Alleged remark by Forsyth elections director prompts interest by state officials

by Jordan Green

An allegation that the Forsyth County elections directormade an inappropriate comment to a former employee prompted a fact-findingvisit from Raleigh on Jan. 13 by the State Board of Elections top lawyer.

Don Wright, general counsel for the State Board ofElections, met first with Linda Sutton, the Democratic chair of the ForsythCounty Board of Elections, and then conferred with Rebecca Vanderklok, theformer employee, at the Clemmons Branch Library. Finally, he paid a visit toForsyth County Elections Director Rob Coffman at the Forsyth County GovernmentCenter in downtown Winston-Salem to get his side of the story.

Vanderklok told Don Wright that she and department trainingspecialist named Jacob Wright — no relation — had become close friends, albeitseparated by three decades when the alleged remark was made around August 2009.Vanderklok said she was sitting behind the counter when Coffman and Wrightwalked past.

“I said, ‘Where are you taking my young’un?’” Vanderklokrecalled. “And they both turned around and came up to the counter, and Rob madea statement: ‘Well, do you have a MILF relationship?’

“I didn’t understand what he was talking about, so I said,‘What’s he talking about, ‘MILF’?” Vanderklok continued. “Jacob said, ‘Youdon’t want to know.’… I sat there in my office on my computer and Googled it oncounty property, and I was very taken aback as to what the insinuation was. Ihad never heard of it.”

MILF is a crude acronym for a sexually attractivemiddle-aged woman.

The conversation was recorded Vanderklok and Wright’sknowledge on a device owned by Terry Cox, another former employee. A copy wasprovided to YES! Weekly.

Vanderklok resigned in October 2010. In an earlier interviewwith YES! Weekly, she cited a lack ofprofessionalism on Coffman’s part as the reason for her departure.

Coffman denied the remark in a phone interview with YES!Weekly, but said that the term might havecome up during a conversation among employees and that he recalled tellingVanderklok she would have to look it up herself when she inquired about theterm’s meaning.

At Coffman’s instigation, Jacob Wright spoke to YES!Weekly. At first, he declined to speak onthe record. Then Wright called back, and denied overhearing the remark.

As a reflection of the severity of the allegation, Coffmansaid, “This is a career ender.” He added, “This event never happened. It’sinsulting.”

Don Wright acknowledged to Vanderklok that Coffman holds, atthe very least, a reputation for inappropriate remarks.

“There’s no question that Rob Coffman can be the biggestjerk in the world,” Don Wright told Vanderklok during their meeting at theClemmons library. “You’re right: It’s been consistent from Day 1. He’s consistent.The question is: How does that affect the operation of the office?”

The alleged “MILF” remark to Vanderklok is among a string ofsimilarly inappropriate comments that former staff members have attributed toCoffman.

Cox and Pamela Johnson, another former employee, told YES!Weekly that in September 2008 Coffmanhumiliated an African-American woman employed as a temporary worker as the“local crack ho on loan to us from the jail.”

Don Wright alluded to the remark during his meeting withVanderklok, suggesting that he and other top officials at the State Board ofElections have been apprised of it.

Coffman did not deny having made the “crack ho” remark.

“I went through a training that was not necessarilydiversity, but it was racial relations,” he said.

“There was one issue in 2008,” he added. “Is that apattern?”

Cox, who retired from the board of elections in March 2010following several months on medical leave, said he learned that Coffman toldstaff that Cox “was out on sick leave having a sex change operation.”

Coffman denied making the statement. He also denied anallegation by Vanderklok and Johnson that he made fun of a current employee forher weight, calling her a “blob.” “How can you say that doesn’t affect the office?” Vanderklok asked Don Wright.“I think it creates a hostile work environment.”

Wright said he and Coffman have talked about his propensityfor inappropriate remarks.

“Rob admits he’s a jerk, too, if you confront him,” Wrightsaid. “I said, ‘Rob, you’ve said so many stupid things at the most stupidtimes.’ I’ve told him that. He’s said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Can’t you control yourmouth?’ He said, ‘I have trouble.’ I said, ‘You’ve only got yourself toblame.’”

Wright and Vanderklok discussed the possibility of removingCoffman, with Wright noting that Coffman could lose support from the localboard of elections when new members are sworn in, in July.

“If 2012 comes about and the situation is Rob Coffman isstill in there — basically, Rob’s a jerk. He says the wrong things. He doesn’ttreat people well, but he does get the election out. So basically, ifanything’s going to be done, it’s going to be 2011. It has to be, because wegot to take the interests of the people to get the election done.”

