Bucks County has announced its success in a lawsuit from its former IT Chief, who was fired after the administration learned he had been insubordinate and dishonest about his role in awarding cybersecurity contracts to a consultant later sanctioned by the State Ethics Commission.
U.S. District Judge Edward G. Smith of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently dismissed claims challenging the termination of former Chief Information Officer Don Jacobs. County Solicitor Joe Khan, who was one of the named defendants, called the lawsuit “frivolous.”
Jacobs was terminated in March 2020 after an internal investigation conducted by Khan and others found, among other things, that Jacobs had been insubordinate as well as dishonest about his role in pushing the prior county administration to award contracts to companies tied to cybersecurity consultant Robert Ayers.
At the time, Ayers was a state information technology executive who, according to the State Ethics Commission, was illegally performing consulting and sales duties for private gain while on the clock as a public employee. He also used state-owned equipment in furtherance of at least one contract with Bucks County, and floated the idea of finders’ fees or sales commissions for private work he did during his regular working hours as a state employee.
“Despite protests from subordinates, and despite concerns and directives from managers above him, Mr. Jacobs engaged in a number of practices that helped Mr. Ayers get the work that he got,” Khan said during the July 20 public meeting of the Bucks County Commissioners.
Under the prior Board of Commissioners, the county from 2016 to 2019 spent more than $190,000 on private contracts tied to Ayers.
Earlier this year, the State Ethics Commission found, and Ayers agreed, that Ayers’ conduct violated state ethics laws governing Commonwealth employees, and fined him $11,000.
In his lawsuit, Jacobs had claimed that the county ended his employment as retaliation for seeking leave or reporting information in a violation of his constitutional rights. District Judge Edward G. Smith in a written opinion filed June 22 said he found those claims to be unsupported by the evidence presented, even when “viewed in the light most favorable” to Jacobs.
“The great thing about lawsuits is that when they’re actually brought into a courtroom,” Khan added, “the truth comes out.”
Judge Smith dismissed Jacobs’ federal claims with prejudice. The judge declined to address a claim brought under the state Whistleblower Act, stating that the claim did not belong in federal court, but noted elsewhere that Jacobs had failed to establish any inconsistency or pretext in the county’s stated reasons for terminating him.
Jacobs’ involvement with Ayers, as outlined in the State Ethics Commission’s report, was brought to the current administration’s attention in early 2020, shortly after the inauguration of the new commissioners, when investigators from the from the commission interviewed Jacobs about the county’s dealings with Ayers. The county immediately launched an internal investigation and ended its business relationships with vendors associated with Ayers.
The State Ethics Commission’s report notes several occasions when county officials, superior and subordinate to Jacobs, told him of their disapproval and discomfort with Ayers’ entanglement in county business dealings. Jacobs ignored the complaints and continued funneling work to the Ayers-associated firms.
In the aftermath of the investigation, the county strengthened its whistleblower policy and enacted a False Claims Ordinance. These reforms, Khan said, ensure that county employees are incentivized to come forward with information and “to have every opportunity to be protected, to be heard, and to have safe options for bringing information forward.”
Khan praised the diligence of noted trial attorneys Jeffrey Kolansky and Eric Yun, who agreed to represent the county after its Solicitor was named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
“They say that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client,” said Khan. “Fortunately, we were able to trust our outside counsel at Archer & Greiner to protect our interests and communicate the message that the commissioners and their administration will not be bullied by frivolous suits. And that message was delivered.”
A full copy of the State Ethics Commission’s findings can be read here.
Media Contact: James O’Malley, 215-348-6414, [email protected]