Tarte back at work, but questions remain

Jun. 28, 2014 @ 05:45 PM

 Union County’s public health director is back at work, but there are questions if he was put on leave in the first place.

At the June 16 meeting of the Union County Board of Commissioners, Michael Johnson and Evelyn Blackley stated that an employee of Union County Public Health was suspended. They said county officials began investigating bank statements and debit cards for the Union County Public Health Foundation sent to the county health department in error. Johnson and Blackley said the employee did nothing wrong. 

Earlier in the day, WSOC reported that Union County Health Director Phillip Tarte had been placed on administrative leave from his job when county officials called for an investigation.

“They said he created a health board foundation without their knowledge. Now leaders have some questions about that foundation and it’s funding,” WSOC anchor Natalie Pasquarella said during the short aired clip. 

On June 17, the Enquirer-Journal contacted Union County Public Information Officer Brett Vines about Tarte. Vines stated that Union County Human Services Director Richard Matens would handle all media questions about the matter. 

When reached by phone that afternoon, Matens stated he would shortly release a statement that would “answer all your questions.” 

The one-page release provided bulleted statements about the county’s concerns. The foundation was formed by the now-defunct Union County Board of Health. The original foundation bylaws stated the organization would be tied to the health department. They also stated that the health director would serve as the foundation chair. Some statements cited health board minutes where a grant was mentioned, but no other detail was provided, the statement read. Only the county finance director has the authority to open bank accounts on the county’s behalf, but it appeared Tarte opened one for the foundation. 

“Consequently, when the Executive Director of Human Services (on Thursday, June 12, 2014) discovered that check cards from a bank addressed to Phillip Tarte, Director of Public Health and Evelyn Blackley, a member of the former County Human Services Board had been issued, he alerted county administration. The organization named as the account beneficiary is the Union County Public Health Foundation; however, the address listed on the checks for the organization is the Health Division’s address and only the name ‘Union County Public Health’ appeared on the checking card. There was no other designation on the cards,” Matens’ statement read. It was the first time the county mentioned Tarte’s name in connection to concern over the foundations bank statements. 

County human services is “committed to work transparently in all of its functions,” but employee privacy laws prevented the county from “commenting on specific personnel actions.”

The E-J also contacted Tarte on his cell phone June 17. He declined to comment, but said he would return to work June 19. 

Blackley was also interviewed June 17. She stated that Matens entered Tarte’s office June 16 and confronted him about the foundation’s financial information that arrived at the health department. She said Tarte tried to explain, but Matens told him to go home and not return to work for two days. 

Tarte then contacted Blackley, who was elected as the foundation’s chair at a recent meeting. He explained the situation and said documentation would be required to clear up the misunderstanding, she said. She provided several copies of supporting documents to the commissioners during their June 16 meeting. 

The E-J published a story June 18 stating Tarte was suspended. The E-J attempted to contact Tarte June 19 on an unrelated matter, but he did not answer emails, calls to his office and cell phone or texts. 

The monring of June 20, Matens contacted the E-J and spoke to the editor and a reporter. He said Wednesday’s story was incorrect and that Tarte was not placed on suspension.

“Hypothetically, if he’d been placed on leave, that would be public record,” Matens said. 

By email, the E-J requested “the current employment status of Phillip Tarte and any disciplinary action taken.”

Matens replied that Tarte’s employment status is active and there is no public information available regarding disciplinary actions.

“Has he been suspended or put on administrative leave?” Matens was asked.

“A suspension, either disciplinary or investigative, would have been publicly noted. No other information is public record,” Matens wrote. 

Since employee attendance is not public record, Matens would not say if Tarte was at work all the previous week.

According to a public records request made by the Enquirer Journal, there is no information regarding any disciplinary actions that have been taken against Mr. Tarte and he is currently in an active employee status.”

Though Blackley responded to no more emails or calls about her earlier statement, Johnson did. Both spoke during the commissioners meeting, he said, because they feared the county would fire Tarte without fully investigating the situation.

Johnson said county officials now want to distance themselves from accusations they put Tarte on leave, especially after naming him specifically on the earlier press release. 

“I think they owe him an explanation,” Johnson said. 

Tarte was in his office Friday, but refused to comment on any aspect of this incident.