City spokesman resigns; radio critic claims victory*

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 Ric Barrick, the city’s director of communications, abruptly announced his resignation last week, telling WVIR TV that his job had become too stressful and citing the Huguely trial and a recent internal investigation into his conduct as factors.

Ric Barrick, the city’s director of communications, resigned last week amidst allegations that he had violated procedure by rigging the bidding process for an upgrade to the city’s public access TV station. (File photo)

In the wake of the announcement, WINA radio host Rob Schilling, a longtime critic of Barrick’s, claimed the resignation was the result of his reporting. Schilling instigated two separate investigations into Barrick’s alleged mishandling of a city procurement project and later published an exhaustive account of his allegations. Barrick resigned the same day the story went online.

“I’ve had this and been researching this for well over a year and decided I wasn’t going to break my story until after I had let law enforcement have a look at it, which is what I did,” Schilling said. “When that investigation was concluded, I put my story out two days later, and three hours after the story comes out, the resignation was tendered. I don’t see how you could look at it any other way.”

City Manager Maurice Jones, Barrick’s supervisor, responded to C-VILLE’s questions—which included asking whether the resignation had anything to do with Schilling’s allegations—by saying he could not discuss personnel issues in detail and providing the following synopsis of events:

“A procurement issue was brought to our attention several weeks ago and we immediately began an internal investigation concerning the possible violation of policy. We also reached out to the City’s Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office to examine whether any laws had been violated. They then approached the Orange County Commonwealth’s Attorney about managing the investigation as a special prosecutor. Everyone involved from the City cooperated fully in the investigation. In the end, the Commonwealth’s Attorney in Orange, Diana Wheeler, determined that criminal charges were not founded. As both investigations ended, Ric submitted his resignation and I accepted.”

Barrick referenced the investigation into his conduct in an e-mailed response to a request for comment, but said his resignation reflected his desire to focus on other parts of his life.
“I am grateful, but frankly not surprised, that nothing came of the investigation. This turned out to be a blessing, and I was able to do some soul searching, look back on a particularly busy year, and rearrange my priorities to be more on my family and my passions. I am still working for the city that I love but now will have some time to devote to my personal interests,” the e-mail said.

The city also released a brief statement that said Barrick would be “taking on a temporary role working on the City’s 250th Anniversary Celebration and other projects,” after leaving his post on Friday, March 23.

Barrick was responsible for coordinating a media plan for the George Huguely murder trial, which involved providing timely information to more than 30 news outlets over the course of the three-week trial. But the timing of his announcement on the same day that Schilling’s story broke lent credence to the talk show host’s notion that the resignation was related to fallout from the way he handled a city Request For Quote (RFQ) for a “channel in a box” solution to Charlottesville’s public access television station, TV10, in early 2010.

In his story, Schilling accused Barrick of “the deletion of sensitive e-mails, the financial defrauding of Charlottesville taxpayers, and the collusion to manipulate the bidding process to the detriment of other bidders” and called his behavior “highly problematic procedurally, legally, and ethically.”

Schilling met with City Manager Maurice Jones and City Attorney Craig Brown last month to address his concerns over Barrick’s handling of the bidding process for the TV station RFQ, which he learned about after receiving a week of Barrick’s e-mail correspondence through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Schilling said he issued the FOIA request because Barrick had cut him out of his media e-mail list and he wanted to know what was going on.

“I thought, well, how am I going to deal with this? If he won’t give me information, I’ll get it through FOIA. And I said, ‘Well, just give me a everything you’ve sent in and out of your mailbox for a week,’” Schilling said.

After stumbling upon an e-mail correspondence between Barrick and Eric Levy, director of broadcast products for a Kansas company called Weather Metrics, Schilling spent the better part of a year investigating the matter and building a case. Barrick’s e-mails show that he communicated with Levy after the closing date of the RFQ in an effort to negotiate a lower bid from him.

In March, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office initiated an investigation, conducted by Special Prosecutor Diana Wheeler, the Orange County Commonwealth’s Attorney, at the behest of Judge Edward Hogshire.

Upon concluding her investigation, Wheeler issued a three-page report on March 16 in which she cleared Barrick of wrongdoing in relation to Virginia’s “bid-rigging” statute but confirmed that he had violated the city’s procurement policy in his handling of the RFQ. Wheeler went on to say that she felt Barrick’s behavior had been misguided but well-intentioned.

“In fact, it is my view that Barrick’s actions which violated policy, though wrong, were well-motivated and were actually taken for the benefit of the citizens. He simply wanted what he viewed as a superior product at the best price,” Wheeler wrote.

Schilling said he rejected the logic in Wheeler’s conclusion, but understood the legal rationale of her findings.

“It was a complex story. I think anybody who reads it online would look at that and say, ‘If there’s not something illegal that happened here, maybe we need to change the law,’” Schilling said. “But I do respect their decision, because they told me, ‘We don’t want to go to court and lose.’”

Schilling has also claimed that Barrick’s conduct and resignation are indicative of more systemic management problems in Charlottesville city government.

“If you have a guy who’s claiming that he’s totally incompetent and doesn’t understand contract and procurement law being put in charge of contracts and procurements, I think it shows you that there’s a real problem in the management of the organization,” Schilling said.

*An earlier version of this story said that Ric Barrick did not respond to a request for comment. Barrick did respond on deadline with a brief e-mailed statement but chose not to discuss the specifics of the case. We apologize for the error.

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