A whistleblower complaint filed four years ago by a former Ada County department head goes to trial Monday in Boise.
Rich Wright, a former TV journalist and Boise police spokesman, was Ada County’s spokesman from 2006 to 2008, when he was promoted to lead the Department of Administration. He was fired Jan. 15, 2013, the day after newly elected commissioners Dave Case and Jim Tibbs were sworn into office.
The next month, Wright filed a $1.5 million lawsuit, claiming he was fired, in part, for ordering an investigation into allegations that a manager with the commissioners’ office was harassing employees. He said commissioners retaliated because the employee, who ultimately resigned, was a friend of former Ada County Commissioner Vern Bisterfeldt and took part in Case’s and Tibbs’ 2012 election campaigns.
Wright said Case told him there were no performance issues with his work and his position was being eliminated as part of a reorganization. Wright’s position was the only job cut.
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A district judge granted the county’s request for summary judgment and dismissed the case in January 2015, saying Wright’s claims did not fall under the Whistleblower Act. Wright appealed. Last July, the Idaho Supreme Court upheld part of the ruling but sent the case back to trial court on other parts.
“I was retaliated against and fired for ordering an employment investigation against a close personal friend and campaign worker for Commissioners Case and Tibbs,” Wright told the Statesman then. “What happened to me shouldn’t ever happen to anyone.”
County officials have said Wright’s firing was legal because he was an at-will employee who could be dismissed without cause. After the Supreme Court decision, the county said in a news release: “Ada County commissioners adamantly disagree with the facts as Mr. Wright has asserted them.”
The jury trial, which should last about five days, will take place at the Ada County Courthouse before Fourth District Judge George Carey.
“Rich greatly looks forward to bringing closure to this difficult episode of his life,” said Wright’s attorney, Eric Rossman, on Wednesday.
County spokeswoman Kate McGwire said, “Ada County does not comment on pending litigation.”
According to the county, it has spent $197,730 to date defending the lawsuit.