from October 2005 until June 2012. He says he was totally surprised when he was suddenly suspended in April, and fired in June without so much as a meeting with the Board of Supervisors. (Loudoun County)
It remains one of the hottest mysteries in Loudoun County political circles, and it is still largely engulfed in silence: Why did the Board of Supervisors suddenly throw county assessor Todd Kaufman out the door, when he had modernized the assessment operation, vastly increased the county’s real estate tax revenues, and sided with the board in their ongoing struggle with the Board of Equalization?

Kaufman filed a lawsuit this week, which only begins to answer the question, and my story on that lawsuit is here. But the lawsuit raises more questions than it answers. And they’re important questions as a new Board of Supervisors takes over; the assessor’s office launches a new software system; and the Board of Equalization continues to operate with little transparency. And also because Kaufman’s firing has the potential to cost taxpayers many hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more.

The lawsuit alleges that there was one extremely disgruntled employee of Kaufman's, commercial appraiser John D. Nelson, and some other employees who were at least mildly offended by Kaufman’s management style. He appears to have been candid, perhaps brusque, and made the occasional clumsy attempt at humor. Kaufman denies all of that, both in the lawsuit and in a conversation with me Thursday evening.

But let’s say it’s all true, that Kaufman really did call the county board the “Board of Stupid-visors” or say that the Greeks were crazy. Don’t you at least give the guy a warning? Call him in and see what his deal is, tell him to shape up? Or do you do what Loudoun did, which was escort him out of the building on a rainy April morning and not even let him get his umbrella?

We know that a month later, the county board was operating with a seven-page confidential memorandum in hand from a Manassas mediator named James R. Cross. The memorandum makes Kaufman look like a physically threatening, verbally abusive tyrant. But even there, Cross concluded that he was not operating by legal definition a hostile work environment, and was clearly violating only one minor county policy — the one prohibiting the use of abusive language.


Loudoun County Administrator Tim Hemstreet, accused in a lawsuit of defamation and conspiring to run county assessor Todd Kaufman out of office. (Loudoun County)
So the board doesn’t call him in? They just fire him? For bad language? There are allegations that Kaufman pointed his finger at one person and shoved another, which Kaufman says are false. Again, seems worthy of a little more detailed investigation.

The supervisors also probably had read Nelson’s “anonymous” complaint, in which it was obvious to everyone he was the author. This memo begins by stating that allowing Kaufman to remain in office “shocks the consensus.” I don’t know if he is misspelling “conscience” or he’s inventing a new way to be shocked.

According to Kaufman’s lawsuit, Nelson had other problems. Last December Nelson made a $700 million error on a critical report he was producing. Kaufman alleges that “both internal and external customers repeatedly raised concerns about Mr. Nelson’s and his staff’s ability to perform their duties properly.” Nelson oversees commercial and industrial appraisals, which is no small part of any county’s tax base.

In March, Nelson requested a series of extended leaves that conflicted with other staff members, Kaufman’s suit says, and Kaufman denied them and Nelson became angry. Kaufman said he began to hold a series of weekly counseling sessions with Nelson, “to try to get him back on track and productive,” and Nelson never raised any other complaints.

Nelson sent his anonymous letter to County Administrator Tim Hemstreet on March 27. When I called Nelson on Thursday, the assessor’s office said he was on vacation.

“If Mr. Hemstreet had an issue with me,” Kaufman said Thursday, ”why didn’t they counsel me, as I was doing with Mr. Nelson?”

I called Hemstreet to ask him that, and sent him an e-mail. He did not reply to either.

Kaufman’s suit says that Hemstreet and county attorney Jack Roberts discussed what to do with Nelson’s letter, then hired Cross to look into it, and then decided to suspend Kaufman pending the outcome of Cross’s investigation. Word of this suspension quickly spread to the pesky media, who quoted county officials saying that “the sheriff’s office is ‘aware of the situation,’” as if Kaufman was a violent felon who might flee at any moment.


Loudoun County Attorney John R. Roberts, also accused by former county assessor Todd Kaufman of conspiring to push him out of his job. (Loudoun County)
Kaufman said he met with Cross for four hours and rebutted every one of Nelson’s allegations. He said Cross agreed that the letter appeared to be a “drive-by shooting” of charges, and that charges of criminal behavior and improperly using a county vehicle were unfounded. But when Cross issued his report in May, he allotted Kaufman one paragraph of rebuttal space.

Kaufman wrote two letters to the board of supervisors, pleading to be heard. But he alleges that Roberts advised the board not to meet with Kaufman, and they never did.

Why? Why wouldn’t you want to hear from one of your top appointees, whether the allegations were jaywalking or murder? Let him have his say, then fire him.

I called Roberts to ask him about that, and sent him an e-mail. He also did not reply. Government employees can always claim that personnel rules or legal considerations prohibit them from discussing such issues. But there’s no rule against returning a phone call, especially when your actions could cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and hundreds of thousands of dollars in a settlement or trial verdict.

