State officials take interest in improper remark attributed to Forsyth County elections director

by Jordan Green

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

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

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

“I said, ‘Where are you taking my young’un?’” Vanderklok recalled. “And they both turned around and came up to the counter, and Rob made a 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, ‘You don’t want to know.’… I sat there in my office on my computer and Googled it on county property, and I was very taken aback as to what the insinuation was.”

MILF is a crude acronym for a sexually attractive middle-aged woman.

The conversation was recorded with Vanderklok and Wright’s knowledge on a device owned by Terry Cox, another former employee. A copy was provided to YES! Weekly. Vanderklok resigned in October 2010. In an earlier interview with YES! Weekly, she cited a lack of professionalism 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 have come up during a conversation among employees and that he recalled telling Vanderklok she would have to look it up herself when she inquired about the term’s meaning.

At Coffman’s instigation, Jacob Wright spoke to YES! Weekly.

At first, he declined to speak on the record. Then Wright called back, and denied overhearing the remark.

As a reflection of the severity of the allegation, Coffman said, “This is a career ender.” He added, “This event never happened. It’s insulting.”

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

“There’s no question that Rob Coffman can be the biggest jerk in the world,” Don Wright told Vanderklok. “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 of similarly improper comments that former staff members have attributed to Coffman.

Cox and Pamela Johnson, another former employee, told YES! Weekly that in September 2008 Coffman humiliated 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 with Vanderklok, suggesting that he and other top officials at the State Board of Elections have been apprised of it.

Coffman did not deny having made the “crack ho” remark. “I went through a training that was not necessarily diversity, but it was racial relations,” he said.

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

Coffman denied making the statement. He also denied an allegation by Vanderklok and Johnson that he made fun of a current employee for her 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 propensity for inappropriate remarks.

“Rob admits he’s a jerk, too, if you confront him,” Wright said. “I said, ‘Rob, you’ve said so many stupid things at the most stupid times.’ I’ve told him that. He’s said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Can’t you control your mouth?’ He said, ‘I have trouble.’ I said, ‘You’ve only got yourself to blame.’” Wright and Vanderklok discussed the possibility of removing Coffman, with Wright noting that Coffman could lose support from the local board of elections when new members are sworn in, in July.

“If 2012 comes about and the situation is Rob Coffman is still in there — basically, Rob’s a jerk,” Wright said. “He says the wrong things. He doesn’t treat people well, but he does get the election out. So basically, if anything’s going to be done, it’s going to be 2011. It has to be, because we got to take the interests of the people to get the election done.”

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

“He’s got no initiative,” Wright told Vanderklok, “very little backbone.”

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

“If Rob Coffman goes a month before an election and Lamar is in, what will happen?” Wright asked. Vanderklok laughed aloud.

“See my point?” Wright asked. During the 45-minute conversation, Vanderklok briefly raised a concern about potential violations of election law at the Forsyth County Board of Elections. Vanderklok served as absentee ballot coordinator up to the time of her resignation.

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

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

Asked about Vanderklok’s concern, Wright told YES! Weekly:

“It needs to come before the county board of elections and get that Frank Dickerson, one of the two Democrats on the three-member Forsyth board of elections, said he believes the board and its staff take their jobs seriously, and are committed to fair and open elections.

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

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

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

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

Don Wright told Vanderklok that he had spent two hours earlier in the day speaking with Sutton about Coffman’s alleged remark, among other matters. Wright said Sutton had shared a letter from Vanderklok with the Forsyth board of elections, but that the threemember board had opted to take 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 board to hear from an employee or a former employee in closed session without the director being present, “we would allow that to happen.”

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

Jerry Jordan, the sole Republican member of the Forsyth board of elections, indicated he holds little interest in hearing from Vanderklok or any of the other former employees.

“We’ve talked about all this stuff before,” he said. “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.”

Near the end of their conversation at the Clemmons library, Wright suggested that he might be able to line up a reference to help Vanderklok obtain employment in another elections 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 for him. I am unaware of anything in adjacent counties. I’m not going to look for you. However, if you hear something and want to contact me — ’cause I think Linda Sutton can verify that you did good work.”

Wright suggested Vanderklok maintain distance between herself and others who are raising questions about alleged improprieties in the Forsyth board of elections office. He suggested that Vanderklok avoid associating with Gardenia Henley, a candidate for NC House last year who has been investigating the local board. Wright indicated to Vanderklok that she should resist the inclination to view her circumstances as being similar to other former employees.

Your situation is different from that of Terry,” Wright said.