City’s communications director resigns in wake of special investigation

Yesterday (March 21) Charlottesville Director of Communications Ric Barrick abruptly announced his intent to resign at the end of the 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.

WINA radio host Rob Schilling–who recently released an extensive report on Barrick’s mishandling of a city procurement project and instigated the investigation– said the resignation was a direct result of his reporting.

“I don’t see how it could have been otherwise. 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 was out, the resignation was tendered. I don’t see how you could look at it any other way.”

City Manager Maurice Jones responded to C-VILLE’s questions– which included asking whether Barrick’s 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.”

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.

Jones said the city hoped to advertise Barrick’s position as early as next week.

Barrick was responsible for coordinating a media plan for the George Huguely murder trial, which involved providing timely information to over 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 in some way 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 fraud, citing “the deletion of sensitive emails, the financial defrauding of Charlottesville taxpayers, and the collusion to manipulate the bidding process to the detriment of other bidders” as examples and called Barrick’s behavior “highly problematic procedurally, legally, and ethically.”

Schilling said he met with City Manager Maurice Jones and City Attorney Craig Brown to address his concerns over Barrick’s handling of the process, which he learned of after receiving a week of Barrick’s email correspondence through a Freedom of Information Act request. The city launched an internal investigation and found no wrongdoing. The Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office subsequently initiated an investigation into Schilling’s allegations, conducted by Special Prosecutor Diana Wheeler at the behest of Judge Edward Hogshire. Wheeler serves as Commonwealth’s Attorney in Orange County.

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, which involved bids from two competing companies. Wheeler went on to say that she felt Barrick’s behavior had been misguided but well-intentioned.

Charlottesville Director of Communications Ric Barrick

“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 rejected the logic in Wheeler’s conclusion, but said he understood the legal rationale for 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 systemic management problems in Charlottesville city government, a refrain he has repeated on his talk show.

“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.

Schilling’s story and Wheeler’s report are available here.

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