Tom McDevitt, the former director of the Smoky Mountain Center for Mental Health who resigned amid scrutiny last fall, was barely out the door when he was tapped by the state to head up a mental health agency down east plagued by turmoil of its own.
The state’s move to replace one director who was fired for mismanagement with another director who resigned under suspicion of conflict of interest caused a public outcry, forcing the state to rethink its decision.
It was announced on Tuesday, Jan. 20, that Leza Wainwright, director of the state Division of Mental Health, had tapped McDevitt to head up the Albemarle Mental Health Center, based in Elizabeth City. The board of the Albemarle Center had asked the state to assume control of its agency following a period of gross mismanagement that culminated with the firing of agency director Charles Franklin.
Wainwright chose McDevitt, who resigned his position as leader of the Sylva-based Smoky Mountain Center in September following intense board scrutiny over some of his actions, including his pay, perks he provided for himself and his family, and heavy-handed leadership style. McDevitt continues to serve as the director of the Evergreen Foundation, the non-profit arm of the Smoky Mountain Center.
The Elizabeth City-based newspaper The Daily Advance wrote of McDevitt’s appointment last week, pointing out that McDevitt had resigned from his previous job after red flags were raised about his activities.
It wasn’t long before comments from readers began flooding the newspaper’s Web site. Many seemed appalled that the Albemarle agency had put its trust in the state, only to see the state replace one fired director with another who had resigned under scrutiny.
Meanwhile, officials associated with the Albemarle agency were struggling to understand the state’s decision to appoint McDevitt.
“One of the ironies is that Albemarle asked for the state to come in and give them a director because of the problems they were having with a director, and now you have this situation,” said Albemarle Mental Health Center’s board attorney John Morrison. “The state was aware we had similar issues — I wonder why they would send (McDevitt) here.”
Pasquotank County Commissioner Chairman Marshall Stevenson said he was “very concerned.”
“He’s got baggage — we don’t need somebody like that,” Stevenson said of McDevitt.
On Thursday, Jan. 22, two days after McDevitt’s appointment, McDevitt and Wainwright attended a meeting with the Albemarle agency’s board of directors. Before the meeting, Wainwright told The Daily Advance that she was aware of the controversies surrounding McDevitt when she tapped him as director, and that they were greatly exaggerated. Wainwright commended McDevitt’s handling of the Smoky Mountain Center’s finances and the changes he had implemented as its director.
But just one day later, Wainwright did an about-face and announced McDevitt would no longer be appointed as the director of the Albemarle agency. She told The Daily Advance that scrutiny over McDevitt’s alleged activities at the Smoky Mountain Center would make it difficult to cultivate much-needed trust at the Albemarle agency.
State questions McDevitt’s severance pay
Not only has McDevitt missed out on the appointment to head another mental health agency, but he could lose his generous severance package from the Smoky Mountain Center.
The N.C. Department of State Treasurer last month weighed in on McDevitt’s severance package, which is equivalent to a year’s salary. The hefty sum may not be legal under state statutes. Specifically, state statute bars one employee from getting benefits not afforded to everyone else within an agency.
The treasurer’s office investigated the severance pay based on complaints from the public. It consulted with attorneys from the UNC School of Government in the process, which pointed out case precedent as well as state statutes.
“It appears that the one year’s severance pay is not permitted,” the state treasurer’s office wrote in a letter to the Smoky Mountain Center’s board. The state instructed the board to review the matter with its attorney, Jay Coward. Coward has been in communication with the state over the issue, but the board has not yet discussed whether to revoke the severance, something that will likely take place at an upcoming meeting, according to Board Member Dana Jones.
The state will keep an eye on the matter to make sure the board resolves it, said Sara Lang, director of communications for the state treasurer’s office.
“Staff of the Local Government Commission must ensure that this issue has been thoroughly reviewed from a legal standpoint and that public funds are being spent in accordance with the law,” Lang said.