Boone County, Mo. Chief Faces Critics Head On

The chief says that his job and the fire district's image are intact despite the seemingly endless controversy swirling around him.

Andrea Meinhart, the fire district's bookkeeper, stepped into the spotlight. In a grievance e-mailed to news organizations, she alleged that the fire district was being mismanaged. She claimed that when she raised questions about errors or inconsistencies in the district's accounting practices, Paulsell and Curry responded with verbal abuse.

Meinhart was placed on paid administrative leave in June after auditors discovered what they described as "accounting irregularities" in the fire district's fiscal yearbooks. In her grievance, Meinhart said she was just a "cog in the machine."

"I will not resign," she wrote. "If you choose to terminate me prior to fully investigating all of my allegations of misconduct contained in this letter and in the employee grievance, then so be it. As stated in my cover letter accompanying my grievance, I had great fear of what would happen to me. What has occurred is that Paulsell rallied his good ol' boy system and quickly fashioned up complaints which call into question my abilities."

Meinhart resigned on July 17 and has not spoken publicly about what happened. She has since also hired Moen as her attorney.

"When she first filed her complaint, it was a shock to all of us," said fellow complainant Burke. "It wasn't someone we normally had day-to-day contact with. She was a part of the inner circle. Her complaint represented something -- it wasn't just us."

'All muddled up'

Boone County Treasurer Kay Murray, who acted as the fire district's treasurer for 10 years before retiring in October, said Meinhart's troubles with the fire district were her own doing.

"That was the fire district's biggest mistake -- bringing in that little accountant gal who had no clue of accounting procedures," Murray said. "She would schmooze people, saying she had abilities when she didn't know a thing."

Murray blamed the fire district's many accounting problems, including $500,000 in federal disaster money being misappropriated, on Meinhart.

"It took us a long time to get the mess sorted out," Murray said. "She had (the district's funds) all muddled up. There was no segregation, no way of tracing it. It was all small amounts."

Murray admitted the district could have used better administrative oversight to catch possible errors. But she blamed Gordon, the fire district's board chairman, for being too lax with Meinhart.

"Oversight was tried, but one particular board member was particularly difficult," Murray said, alluding to Gordon.

Bolstered by Meinhart's grievance, Moen filed five wrongful termination, or Title VII, claims with the Missouri Human Rights Commission, alleging that in siding with Curry over his subordinates, Paulsell demonstrated gender bias and improperly fired paid employees.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stepped in and offered to mediate a possible settlement in September. Both sides appeared optimistic.

Privately, Moen said he expected federally mediated talks to fail.

Moen's clients wanted Paulsell's and Curry's dismissals as redress for theirs. That was the deal on the table. So Moen was surprised when board members said they would, in fact, be able to accept or reject the proposal -- meaning that Paulsell's and Curry's firings were not out of the question, Moen said.

"We got there and I asked them if they had the authority to terminate Paulsell and Curry in exchange for some, or all, of our dismissals, and they said they did," Moen said. "I said, 'What?' They said they had such authority, and they would engage in mediation."

Those talks failed, Moen said, because agreement couldn't be reached on reinstatement and compensation packages. Board members indicated that Moen's public comments to the media hurt the negotiations.

Gordon wouldn't discuss what went on at the meetings except to say that the board and former district employees failed to reach a settlement.

But when asked if the board would continue to publicly support Paulsell as chief, Gordon replied: "Everyone serves the fire district at the board's pleasure."

Since settlement talks ended, one of Moen's clients, Piringer, a former assistant chief who joined the fire district in 2003 after 16 years as director of MU's Fire and Rescue Training Institute, has filed a $2 million lawsuit in federal court. He alleges, among other things, that his First Amendment right to free speech was violated and Paulsell showed favoritism toward Curry at the expense of other employees.