The recording reveals Don Wright making disparaging remarksabout Lamar Joyner, the deputy director of elections in Forsyth County.

“He’s got no initiative,” Wright can be heard saying toVanderklok, “very little backbone.”

The question of Joyner’s competency is discussed in thecontext of his status as the next in command should Coffman be removed.

“If Rob Coffman goes a month before an election and Lamar isin, what will happen?” Wright asked.

Vanderklok laughed aloud.

“See my point?” Wright asked.

During the 45-minute conversation, Vanderklok briefly raiseda concern about potential violations of election law at the Forsyth CountyBoard of Elections. Vanderklok served as absentee ballot coordinator up to thetime of her resignation.

“The election violations, like the ballots from the timeI’ve worked there, the absentee ballots from the time I’ve worked there,there’s never been a board member present when they were counted,” Vanderkloksaid. “Address that for me, please.”

“Absentee ballots can be processed,” Wright responded, “butthey are counted by the board in an open session.”

Vanderklok rejoined, “It wasn’t ’til the next meeting afterI left — ever done.”

“It should be done in that standard operating procedure,”Wright said.

“They were opened two days before,” Vanderklok said.

“Uh,” Wright said, and Vanderklok let the subject drop.

Asked about Vanderklok’s concern, Wright told YES! Weekly: “It needs to come before the county board ofelections and get that established. And of course we’d be interested in thefindings.”

Frank Dickerson, one of the two Democrats on thethree-member Forsyth board of elections, said he strongly believes that theboard and its staff take their jobs seriously, and are committed to fair andopen elections.

“We certainly want to hear from her, because we have apolicy of having at least two board members present when we count absenteeballots,” he said. “She should come forward to us. Or maybe we should inviteher.”

Asked about the findings of his visit to Forsyth County,Wright said, “I have confirmed that the people complaining have not appearedbefore the board of elections to present their concerns.”

Johnson and Cox have met with Sutton, who chairs the boardof elections, to discuss their complaints about Coffman’s management. Johnsonhas brought her concerns to the State Board of Elections about why no actionhas been taken. Vanderklok, Johnson and Cox have all said that they are willingto address the local board of elections in closed session, but for Johnson andCox the impasse is that they will not do so with Coffman in the room, whilestate election officials contend that Coffman has the right to hear thecomplaints against him.

“We have never been given any invitations by the board,”Johnson said.

Don Wright told Vanderklok that he had spent two hours earlierin the day speaking with Sutton about Coffman’s alleged remark, among othermatters. Wright said Sutton had shared a letter from Vanderklok with theForsyth County Board of Elections, but that the three-member board had opted totake no action. Sutton declined to comment on the matter to YES! Weekly, citing state personnel law.

Dickerson said he believes that if the rules allow the boardto hear from an employee or a former employee in closed session without thedirector being present, “we would allow that to happen.”

“We certainly have an open-door policy to any employee orformer employee to talk to us,” he said.

Jerry Jordan, the sole Republican member of the Forsythboard of elections, indicated he holds little interest in hearing fromVanderklok or any of the other former employees.

We’ve talked about all this stuff before,” he said. “It’sold news. I think it’s just a bunch of disgruntled employees that are unhappybecause they’re not working there anymore. All this stuff has been addressed.”

Near the end of their conversation at the Clemmons library,Wright suggested that he might be able to line up a reference to helpVanderklok obtain employment in another election office.

“You would like the opportunity to work in elections again,”Wright said. “But with Coffman here, that’s not going to work, for you or forhim. I am unaware of anything in adjacent counties. I’m not going to look foryou. However, if you hear something and want to contact me — ’cause I thinkLinda Sutton can verify that you did good work.”

Wright suggested Vanderklok maintain distance betweenherself and others who are raising questions about alleged improprieties in theForsyth board of elections office. He suggested that Vanderklok avoidassociating with Gardenia Henley, a candidate for NC House last year who hasbeen investigating the local board. Wright indicated to Vanderklok that sheshould resist the inclination to view her circumstances as being similar toother former employees.

“Your situation is different from that of Terry,” Wrightsaid. “Now, Terry’s a nice guy.”

“Rob rooted him out — there was no doubt,” Vanderklok said.

Wright added, “But Terry also had the opportunity….”

Vanderklok interrupted: “To be director.”

“Absolutely,” Wright said.