A former agency head who sued alleging he was fired by the incoming Republican administration in 2013 because he was a prominent Democrat has won his four-year legal battle with the state.
The new Democratic attorney general, Josh Stein, on Monday withdrew the state’s appeal of the latest in a string of John Ledford’s victories in court. Ledford and the state have reached a settlement, according to Stein’s motion.
Ledford, who was director of the state Alcohol Law Enforcement, will return to work there as an agent. He will also collect back pay and attorney fees, and will receive the same salary he was earning when he was dismissed.
Ledford attempted to escape the political purging of Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration by taking a demotion to field agent and assigning himself to the Asheville region, where he is from. He shifted a vacancy from another part of the state to Madison County. Ledford took a 41 percent pay cut to $65,887, which made him the highest-paid agent in the state.
Agents are rank-and-file employees who have certain protections under state law, while agency heads are political appointees who can be fired at will.
The McCrory administration dismissed him, saying he didn’t have the authority to make those changes, although he received permission from officials in state government. Ledford sued, and the case went all the way to the state Court of Appeals, which ruled in his favor close to a year ago.
Appeals court Judge Linda Stephens wrote in the ruling that traditionally political parties have protected and rewarded employees through political patronage. She said the legislature might consider addressing the issue.
“If our General Assembly is truly concerned with protecting North Carolinians against such harms as (the Department of Public Safety) forewarns, it can take appropriate legislative action, but this Court declines DPS’s invitation to turn Ledford into a scapegoat for all that ails our body politic.”
Earlier this year, state employee and law enforcement organizations filed briefs with the state Supreme Court supporting Ledford.
Ledford worked as an ALE agent, and then was the sheriff in Madison County for two years, until Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue tapped him to run the ALE. His father was a prominent Democrat on the Madison County Board of Commissioners for two decades.
His attorney in the lawsuit was Larry Leake, former longtime state Board of Elections chairman, who in February was appointed by Cooper to be a district court judge.