That’s because Kaufman sued Nelson, Hemstreet and Roberts, not the Board of Supervisors. He accused Nelson, Hemstreet and Roberts of defamation, by publishing Nelson’s allegedly false information to the board, and also conspiring to run him out of office and interfering with his contract with the board by getting him fired.

The board/the taxpayers already had to pay Kaufman a lump sum of $148,787 for the privilege of firing him. But the board hired Kaufman in 2005 as an “at will” employee, meaning they could fire him if he looked at them the wrong way, or called them “Stupid-visors.” The board cannot be sued for firing him, regardless of their motive.

But their motive remains of great public import, and they have been advised (probably by their attorney, Roberts) to keep their mouths shut. And they are.

Kaufman and his lawyer, Peter C. Cohen, seem quite confident they can rebut Nelson’s allegations, and claim that the firing cost Kaufman, who is 51, many years of working as the county assessor. And his salary in 2012 was $147,015.

So who, really, did Todd Kaufman make so mad that he had to be thrown out of Loudoun County government without even an umbrella? Let’s look at his history in the job.

When he took over in 2005, he discovered that many properties were under-valued, and land owners were paying less taxes than they should. Of the county’s 120,000 residential, commercial and industrial parcels, the total assessed value was about $18 BILLION total below market rate, and had been for years. You may recall that until about 2007, real estate was skyrocketing, and Loudoun County was undertaxing it.

Kaufman said people in the assessor’s office, who lived in Loudoun and benefited from under-assessment, knew this was going on, as did members of the Board of Supervisors. Kaufman corrected the problem, moving Loudoun’s $60 billion real estate portfolio from about 70 percent of its true market value to closer to 100 percent. More than 60 percent of the county’s tax base is from residential taxes, and this angered some who felt the assessments were now too high.

Kaufman also audited the county’s “exemption portfolio” and “corrected erroneously classified parcels,” his lawsuit states. This lowered the number of properties not paying taxes from 4,000 to about 1,100. That probably made quite a few people unhappy.

In 2008, Kaufman pointed out that the Board of Equalization, which handles appeals of Kaufman’s assessments, didn’t keep records explaining its decisions when it reduced real estate taxes, or even allow Kaufman’s appraisers to testify in the appeals hearings. The equalization board has continued with its secretive ways, and Kaufman was present when the board chairman Scott Littner berated, and then tried to have arrested, a reporter who snapped a photo during a meeting last year. Earlier this year, Kaufman testified on the reporter’s behalf, but a Loudoun district court judge ultimately ruled that there was no harm and so no foul by the Board of Equalization.

The Board of Supervisors seemingly is with Kaufman on this one. They filed a bill in Richmond seeking to gain oversight of the equalization board, and in March they voted to reduce the equalization board members’ pay from $147 per hearing day to $15 per hour. The supervisors do not appoint the equalization board, but they do pay them. Kaufman wrote a memo to Hemstreet and the supervisors in February saying the equalization board wanted a raise to $250 per day and that was unwarranted. The supervisors sided with Kaufman, so that whole mess wouldn’t seem to be the problem.

Hemstreet wrote remarkably positive job evaluations of Kaufman, most recently last summer when he told the supervisors, according to a lawsuit exhibit: “On a regular basis, both solicited and unsolicited, I received positive feedback from Mr. Kaufman’s employees regarding his abilities as a manager....Overall, Mr. Kaufman is fully successful and exceeds performance expectations. It is my opinion that Mr. Kaufman provides excellent service to the county as its assessor. The Office of the County Assessor operates efficiently and effectively, and staff reflects appropriate management and administrative processes.”

Kaufman said that after a new Board of Supervisors was elected last fall, he asked repeatedly if he needed to look for a new job, and was told no. “He actually told me if the board terminated my contract,” Kaufman said of Hemstreet, “he would hire me in county administration.”

In March, Supervisor Ralph Buona stated that Kaufman’s work as assessor was “the ‘best’ he had ever seen,” the lawsuit states.

Kaufman ridiculed the notion that he was physically threatening to his employees, and said, “If there was a problem with 38 employees, you’d think somebody would say something in six years.”

Kaufman said he had no answers as to why things suddenly turned. “I’m hard-pressed to understand this,” he said.

His firing has already cost taxpayers about $150,000 as well as whatever confusion was caused by removing the head of the assessor’s office during the appraisal and appeals season, as well as installing the long overdue software system to replace a 30-year-old system. That was launched the day he was suspended in April. Some have theorized that his agitating over the six years of delays and high costs in getting a new software system caused major offense among county staff. More enemies?

Now, will his lawsuit, and the county’s conduct, cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands more? The people who know why this was done aren’t saying.

By  |  11:08 AM ET, 07/06/2012

Categories:  Loudoun County

 
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