News3 News Now Investigators

Actions

Whistleblowers: Assessor hired family without searching for other candidates

The Dodge County Assessor hired her daughter, son-in-law as appraisers. A state senator said she'll introduce legislation to close a "loophole" in state law that allowed it without oversight.
Posted: 6:00 PM, Nov 05, 2019
Updated: 2019-11-06 17:50:54-05

FREMONT, Neb. (KMTV) — This story was made possible by a tipster. Send your tips, questions and story ideas to investigate@3newsnow.com, or call or text (402) 803-8183. You may also message that number on the encrypted messaging app Signal.

Shortly after she was appointed, Dodge County Assessor Debbie Churchill told a reporter she was excited to get the county assessor’s office out of the news.

“I can’t wait to get it running like it should be and get it out of the news,” Churchill told the Fremont Tribune in 2015.

But two sources told 3 News Now the Fremont office isn’t running as well as it was before Churchill hired relatives this year.

The new employees are under-qualified and over-paid, the sources said. The hires have hurt staff morale, they said.

The Dodge County Assessor's Office determines the values of properties in the county for tax purposes.

Taxpayers “need to keep their 2019 valuations,” said Coralea Kotrous, who Churchill fired on Oct. 17. “If there are issues, they need to start questioning why.”

Kotrous, who was an assessment clerk, was fired after she refused to sign a letter pledging to “support the Assessor’s Office both internally and to the general public.”

The hiring of Churchill’s adult daughter in March as an appraiser first concerned employees, Kotrous and another person who chose to remain anonymous told 3 News Now Investigators.

Three appraisers have resigned since June. Two of those served as the head appraiser.

The head appraiser, who holds the second most powerful spot in the office and the highest hourly wage, resigned in June. His internal replacement resigned less than four months later.

So Churchill hired her son-in-law, Mitchell Hart, as the replacement in late September. Hart is not married to the daughter working in the office, sources said, but Churchill didn't comment when asked to confirm that detail.

Employees of the office have also been upset about the hires because of belief that Churchill never made the jobs available to anyone else and confusion over state law, according to Kotrous and the anonymous person.

Churchill, 64, is an elected official. In November 2018, she ran unopposed.

Kotrous said she was fired in part for bringing her concerns to the county’s board, in addition to the letters she refused to sign. Churchill gave staffers a choice between signing the "employment agreement" or resignation letter, Kotrous said.

Kotrous provided those letters to 3 News Now Investigators. Churchill declined to comment on the letters and the firing.

Kotrous, 65, said she used to enjoy the job and workplace.

“It was like my forever job," she said. "It was a job that, I thought, no matter how old I was, I would enjoy it and continue to work there. Because we had a good rapport with everybody there," she said.

But that changed in March with the hiring of Churchill’s daughter, Cassie Churchill, she said.

“Our whole atmosphere changed, she said. "We had to be careful of what we said because she was always running in to mommy.”

Were the jobs made available to anyone other than the family members?

Churchill said she posted each job on Indeed.com before offering each job, but Kotrous said that’s not true.

They also weren’t offered internally, Kotrous said. Churchill didn't comment when asked if it was offered internally.

“Nobody could ever find anything,” Kotrous said.

Recruiting to the assessor’s office is difficult, Churchill said in a phone interview. The pay for appraisers is lower than it is in the private sector, she said, and they aren’t popular because of the role they play in property taxes.

Churchill said she didn’t have any documentation that the jobs were posted on Indeed.com. After 3 News Now requested public records, Churchill said she didn’t have any emails from Indeed.com.

3 News Now Investigators posted a job of its own on Indeed.com. We found it couldn’t be deleted from the employer’s account archive. The posting could only be removed and closed from public view. 3 News Now Investigators pointed this out to Churchill in an email. She responded, “Sorry…I don’t have what you’re looking for.”

Churchill said she received one unqualified applicant for the head appraiser position on Indeed.com.

In an employment disclosure form, however, she said she received no responses.

“He was my best- and only option!” Churchill wrote on the disclosure form.

Churchill in an email said she had “nothing more to say” when asked about this discrepancy among other questions.

Does state law have any oversight of the hiring of relatives by government officials?

State law seems to indicate that the hiring of immediate family members requires county board approval and a “reasonable solicitation and consideration of applications.”

But “immediate family member” is defined in state statute as a spouse, child who resides in the same house, or a dependent. Neither Churchill’s daughter or son-in-law fit that definition, she said.

The definition is narrow because many local government offices in Nebraska are in small rural communities, where the labor pool is limited and the only qualified candidate may be family, said Frank Daley, executive director of the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission.

Fremont State Senator Lynne Walz, who represents Dodge County, said she sees a "loophole" in the law and she is "looking at legislation to remedy the situation."

Because the state’s nepotism law doesn’t apply, the disclosure forms for the hires weren’t officially required, Churchill said. But they were filled out for both family members. We redacted personal information.

County board members didn’t comment on the situation, other than to say the office is “her jurisdiction.”

“The assessor is an elected official and in this case governs her assessor’s department,” said Bob Missel, chair of the county board. He offered no comment on whether her actions were ethical.

Pay rates and qualifications

Churchill said all employees begin at the same salary.

Hart began at $30.22 an hour. That’s more than his immediate successor was being paid when he resigned, $28.11, according to a public records request. It's less than the head appraiser who resigned in June, who was making $33.60 when he resigned.

Hart is being paid more than the previous head assessor, who had worked in the office since 2015, because they decided not to increase pay incrementally for Hart, which was the agreement with the previous head appraiser, Churchill said.

Churchill said Hart had appraisal experience while working for Metonic Real Estate Solutions in Omaha.

She said her daughter was previously a nanny.

Cassie is paid $19.50 an hour, a quarter more than Kotrous was making when she was fired. That especially bothered Kotrous because she had been working in the office since April 2017.

Hart and Cassie declined to comment when asked for more information on their qualifications.

We requested resumes for both Hart and the daughter, but Churchill declined under an exemption to open records law.

In an open records request, 3 News Now requested emails which mention the hires, which Churchill said she didn't have.

But Kotrous provided one to 3 News Now Investigators. In it, Churchill addresses staff concerns about Hart's pay rate and tempers expectations for him.

Dodge County Assessor internal email
In a Sept. 18 email to eight employees, Dodge County Assessor Debbie Churchill addressed staff concern about the salary of her son-in-law, who was just hired as the head appraiser. He holds the second most powerful position in the office and is paid the most. A fired employee provided the email to 3 News Now Investigators.

Previous Assessor issues in Dodge County

This is not the first controversy in the Dodge County Assessor’s Office. In 2015, Churchill took over for Brittny King, who resigned and was sentenced to probation for using a county credit card to fill her personal vehicle.

The Dodge County Board of Supervisors then appointed Churchill.

Churchill fired five employees on her first day in 2015, according to the Fremont Tribune .

UPDATE: On Tuesday, Kotrous told us her unemployment status was up in the air after her firing. Churchill, Kotrous said, told the state Kotrous was insubordinate. But Kotrous learned Wednesday that her unemployment was approved after the Department of Labor found "the evidence presented does not support a finding of misconduct in connection with the work."