Former Ada County employee’s wrongful firing suit headed for trial

Ada County Commissioners Dave Case, left, and Jim Tibbs at their swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 14, 2013, at the Ada County Courthouse.
Ada County Commissioners Dave Case, left, and Jim Tibbs at their swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 14, 2013, at the Ada County Courthouse. Idaho Statesman file

A trial is set for March 6 on the whistleblower complaint filed by Rich Wright, a former director of Ada County’s Department of Administration.

A former TV journalist and Boise police spokesman, Wright served as Ada County spokesman from 2006 to 2008, when he was promoted to lead the administration department. He was fired Jan. 15, 2013, the day after newly elected commissioners Dave Case and Jim Tibbs were sworn into office.

Wright filed a $1.5 million complaint, claiming that he was fired, in part, for ordering an investigation into allegations that a manager with the commissioners’ office was harassing employees. He alleges commissioners retaliated because the employee, who ultimately resigned, was a friend of former Ada County Commissioner Vern Bisterfeldt and participated in Case’s and Tibbs’ 2012 election campaigns for commissioner.

According to the complaint, Case told Wright 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 position cut.

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 to the Idaho Supreme Court, which upheld part of the ruling but sent the case back to trial court on other parts.

“I am very encouraged by the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in my favor,” Wright told the Statesman. “I look forward to telling my story to a jury. I was retaliated against and fired for ordering an employment investigation against a close personal friend and campaign worker for Commissioners Case and Tibbs. What happened to me shouldn’t ever happen to anyone.”

Case and Tibbs did not respond to a request for comment. County spokeswoman Kate McGwire said, “Ada County does not comment on pending litigation.”

County officials have said Wright’s firing was legal because he was an at-will employee who could be terminated 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.”

By November 2014, the county had spent $100,558 defending the lawsuit. Updated costs were not immediately available on Friday, according to the county.

The case will be heard by Fourth District Judge George Carey.

Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell

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