County lawyers want to block deposition of Page

Mar. 02, 2013 @ 05:00 PM

Lawyers for the county want a judge to bar former Social Services Director Gerri Robinson’s representatives from questioning County Commissioner Michael Page about events that led to her firing in 2011.

In a Feb. 25 filing, the county’s lawyers argued that Page and other elected officials have immunity from being asked to testify about legislative and quasi-judicial matters.

Questioning Page about his knowledge of the motives of those on the appointed board that fired Robinson “would fall squarely within” that privilege and thus should be forbidden, they told U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Auld.

The filing comes as the county tries to fend off the civil-rights and whistleblower-protection lawsuit Robinson filed against it, the Durham Department of Social Services board and former Commissioner Joe Bowser.

It acknowledged that Robinson’s lawyers have already questioned Bowser, one-time DSS board members Gail Perry and Stan Holt, former interim County Manager Michael Palmer and Deputy County Manager Marqueta Welton.

They also are scheduled to take a deposition from County Manager Mike Ruffin later this month, though the schedule for that is subject to change.

Robinson claims she was sacked because she resisted pressure from Bowser to hire friends of the former commissioner – among them former Durham City Manager Marcia Conner – for jobs in DSS.

She contends that she reported Bowser’s conduct to administrators and was fired soon after.

The firing touched off a controversy that Page fueled by telling The John W. Pope Civitas Institute he had heard that Bowser had put pressure on Robinson.

Civitas is a conservative group funded by former state Rep. Art Pope, R-Wake, who’s now Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget director. It’s also a past employer of former City Councilman Thomas Stith, who’s now McCrory’s chief of staff.

The group said that the incident highlighted the “corrupt underbelly of well-intended government programs” and said the state “may need to reconsider whether politicizing care for needy children is the most efficient and compassionate means of providing help” to the poor.

The court cases the county cited as precedent for the idea of “testimonial privilege” concerned zoning and land-use-permit issues. State appellate courts frowned on allowing lawyers to question elected officials about their outside-of-meetings discussions with citizens about those issues.

There is no “quasi-judicial” matter involved at the commissioners’ level in the Robinson case, as that term refers to the court-like procedures elected officials have to follow when granting land-use permits.

A 2000 N.C. Court of Appeals case the county cited defined legislative matters as those “that set general policies,” particularly those affecting “the larger population.”