Nfld. & Labrador

Mount Pearl countersues Steve Kent for damages over salary, cost of HR probe

The city is seeking damages from its former top bureaucrat after a messy split between the two sides.

Initial total of external legal billings in harassment investigation tops $70K

Mount Pearl council has filed a countersuit against the city's former chief administrative officer Steve Kent. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Mount Pearl council is countersuing its former top bureaucrat for damages after a messy split between the two sides.

Steve Kent quit his job as the city's chief administrative officer in late June, and immediately sued for constructive dismissal and breach of privacy.

But in new court documents, Mount Pearl is denying those claims — and is seeking damages of its own.

"Kent is the author of his own misfortune," the city wrote in court filings.

"It was Kent's actions throughout the period of the harassment investigation that led to his departure from the city."

Last fall, the city placed Kent on paid administrative leave, after receiving complaints from employees over allegations of workplace harassment. Council called in an investigator from outside the province.

Nearly nine months later, Kent was informed that council had scheduled a vote to terminate his employment for alleged violations of the city's code of conduct.

He stepped down and sued before that vote could be held. Kent said his privacy was violated when city employees read Facebook Messenger communications from his account.

Kent arrives at a press conference on Sept. 11, 2017, to formally announce he had accepted the top civil servant job for the City of Mount Pearl. Just over a month ago, Kent departed the position and filed a lawsuit claiming constructive dismissal and breach of privacy. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

In court documents, Mount Pearl stressed that the messages were on a city-owned iPad that did not have the password reset, and popped up on the screen as banner notifications. Council contends they are a city record, in the custody and control of the city.

The city says the messages revealed that Kent was "actively working" with two councillors "to improperly influence and interfere in the harassment investigation."

The statement of defence accused him of violating several city policies.

"He engaged in serious misconduct by interfering with the investigation and the integrity of the investigation, insubordination and breach of confidentiality, conduct that reveals an untrustworthy character and which constitutes just cause for his summary termination of employment, without notice and without pay in lieu of notice," the court filings note.

'Actively scheming' with councillors

The city has now launched a counterclaim against Kent, seeking an array of damages.

"Kent's receipt of compensation and benefits, payable from public funds of the city, throughout the course of the harassment investigation during which period he was actively scheming with the councillors … constitutes a breach of contract as well as a breach of fiduciary duty, which has resulted in damages to [the city] for which Kent is responsible," the court filings note.

Mount Pearl is seeking damages linked to the costs of Kent's salary and benefits during the period of almost nine months that he was on paid leave. Kent's annual salary topped $200,000.

The city is also looking for damages related to costs associated with the harassment investigation, including legal fees and the external investigator.

According to records obtained by CBC News through access to information, Mount Pearl taxpayers forked out more than $70,000 on external legal fees up to the end of April tied to the harassment probe.

And that total doesn't include any billings from the Halifax-based lawyer brought in to lead the investigation.

The city also wants Kent to repay more than $18,000 in tuition fees provided to him for a director's educational program. That agreement dated back a few weeks before he was placed on leave.

None of the city's allegations have been tested in court.

Last fall, an external investigator began interviewing employees at Mount Pearl city hall about their workplace interactions with Kent. (Rob Antle/CBC)

Kent did not respond to a message Friday afternoon seeking comment.

His lawsuit also seeks an array of damages, including general and punitive damages for breach of privacy.

Kent's statement of claim said the "surreptitious monitoring and collection of data" from his Facebook Messenger account violated those rights.

He is also seeking damages for constructive dismissal, loss of reputation and employment prospects and stress and mental anguish.

Kent's lawsuit also names the mayor, deputy mayor and a city official as defendants. Mount Pearl wants those names struck from the claim, calling the actions against those individuals "vexatious."

Harassment investigation in limbo

While Kent and the city have parted ways, the harassment probe that sparked all this remains in limbo.

The province's information and privacy commissioner has been looking into complaints by city employees and Kent related to various aspects of the investigation process.

On Friday, the privacy watchdog released the first of those reports.

The investigation into Kent's complaint — about not getting access to witness statements and other materials gathered during the harassment probe — remains ongoing.

In an email to CBC News, a city spokesperson said council will determine next steps for the harassment investigation once the privacy commissioner's work is done.

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