Hamilton County Superior 2 Judge Jonathan Brown has denied the request of Westfield Clerk-Treasurer Cindy Gossard to disqualify the counsel of Mayor Andy Cook. Brown also ruled that their case will be argued in a bench trial in April. He made the rulings on Feb. 24.
At issue is a separation-of-powers dispute between Cook and Gossard regarding who should have access to the city’s ADP, or Automatic Data Processing, account. Prior to the case, only the clerk-treasurer had access to the account. The mayor and clerk-treasurer are arguing over which elected official has the authority to select or contract a payroll company for the City of Westfield.
Cook originally sued Gossard for withholding pertinent information to the audit of all city accounts ordered by Cook in August 2020. Three attorneys, one with the firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister, were auditing the city departments, and they requested access to the city’s ADP account, which was kept by Gossard. The city uses ADP’s Workforce Now, a web-based portal providing single-point access to ADP online solutions and employee-facing websites and resources relating to human resources, payroll, benefits, time, talent and attendance. Within the portal, the city can create reports and review financial information, among other tasks.
On Jan. 11, Gossard said there were issues with the ADP account and that she scheduled a meeting with the certified public accounting firm Finley & Cook to bring payroll services in-house. Cook and Gossard forged an agreement Feb. 1 that stated Gossard will provide the data and documents requested by the firm for the citywide audit. The agreement stated that Gossard will not execute any agreements on behalf of the city for $25,000 or more, such as one with Finley & Cook.
After the agreement, Gossard filed a motion requesting that Taft Stettinius & Hollister, the firm representing Cook in the lawsuit, be disqualified from serving as Cook’s counsel because of an appearance of impropriety. One of the three attorneys conducting the city audit worked with Taft Stettinius & Hollister. Moreover, Taft attorney Blake Burgan is Cook’s counsel.
“Further, Taft is simultaneously representing the City of Westfield, as a whole, with the financial investigation as ordered by the Mayor,” Brown’s order stated. “(Gossard) contends this creates a disqualifying appearance of impropriety. Taft and its agents did encourage cooperation from (Gossard), along with all other divisions of city government, in their investigation. The Clerk-Treasurer alleges they used information obtained through the investigation to launch the instant cause, alleging the Clerk-Treasurer was going to sign a contract for payroll services without the approval of the Mayor.”
Brown also noted that, although a Taft attorney was assisting with the audit of all city departments, the firm was representing the interests of the city and not an individual official.
“The information sought from the Clerk-Treasurer by the investigative team did not necessarily belong specifically to the Clerk-Treasurer, individually, but was actually information that belonged to the City of Westfield (for which the Clerk-Treasurer is primarily responsible for upkeep and safeguarding). It is information the Clerk-Treasurer maintains in her official capacity, specifically, information that belongs to the City of Westfield. Though the attorneys at Taft were conducting the investigation into the finances of the city, they did not hold themselves as representing the Clerk-Treasurer in the dispute regarding statutorily conferred duties of the Clerk-Treasurer,” Brown’s report stated. “It should be noted, at all relevant times hereto, the Clerk-Treasurer, has been and continues to be represented by an attorney in her official capacity.”
Brown stated that Taft attorneys were representing the interests of the City of Westfield and not the interests of Gossard or Cook during the audit, which is still under way.
“Though Taft may have been investigating or reviewing City of Westfield financial matters at the direction of the Mayor, that did not create a lawyer-client relationship between the Clerk-Treasurer and the Taft attorneys, as their interests were not adverse. The Clerk-Treasurer and the City of Westfield both have a duty to serve the best interests of the citizens of Westfield,” Brown stated.
Brown denied Gossard’s request to disqualify Burgan. He also ruled the trial regarding the ADP duties will be at 9 a.m. April 23 in the Commissioner’s Courtroom at One Hamilton Square, Noblesville.