Westfield Mayor Andy Cook and Clerk-Treasurer Cindy Gossard are entangled in a legal battle after she denied Cook and a team of city-hired examiners direct access to the city’s payroll systems as part of an ongoing financial investigation.
Cook filed a lawsuit against Gossard on Jan. 14 in Hamilton Superior Court 2 to force her to cooperate with examiners performing a city-wide financial investigation and to prohibit her from contracting with a new city payroll vendor.
Cook wants the court to assert that Gossard as clerk-treasurer does not have the authority to execute a contract above $25,000 on the city’s behalf and that she cannot keep city leadership from accessing its financial systems.
The case has made some progress, as both parties agreed to conduct an on-site review of select requested materials in Gossard’s office on Feb. 12 and an earlier restraining order filed by Cook was vacated. Still, several issues remain undecided, including an attempt by Gossard to disqualify the lawyers representing Cook in the lawsuit, who are also under contract to represent the city, which she argues creates a case of impropriety.
Ongoing financial investigation
The lawsuit is tied to an ongoing examination of city finances Cook launched last year after city councilors made allegations that a contractor at the Grand Park Sports Campus owed the city money.
The examiners reviewing city finances—including those from Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, the law firm that now represents the city and is representing Cook in his lawsuit against Gossard—had asked Gossard for direct access to the city’s payroll and other financial systems, which Gossard denied. In court filings, she said she did so on the basis that such access might allow the information to be manipulated or destroyed. Instead, she provided the team with “view only” files on a flash drive and invited them to her office to view other information they might need, according to court documents.
Cook has argued her unwillingness to provide the examiners, and other city officials, with direct access to those systems is interfering with Taft’s ability to complete the financial examination.
“The Clerk-Treasurer’s continued overreach is preventing the Appointees from completing the investigation and is interfering with Mayor Cook’s ability to discharge his statutory duties,” Cook’s complaint reads. “Mayor Cook, as the executive of the city, has the statutory power to order the investigation and the statutory obligation to effectively and efficiently run the city, to enter into contracts, and to provide the City Council with a statement of the city’s financial affairs. The Clerk-treasurer, on the other hand, has none of those powers or duties and certainly has no right to interfere with or usurp Mayor Cook’s duties.”
But IBJ obtained copies of several letters Taft sent Gossard about the documentation examiners needed, including one from Taft partner Zachary Klutz on Oct. 14 that said direct access to the payroll system wasn’t necessary at that time and may not ever be needed. Klutz declined to be interviewed for this story, citing the pending litigation and examination.
Westfield communications director Vicki Duncan Gardner told IBJ the clerk “refused to comply with basic requests for public documents,” forcing Cook’s administration to ask a court to intervene. Cook filed suit Jan. 14.
Gossard, who is represented by Westfield-based Webster & Garino LLC, responded Jan. 20 and filed a countersuit and a motion to disqualify Taft as counsel for the mayor.
Then on Feb. 1, the two parties filed an agreement with the court in which Gossard agreed to provide the requested documentation to the examiners during a Feb. 12 meeting in her office.
Gossard and her attorneys did not respond to IBJ’s requests for comment for this story.
Gaining access to financial systems
As part of the lawsuit, Cook asked the judge to assert that Gossard cannot enter into contracts of more than $25,000 on behalf of the city to keep her from bringing payroll processing in-house during the course of his examination. Gossard last month attempted to hire a firm to advise her on how to bring payroll processing in-house, a move he said she has no statutory authority to perform.
According to the court filings, when Gossard and the examiners were going back and forth about access to the city’s payroll system, ADP, and other financial systems, Cook tried to gain access to the payroll system himself and couldn’t because he’s not an administrator on it. He then reviewed the city’s 2014 contract with the payroll provider and claimed it wasn’t valid under Indiana law because he never signed it. (In court filings, Gossard said she was directed to execute the contract by John Rogers, the mayor’s director of enterprise development, on behalf of the mayor’s office.)
Cook then tried to execute a new contract with ADP, wherein both he and the clerk-treasurer would have administrative access to the system, leading Gossard to announce during a Jan. 11 city council meeting that there were issues with the ADP contract and she would be consulting with Oklahoma-based certified public accountants Finley & Cook on bringing the city’s payroll operations in-house, court filings say.
The administration told IBJ that if Gossard were to bring payroll processing in-house, it would cause a disruption in the ongoing financial investigation and also could potentially delay employees being paid, which is why Cook asked the court to intervene.
As part of the parties’ agreement, Gossard will not authorize contracts for over $25,000.
Question of impropriety
Although the parties seem to have reached an agreement on how Gossard will provide access to city financial systems to the examiners, some issues in the lawsuit remain unresolved.
Gossard is attempting to disqualify Taft from representing Cook in his lawsuit against her. She claims the law firm used information it obtained through its investigation into the city’s finances to launch Cook’s suit. Her motion claims that situation “creates a disqualifying appearance of impropriety.”
Cook and his attorneys have objected to her motion, and a judge has not yet ruled on it. A hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Thursday.
But Gossard isn’t the only city officials raising questions about impropriety.
Westfield City Council members Troy Patton and Joe Edwards both expressed concern during a finance committee meeting on Monday about Taft playing a role in both the investigation and the lawsuit. Taft was first hired by Cook in August to serve as appointees for his financial review alongside accounting firm BKD CPAs & Advisors.
In January, after longtime city attorney Brian Zaiger, an attorney with Indianapolis-based Krieg Devault, resigned at Cook’s request, Cook announced during a council meeting that he had hired a team of attorneys from Taft to replace Zaiger in representing the city in legal matters going forward.
“I think there is an independence issue with Taft representing the city. You can’t really call it an independent examination any longer,” Patton, who was the councilor who raised concerns about Grand Park in the first place, said. “Frankly, the mayor is feeling pressure, so he’s trying to batten down the hatches on everybody.”
Gardner responded to those impartiality concerns with another written statement.
“As for independence, the esteemed and highly professional organizations involved would not risk their reputations on this investigation and to suggest otherwise indicates a clear lack of understanding. This is no different than a corporate audit (like Eli Lilly) where the same accounting firm performs both functions,” she said. “There’s no preset conclusion.”