Originally created 07/29/99

Judge: Firing not in vengeance



For nine years, Vera Butler has been the Clerk of Civil and Magistrates Court. Seven weeks after she spoke publicly about pay inequities, she is unemployed.

Mrs. Butler was placed on paid administrative leave Friday, after a disagreement with her boss, Chief Judge William D. Jennings III. Her last day of pay will be Sept. 17.

"I terminated her because she didn't follow instructions," Judge Jennings said Wednesday.

Mrs. Butler, however, sees her firing as an act of retaliation.

Last month, Mrs. Butler was critical of Augusta's pay system, which she said is unfair to female employees.

"I do the same job as the men who are in the position that I am holding, but I am paid much less," she said in a June 6 article in The Augusta Chronicle.

Mrs. Butler says had she not opened her mouth, she would still have a job. "I really believe I would."

After dismissing Mrs. Butler, Judge Jennings told other employees she was not coming back. According to two employees who were there, the judge said that since Mrs. Butler made comments in the newspaper, "no one around here liked her anyway."

Judge Jennings denied making such a statement. "I may have said that she had alienated herself. I didn't say that."

While Mrs. Butler had received approval from Judge Jennings to be interviewed for the article, its publication seemed to have a chilling effect on the relationship with her boss, she said.

Problems came to a head last week, when Mrs. Butler fired a temporary employee over poor performance, something Judge Jennings said he expressly forbade her to do.

"I told her to work with that employee to see what we could work out. Oh, and I told her not to fire her," Judge Jennings said. "Time went by, and out of the blue she had fired this individual, and I just couldn't have that."

Mrs. Butler said, however, that she never discussed firing the woman with Judge Jennings. As Clerk of Court, she had always done the hiring and firing of office personnel without much input from the judge, and the employee in question was on temporary status anyway, already passed over more than once for full-time positions.

Despite his edict not to fire the employee, Judge Jennings claimed he knew little about the woman's job performance problems and was unaware of her temporary status.

On July 21, Mrs. Butler had a final confrontation with the woman over a job performance evaluation. When the conversation turned ugly, Mrs. Butler told the woman she was fired.

The next day, Judge Jennings told Mrs. Butler to hire the woman back, and that she was fired.

"I said, `This is gone beyond (the employee); this has gotten personal,"' said Mrs. Butler. "He said it had."

But Judge Jennings said he had no personal vendetta against Mrs. Butler -- it was all "business."

"Well, it was a sad thing that I had to do, but when she wouldn't follow my directions, I didn't have any choice," he said, denying there was any connection between Mrs. Butler's dismissal and the newspaper article.

S.B. Crawford can be reached at (706) 823-3217 or scraw@augustachronicle.com.