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Sun, Dec. 08

Investigator believes assessor violated state law

Yavapai County Assessor Pam Pearsall

Yavapai County Assessor Pam Pearsall

An investigator believes Yavapai County Assessor Pam Pearsall violated state law when her office hired her daughter for temporary jobs.

Coconino County Sheriff's Office Lt. Tim Cornelius wrote in his report that Pearsall violated the law. However, it will now be up to the Coconino County Attorney David Rozema whether to actually file any charges. He didn't respond to a request Friday for a timeline on his decision. Yavapai County officials asked Coconino officials to handle the investigation since it deals with an elected county official. Rozema released the report to The Daily Courier Thursday afternoon after the newspaper previously requested it.

"After being given an opportunity to view this report only after it was released to the press, it is clear to me the investigator concluded neither my daughter or I attempted in any way to hide the familial relationship from (the Human Resources Department)," Pearsall said Friday. "However, months later upon notification by HR that they believed that I was in violation of state statute, I asked my daughter's immediate supervisor to terminate her employment that day. I depended upon our HR department for advice regarding my daughter's employment and state statute and followed it without hesitation."

Rozema temporarily held onto the report for further investigation into how much money Pearsall's daughter Ashley Stewart was paid by the county. The report says she netted $4,381. Stewart was a temporary employee of the Assessor's Office two times between November 2014 and February 2015.

State law (ARS 38-481) states that it is unlawful for a county executive to appoint a close relative to any job paid with public money. It also covers state and other lower government agencies. Violations are misdemeanors.

Yavapai County's Human Resources Department policy also states that immediate family members can't be hired if their employment would "create a supervisor/subordinate relationship with a family member."

Pearsall said she didn't know about the state law when her office manager hired her daughter for temporary work. She knew about the county policy but didn't think she was violating it.

"As far as I was concerned, I wasn't violating policy because she didn't work for me and I didn't hire her," Pearsall previously said. "I don't want to break the law."

Yavapai County officials originally forwarded the issue to the YCSO on March 30 after the Board of Supervisors received an anonymous complaint.

Pearsall is an elected official so she cannot be disciplined for violating county policy, said Jack Fields, the Board of Supervisors attorney and assistant county administrator. And she can't lose her office if she's guilty of a misdemeanor. She first took office in 2009 and was re-elected in 2012.

Cornelius interviewed Yavapai County Human Resources Director Wendy Ross, County Administrator Phil Bourdon, Pearsall, Stewart, Pearsall's Office Manager Sharlett Smith who filled out forms hiring Stewart, and Assessor's Office employee Asha Dugan.

Stewart was hired as a temporary clerk from Nov. 10 to Dec. 19, 2014. Ross said when her staff pointed out the name "Pearsall-Stewart" on the action form, she contacted Pearsall, found out Stewart was Pearsall's daughter, and informed her the hiring violated county policy. Pearsall hired her anyway.

Smith then submitted another employee action form to HR seeking to hire Stewart as a temporary clerk on Jan. 20, 2015. It states that "Ashley is being rehired as a temporary employee until May 1, 2015. Ashley will be working with Pam Pearsall as a legislative liaison and special projects." It listed her name as Ashley Stewart.

A cover letter from Bourdon to the YCSO states that HR didn't realize Pearsall had hired her daughter again until the Board of Supervisors received an anonymous complaint Feb. 10. Ross was informed by other county officials that Pearsall was violating state law and she told Pearsall, who then fired her daughter Feb. 12.

Cornelius found that supplemental information submitted to HR with Stewart's second hiring made it clear that Stewart was Pearsall's daughter. The application specifically states that she is a relative of Pearsall, in response to a written question. It also states she previously worked for Pearsall.

"It does not seem that Ms. Pearsall or Ms. Stewart were either one attempting to hide their relationship," Cornelius wrote.

Bourdon told Cornelius he didn't know Pearsall's office had hired her daughter until Ross told him about it, although Bourdon's wife works for the Assessor's Office.

Pearsall told Cornelius she consulted with a private attorney who told her she did not violate the law, but she probably had no case against the county since she had personally fired her daughter.

Stewart told Cornelius that she felt like the investigation "seemed childish" and "was a waste of taxpayer dollars." She wondered out loud if people who want her mother out of office in the 2016 election are somehow behind the anonymous complaint. Pearsall is planning to run for a third term.

A former Assessor's Office employee who read The Daily Courier's April story about the investigation wrote to Cornelius to say Pearsall previously hired her niece, too. When Cornelius asked Ross about it, Ross said she found an anonymous letter in Pearsall's HR file that was sent to the Board of Supervisors in 2010 saying Pearsall had hired her niece. Current supervisors Tom Thurman and Chip Davis were supervisors at that time.

Pearsall said Thursday that she hired her niece-in-law and never heard about any complaint, written or oral.

"I never tried to hide anything," she said.

Follow Joanna Dodder on Twitter @joannadodder. Reach her at 928-642-0560.

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