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Former dog pound employee files lawsuit against county

LISBON –The county is being sued by a former Columbiana County dog pound employee who says she was wrongly fired for her role in the criminal investigation that resulted in the indictment of the former county dog warden.

Brenda Austin filed a wrongful termination/retaliation lawsuit late Friday in county Common Pleas Court against county commissioners in general, commissioner Mike Halleck, the county dog pound and current dog warden Heidi Pecorelli.

Austin, who now lives in Cincinnati, worked at the dog pound when Dawn Croft was dog warden. She described Croft as a poor and neglectful boss, to the detriment of pound operations. Austin said she told Halleck on four different occasions between September 2014 and January 2016 about Croft, but he declined to investigate her concerns.

In January 2016, Austin said she discovered Croft was embezzling cash donations made to the pound, and she deliberately bypassed Halleck and contacted the county prosecutor’s office instead. Croft was fired by commissioners in May 2016 and indicted earlier this year on charges of theft in office ($26,000), money laundering and tampering with evidence. Her case is scheduled for trial March 12.

Austin said commissioners reprimanded her afterwards for going to the prosecutor’s office.

Austin wanted to apply for the dog warden position but was told she could not while the criminal investigation into Croft’s activities was going on. Meanwhile, another pound employee was named interim dog warden even though Austin alleges this person knew about Croft’s illegal activities and was involved, and that Halleck was aware of those allegations. No charges have been filed against that person, however.

Just weeks after Croft was fired, commissioners hired Pecorelli as the new dog warden. Austin said she was stripped of many of her duties, and Pecorelli required her to begin keeping a log of her activities when no other employee was required to do the same. Croft claims Pecorelli encouraged the other employees to shun her, among other things.

Austin says she was forced to work off-duty hours without pay, and Halleck “threatened plaintiff not to make wage complaints in the future.” She was also required to perform “demeaning tasks,” such as cleaning out the dog kennels, including on Columbus Day 2016 — a county employee holiday. When Austin sought legal counsel, she said Halleck told her he had an “entire floor of attorneys upstairs helping me.” The prosecutor’s office is located on the top floor of the county courthouse.

Finally, on Oct. 14, 2016, Austin told Pecorelli she had never been treated this way in all her years of working. She said Pecorelli responded by telling her to turn over her dog pound keys and cellphone because she was being laid off immediately due to lack of work, which Austin disputed.

The lawsuit claims Austin was the subject of retaliatory actions taken against her and ultimately fired for serving as a whistleblower by reporting criminal activity at the dog pound. It also claimed the county and Halleck failed to stop Croft’s criminal behavior or to prevent Austin from being punished and fired despite her complaints.

The lawsuit is seeking $25,000-plus in compensatory damages, plus an unspecified amount in punitive damages.

Halleck and Pecorelli denied the allegations, with Halleck wondering if politics had something to do with the timing of the lawsuit since he faces re-election in 21 days.

“I find it interesting that two years later a disgruntled employee decides to sue the the county,” he said. “I think people will see through this. There are so many misstatements in the (lawsuit) that I don’t think it will be successful. I think it’s someone looking for a payday.”

Pecorelli said “most of the allegations are untrue,” describing them as “far fetched.”

“(Austin) was insubordinate, always late … and was written up for it,” she said. “(Austin) came and went at she pleased even though she had a schedule.”

Pecorelli said she helped clean kennels and expected the three deputy dog wardens to do so as well. She said all employees, including herself, were required to be on call one week per month and it so happened that Austin’s week fell during Columbus Day 2016.

As for Austin not being compensated for the hours she worked, “she got paid for whatever hours she turned in,” Pecorelli said.

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