Behind the secrecy
High Justices Note Strong Evidence
Airport Director White Swore Falsely

by Steve Miller
copyright (c) 1997, Electric Nevada

So why did Washoe County Airport director Robert White want to keep secret terms of the agreement that recently settled two lawsuits against him and the airport board?
The suits, filed by former airport planning chief Douglas Clements and former airport advertising sales specialist Sue Clements Sceirine, had charged White wrongfully fired the two in 1989 in service to retaliation-minded board directors, upset over whistle-blowing by the two on financial improprieties by the board's former director, Vernon Troupe.
Inspection of the court files on both cases suggests that White may have sought secrecy in the settlement in hopes of avoiding embarrassment for not only the Airport Authority board but also himself personally.
That's because justices at not only the Nevada Supreme Court, but also the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in the course of reviewing the case record, asserted there were solid grounds for doubting statements made by White in a sworn affidavit.
Also, as director, White triggered the cumulative costs associated with the firings -- not only the reputed $500,000 to $600,000 in the Clements-Sceirine settlement, but also additional tens or even hundreds of thousands in as-yet untotalled lawyer costs.
Because the Ninth Circuit awarded



costs of the appeal to the plaintiffs in the wrongful-termination suits, the airport authority will have to pay not only its own attorneys' costs, but those of Clements and Sceirine. In addition, the authority has also had to pay attorneys to defend itself and White in two other, closely associated, wrongful-termination lawsuits -- those of Robert A. Mall, former property director at the airport, who had revealed alleged lies under oath by White, and Louise Curtis, the airport's former personnel director and another whistle-blower in the Troupe affair.
In all the firings -- Clements, Sceirine, Mall and Curtis -- White first fired the individuals and then, when the airport authority grievance panels ruled the firings were improper, rejected the panel orders.
According to Lynn Pierce, attorney for Clements and Sceirine, it was representatives of White and the airport who sought confidentiality for the settlement agreement. In order to expedite settlement, her clients agreed, said Pierce.
The settlement itself appears to have never


 
been approved by current trustees of the airport board. According to Reno Gazette-Journal reporter Faith Bremner, a majority of the board say they never had an opportunity to vote on the settlement and have asked it be reviewed by county district attorney Dick Gammick. Trustee Larry Martin, who represents the City of Sparks, says he was not even informed.
Sparks Mayor Bruce Breslow has charged that White, on his own and without the approval of the board, authorized payment of the reputed $500,000 to $600,000 Clements-Sceirine settlement.
"The executive director should never have the authority to make financial decisions of this magnitude without board approval," said Breslow.
In recent years, both White and the governing board of the Airport Authority of Washoe County have been under intense community criticism on numerous allegations. (see companion story,
Washoe Grand Jury Makes Public Elliott List of Airport Allegations)
Widespread attention to the judgments made by justices at both Nevada's high court and the appeals court about White's credibility could bring additional criticism and possibly renewed pressure for removing White from the airport director post.




Such attention would also conceivably lend support to calls by Sparks city officials and others for investigations of the airport authority.
This April's settlement was set in motion back in October, 1995 when the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed major elements of a summary judgment that Nevada federal District Judge Edward C. Reed had issued in August, 1993 favoring White and the airport board.
Reed had been wrong, wrote the Ninth Circuit, to ignore clear evidence that White and the Airport Authority had, through bias, denied Sceirine -- then surnamed Clements and married to fellow whistleblower Douglas Clements -- due process both before and after she was terminated.
Reed had also been wrong, said the Ninth Circuit, when he "determined that the Clementses did not have an actionable First Amendment claim for retaliatory discharge."
The appeals court noted that Reed had simply relied on a sworn affidavit by Robert White which asserted that there was no retaliation involved in the firings, and ignored evidence to the contrary.
"White's affidavit states that, prior to the reorganization, he had no knowledge regarding the Clementses' role in the Troupe incident," pointed out the Ninth Circuit, and the affidavit further "asserted


 
that he first learned of the plaintiffs' involvement at the grievance hearings held after their layoffs. Further, White stated that the purpose of the reorganization was to improve the quality and efficiency of Airport Authority operations. In granting summary judgment, the court determined that the plaintiffs had presented no evidence to counter White's affidavit."
"This conclusion is simply wrong," wrote Justice Stephen Reinhardt for the appeals court. "Contrary to the district court's statement, the plaintiffs did present evidence refuting White's affidavit.
"The Clementses presented the transcripts of the grievance panels proceedings and the deposition of Robert Mall, Sue Clements' direct supervisor.... [whose] testimony contradicts the White affidavit: it suggests that White was well aware of the Clementses' previous problems with Vernon Troupe."
Mall had testified in the grievance hearing that White had asked him what had been the problem between Sue Clements and Vern Troupe.
According to transcripts of the grievance hearing, Mall had asked White to consider -- assuming a layoff was actually necessary -- laying off someone less senior to Sue Clements, instead.
From the Mall testimony:
Q And what was Mr. White's response?




A He wanted to discuss it with some other people.
Q Did he specify who he was going to discuss it with?
A No, I don't think so.
Q And that was on Friday morning. Did he get back to you regarding his discussion and decision on that matter?
A In a sense he got back to me on his decision. When I returned from lunch Sue had gotten her termination letter.
Q Okay. When you met with Mr. White to discuss this, did he ask you any question regarding Sue's qualifications for the job or Sue's competence in the job or anything of that nature?
A I -- I don't recall whether he did or not.
Q Okay.
A We did have a lengthy discussion.
Q Okay. Did he ask you any other questions regarding Sue?
A He did ask what the problem was between Sue and Verne Troupe or what I knew about it or something to that effect.
Q Okay. What -- what is your opinion as to the reason Sue was laid off in this reorganization?
A It's my belief that Sue was laid off as a vendetta with relation to Mr. Troupe's departure.

The Ninth Circuit also noted that while the Nevada Supreme Court had refused to rule on the retaliatory discharge issue,


 
on the ground it was not before them, Justice Charles Springer had announced his personal conclusion in a separate opinion.
"The record tells me," wrote Springer, "that Douglas [Clements] was probably unjustly terminated and that Director White and his overly compliant




board reorganized the entire Airport Authority just to get rid of Douglas because he was a threat to the status quo -- he was a whistle-blower, who was calling attention to irregularities and illegalities on the part of the Airport Authority administration."
White had denied this.


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