RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The state Court of Appeals agreed Tuesday that the former director of Alcohol Law Enforcement was fired from his most recent job as an ALE field agent solely for political reasons and should be reinstated.
In a strongly worded opinion, the court took the Department of Public Safety to task for the firing. The unanimous ruling sided with an administrative law judge’s ruling that John Ledford should be reinstated, receive back pay dating to his dismissal and be compensated for attorney fees and costs.
The evidence suggests “both that DPS was looking for any reason it could find to terminate Ledford and that the purportedly legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons it articulated … were merely a pretext,” the ruling says.
Ledford was appointed director of ALE in 2009 by Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue. In late 2012, as Republican Gov. Pat McCrory was preparing to take over after Perdue’s term, Ledford decided to return to the field as an ALE special agent. He sought reassignment from Wilmington to Asheville, closer to his home county of Madison where he once was sheriff.
In April 2013, Ledford was fired without notice and he sued, saying he was discriminated against based on political affiliation. Morrison ruled in December 2013, and a Superior Court judge upheld that ruling a year later.
Judge Linda Stephens, writing the opinion, dismissed arguments by the Department of Public Safety that there would be public policy ramifications if the appeals court allowed the ruling of Administrative Law Judge Fred Morrison to stand.
She noted that DPS had argued that the Morrison’s decision “might open the proverbial floodgates to allow future administrations of both parties to frustrate our state’s democratic ideals by entrenching political appointees before relinquishing power.”
The appeals court dismissed those concerns, describing Ledford as a “veteran law enforcement officer who has dedicated his entire career to serving and protecting the people of this state.”
“If our General Assembly is truly concerned with protecting North Carolinians against such harms as DPS 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,” the ruling concludes.
DPS officials said Ledford was fired partially because he reassigned himself from ALE director to the special agent position. “While this allegation certainly makes for an incriminating sound bite, we find it highly misleading …” the court wrote.
The agency also argued that there was no legitimate business need for the position in Asheville, yet an additional special agent has remained in Asheville, the opinion noted.
DPS spokeswoman Pam Walker said in an email Tuesday that the agency is reviewing the ruling. Because the ruling by the three-judge panel of the court was unanimous, an appeal to the state Supreme Court is not automatic.
Ledford’s attorney, Larry Leake, said Tuesday his client still wants to return to work with the ALE.