Board holds hearing on coroner nepotism complaint; decision within 30 days



Attorney Doug Hubbard, right, speaks with Nelson County Coroner Field Houghlin while his daughter Rebecca Houghlin looks on at Wednesday’s public hearing. Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014, 9 p.m.  — Nelson County Coroner Field Houghlin’s attorney apologized on Houghlin’s behalf in a public hearing Wednesday before the Joint City-County Ethics Board.

The public hearing was a milestone of sorts: It was the first public hearing the joint ethics board had convened in its history.  The hearing was to consider a complaint that Houghlin appointed his daughter as a deputy coroner in violation of the county’s ethics ordinance.

Hubbard’s opening statement to the board was not lengthy.

“Since the beginning, [Houghlin] has admitted he recommended his daughter for appointment as a deputy coroner,” Hubbard told the board. “He did that without the knowledge he was violating the ordinance.”

His client’s lack of knowledge of the ethics ordinance is not an excuse, but it shows Houghlin lacked intent to violate the law. Hubbard suggested that his client’s intent is a factor the board should weigh if they are to consider sanctions or penalties.

“Ignorance isn’t a defense, and in 47 years, it never has been for me,” Hubbard said.


Board member Brad Metcalf, center, asks a question during Wednesday’s public hearing. Click to enlarge.

Hubbard went on to defend complainant Danielle Chladek’s right to file a complaint about the matter. Chladek is the Republican candidate for coroner, and in earlier comments to the media, Houghlin implied the ethics complaint was politically motivated.

“Yes it took place in a political context,” Hubbard said of the complaint, “But so what? I would trust when any of us is involved in politics, we understand that each side has a right to do what they legally can do,” he said. “She had the right to do what she did and I respect her for doing it.”

If others made mistakes connected with the appointment of Houghlin’s daughter, Hubbard said it was not his client’s intent to point fingers at others.  “We’re underneath the bus, but we’re not trying to get anyone else underneath it with us,” Hubbard said.


From left, ethics board members Austin Weller, Otis Ballard, Brad Metcalf and John Stone listen as Field Houghlin’s attorney discusses the ethics complaint against his client. Click to enlarge.

The board questioned Houghlin about the timing of the appointment and his awareness of the nepotism prohibitions in other counties’ ethics ordinances. Board member Brad Metcalf asked if Houghlin was aware his daughter was under 21 and did not meet the statutory requirements for the job at the time of her appointment on March 1, 2013.

Rebecca Houghlin turned 21 on March 9, Field Houghlin explained. The basic coroner’s class is only offered once a year, and she needed to be appointed in order to qualify to attend the weeklong training necessary to serve as deputy coroner, he said.

According to information filed with Chladek’s complaint, Rebecca Houghlin actually completed the coroner’s basic training course on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 — two weeks prior to her appointment on March 1, 2013 as a deputy coroner.  The county subsequently reimbursed Rebecca Houghlin $864.39, which included mileage, lodging and food for the week of training.

Questions also touched on the Judge Executive Dean Watts’ role in the appointment after Houghlin’s statements and media release indicated that Watts was the one who made the appointment. The county coroner is a constitutional officer, and as such, each is responsible for his or her appointments, Metcalf said.

Hubbard told the board Houghlin understood the appointment was his responsibility. And once Houghlin was aware of the ethics issue, he immediately ask for and received his daughter’s resignation.

Following the hearing, the board entered a closed session but took no final action. The board has 30 days in which to make a determination and issue a written report of its findings and conclusions.


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