Three of the top employees at Clarksdale Public Utilities have been placed on suspension while an independent investigator looks into whether employee phone lines were being recorded without their knowledge.
The trio say the claims against them are “bogus allegations” and almost comical and they expect to be exonerated and return to work at CPU when the investigation is complete.
The three suspended are CPU General Manager Mark Johnson, Chief Financial Officer Steve Reed and Chris Campos, the director of communications and public relations for CPU. The trio were all suspended from their positions with full pay and benefits on Thursday morning, pending the investigation that is expected to run through Aug. 10. All three were required to return all CPU items, including their company phones, and no longer have access to their work email addresses.
Johnson began his position June 19, 2017, and his salary is $154,500 a year. Reed started at CPU on Dec. 10, 2014, and makes $98,000 per year, while Campos’ tenure began in September 2017 and he makes $53,000 a year.
The suspensions came after a unanimous vote by the five-member CPU board of directors held Wednesday, July 25 at the Clarksdale law offices of the board attorney, David Hunt.
Johnson, Reed and Campos were informed of the suspensions via letters that were hand-delivered to them by board members on Thursday morning at their offices at the CPU main building on Third Street.
On Monday, the Clarksdale Board of Mayor and Commissioners voted to suspend the investigation, but the suspensions are still intact.
The CPU board responded with a meeting of its own Tuesday at the law offices of Hunt Ross & Allen.
Two attorneys were hired during Tuesday’s meeting to assist with services while Hunt is out of town for two weeks.
Former city attorney Curtis Boschert will review the Mississippi Freedom of Information Act request documents at $175 an hour. Attorney David O’Donnell from Oxford, charging $250 an hour, will advise the CPU board of its options regarding whether or not the investigation will be continued.
The CPU board made no comments on what was discussed during the 90-minute executive session Tuesday.
Johnson, Reed and Campos all said they believe they have done nothing wrong and hope to continue working for CPU following the suspension.
Jim Hemphill from The Victor Group Inc., based out of Starkville, is running the day-to-day operations for CPU on an interim basis at least three days per week. CPU board president Freddie Davis is acting as an advisor and liaison and making important decisions on days Hemphill cannot be present.
Attorney Jim Herring was hired to conduct the investigation.
“I’ve run into him twice over my 51 years of law practice,” Hunt said. “He’s got a great reputation. He was a former judge on the Mississippi Court of Appeals. I’m just trying to think of someone that was respected with integrity. I suggested him.”
Cause of suspension?
There is a difference of opinion regarding the reason for a potential investigation.
David Hunt and board member James Hicks issued a press release after the July 25 meeting.
The statement read, “As a result of a recent request by the Clarksdale Public Utilities commission for the general manager (Johnson) to investigate a certain personnel matter and the subsequent development of apparent conflicts with respect to that matter, the commission determined to employ someone independent of Clarksdale Public Utilities to investigate these personnel matters. Under the law, the personnel matters must be confidential. Neither the commission, CPU personnel, nor any person involved in the personnel investigation on behalf of the commission will make any comment or issue any statement until the investigation has been completed and all the relevant facts are known.”
Johnson, Reed and Campos were all informed of their suspension the next morning.
Hunt said the suspensions were not made public until all three were notified on Thursday. He felt only Herring, Hunt and the five CPU board members needed to be at the July 25 meeting, which was primarily in executive session.
“They were going to meet with Mr. Herring,” Hunt said of the board members. “That was the purpose of the meeting. There was no purpose for them (Johnson, Reed and Campos) to be there.”
Johnson said the investigation was about the Federal Wiretapping Law and recording telephone lines, which he noted is something all utilities do. He added, in Mississippi, just one party has to know the phone conversation is being recorded. He received a letter when he was informed of his suspension and felt it did not coincide with the press release.
“I did say I wanted the press release retracted and corrected,” Johnson said.
“My initial reaction (to the press release) is, ‘What are you talking about? What personnel investigation are you even talking about because I didn’t know? They never even gave me a personnel investigation to complete.
“Now, I was familiar with this telephone investigation, but that’s not personnel. They termed it as personnel and, to me, that put me in a bad light. I’ve told them to detract it and correct it. It defames me and embarrasses me and I think that’s their attempt. This is how they do business, in my opinion. I’ve told them it must be corrected and retracted today.”
Johnson has sent out multiple emails to the same effect, but Hunt stood his ground.
“That press release is believed to be accurate,” Hunt said. “It does not allege who was involved in the conflicts or what.”
Reed referred to the investigation as “bogus allegations.”
Reed’s letter read, “Our attorney has told us that anyone who was subject to being recorded in violation of federal wiretapping statute has a cause of action against CPU. Thus, Mr. Reed has put great financial risk in the event of our liability insurance to not provide coverage for violations of a federal/criminal statute.”
“There’s no merit to any of this,” Reed said in response. “I don’t know what has personally driven these gentlemen to come down this road.”
Johnson said there was no CPU policy against recording phone lines.
“This is almost comical,” Johnson said. “That’s what this whole thing is based on... saying that the three of us knew all the telephone lines were being recorded and we didn’t let employees know they were being recorded.”
When Johnson first came to CPU, his understanding was administrative lines were being recorded. His phone was not recorded at first, but that changed after he came. He said he believed all employees knew phone lines were being recorded and he was going to send a note to everyone making sure they were aware.
“Our attorney sent me a note that said, ‘Well, Mark, if I come up to your office and use your phone and I don’t know that line is a recording line, then this wiretapping law’s been broke,’” Johnson said. “Can you imagine what I thought? He actually sent me a note to that effect. I’m astounded. They just went on and on about this.”
Hunt declined to comment.
Campos maintained he did not do anything wrong.
He said his letter indicated that an employee had claimed that he, Johnson and Reed knew all the lines were being recorded and that they were in violation of a federal crime by not reporting it to the appropriate authorities.
“I wasn’t aware that I had knowledge of a federal crime and that’s where I stand on this,” Campos said. “If I had known that a federal crime was being committed, then I certainly would report it”
In the interim
Hemphill, who also ran things on an interim basis after the resignation of former general manager Ray Luhring in 2017, said his role will be to support employees and make sure customers are taken care of.
“I have no other responsibilities except to make sure that the utility runs in an organized and successful fashion,” Hemphill said.
Senior accountant Sheila Profit will be filling in for Reed and working with Hemphill. It has not been determined who will handle Campos’ responsibilities.
“It’s not really that much different (than the last time) for an interim manager because you’re not going to try to make big earth-changing decisions during this period of time,” Hemphill said.
The Victor Group Inc. conducted the search that brought Johnson to CPU. Several general managers in recent years and the board have disagreed on responsibilities.
Going forward, Hemphill said there must be a mutual understanding of expectations.
“The commission has an awful lot of responsibility in managing and making sure that the money is spent right,” he said.
“I believe if this had been done early on in the process, that we wouldn’t be going through this right now. I believe that the commission and the general manager must absolutely mediate and sit down and have an understanding and move forward.”