Forsyth County elections director’s job hangs in balance as board speaks to employees
Forsyth County’s election director remained under investigation this week, with his board adjourning this afternoon with plans to reconvene next week and continue interviewing employees about an allegation that he made an inappropriate, sexually charged remark to a former employee.
The Forsyth County Board of Elections met in closed session for about three hours on Jan. 21. At various times, Elections Director Rob Coffman and Human Resources Director John Dean were present in the meeting. The three board members relocated to the human resources office and brought employees in one by one to be interviewed during the closed session.
After the board returned to open session, Democratic Chair Linda Sutton said, “We’re going to reconvene our meeting when we’ve had a chance to speak to other employees.” Following the board’s agreement to meet again on Friday at 10 a.m., Sutton said the meeting would be “another closed session to continue our investigation.”
Coffman is accused by former employee Rebecca Vanderklok of asking her around August 2009: “Do you have a MILF relationship?” Coffman denied making the remark in reference to Vanderklok but said the term might have come up in the context of a discussion by a group of employees about a movie.
Vanderklok wrote a letter to Sutton about the incident. The letter prompted a visit to Forsyth County by Don Wright, general counsel for the State Board of Elections, on Jan. 13. Wright met with Sutton and Vanderklok before visiting the board of elections office to confront Coffman with the allegation. During his meeting with Vanderklok, Wright said that
Sutton had shared Vanderklok’s letter with the other two members, but the board had elected to take no action. That changed following revelations about the state board’s interest in the matter first published by YES! Weekly on Monday. Frank Dickerson, the second Democrat on the board, indicated in particular that he thought the allegation deserved a second look. The purpose of today’s meeting, as described by Sutton, was “to hear and investigate complaints against an employee of the board of elections.”
After the meeting adjourned, PJ Lofland, a former temporary election worker who is active in Forsyth County Republican politics, told the three members: “You have no idea how afraid the employees are here to say, ‘Boo.’” Lofland and other employees contend that those who are currently on staff fear losing their jobs if they tell the truth about Coffman’s management practices.
Two other former employees, Pam Johnson and Terry Cox, did not attend the meeting, but had a prepared statement distributed to reporters through an intermediary. The statement suggests that members of the board are well aware of the numerous allegations against Coffman, which include not only complaints of unprofessional conduct, but voting irregularities. The statement singles out Jerry Jordan, the board’s lone Republican member.
“There are numerous witnesses to Mr. Coffman’s disreputable conduct as well as illegal activities and violations that has continued to exist as early as 2007 when Mr. Jerry Jordan was first presented with their concerns,” the statement reads.
Jordan told YES! Weekly on Monday:
“We’ve talked about all of this stuff before.
It’s old news. I think it’s just a bunch of disgruntled employees that are unhappy because they’re not working there anymore. All this stuff has been addressed.” Jordan was later quoted in the Winston-Salem Journal as saying the allegations against Coffman are “garbage.”
“The citizens of Forsyth County should know this isn’t just about Mr. Coffman’s behavior,” Johnson and Cox said in their statement. “This is also about election and voter fraud and to what extent individuals will go to win. The evidence is overwhelming that Mr. Coffman and the Forsyth County Board of Elections should all step down or be removed.”
Board members said they had not seen the statement.
‘I’m not sure all the board members shouldn’t step down, along with the director.’ —Nathan Tabor
“Mistakes occur occasionally in the operation of elections,” he said. “I have seen in year and a half on the board nothing that suggested there was a plan to undermine elections on any intentional or material level. If we saw that, we would refer it to prosecution. I have been personally impressed by my fellow board members and by staff. They are all dedicated to carrying out fair and efficient elections.”
Jordan echoed those sentiments. “I haven’t seen anything intentional as far as going around election laws,” he said. “I haven’t seen any intentional abuse. If I did, I would be the first one to call it out, and I would do so loudly.”
The former employees have gained an influential ally in Nathan Tabor, chairman of the Forsyth County Republican Party. While noting that the party has not taken any official vote, Tabor said, “Any time anyone says there was sexual harassment or racial slurs, those allegations should be investigated and not dismissed as ‘garbage.’” Tabor said he believes concerns about official conduct at the board of elections transcend party lines, adding, “It is odd when you have the Republican board member saying it’s ‘garbage’ and Democrats saying it needs to be investigated.”
Tabor called for Coffman’s resignation, citing among other reasons an alleged remark in 2008 for which Coffman acknowledged that he underwent racial sensitivity training.
“The admitted allegation of 2008, suspicions of voter fraud, people’s view in general of government as being tainted, for all these reasons we should not be focusing on whether the current director should stay or go,” Tabor said. “It’s probably to the point where the Forsyth County Board of Elections should be under a new director.”
Both major political parties will have the opportunity to recommend new representatives to the state board of elections for appointment to the local board this summer, but Tabor suggested that might not be soon enough.
“I’m not sure all the board members shouldn’t step down, along with the director,” he said. “If they were aware of these sexual harassment allegations and didn’t investigate, that’s wrong.”