UPDATED: Rockingham County Attorney allowed to return to work on Wednesday
BRENTWOOD — Rockingham County Attorney James Reams will be returning to work today after a six-month suspension from office that ended as part of an agreement with the state Attorney General’s Office.
The agreement was approved by Judge Richard McNamara on Tuesday in the wake of last week’s state Supreme Court decision declining to expedite an appeal on Reams’ lawsuit, which challenged and ultimately upended Attorney General Joe Foster’s ability to suspend the county attorney from elected office.
Reams was suspended from his prosecutorial duties on the night of Nov. 6 amid an investigation by the state that concluded he sexually harassed employees and mismanaged a forfeiture account used for travel and to purchase office supplies.
Assistant county attorneys and other staff within Reams’ office were told during a Tuesday afternoon staff meeting about their embattled boss returning to the job he has held since 1998.
Interim County Attorney James Boffetti, a senior assistant attorney general, will remain in his position at least until Friday. Foster will be allowed to assign another state prosecutor to sit in the office after that date.
The agreement forbids Reams from firing any personnel or taking any disciplinary actions against an employee without the state’s approval. “From the start of this matter, an important goal of our office was to protect employees from retaliation or other adverse employment actions arising from their cooperation in our investigation,” Foster said in a statement Tuesday. “By entering this agreement as an order, County Attorney Reams’ obligation to fairly treat all of his employees is clear. The order should help guarantee discrimination and retaliation will not occur.”
County Commissioner Kevin Coyle said he remains concerned for employees working in the county attorney’s office, noting that nearly all of them gave statements to authorities during the investigation. Those statements will eventually be handed over to Reams.
State prosecutors are set to go to trial on Aug. 4 with a civil complaint seeking Reams’ removal from elected office for official misconduct.
“It’s unfortunate that these kinds of allegations have been leveled in this case,” Reams’ lawyer Michael Ramsdell said on Tuesday. “Not once has a court made any finding on those allegations.”
Reams, of Hampton, has remained on paid suspension from his $85,000-a-year post. He announced in February that he will not run for reelection.
McNamara first decided on April 10 that Reams, whose term ends in January, could not be forced out for the rest of his elected term through a de-facto suspension, since no criminal charges were pending against him.
State prosecutors had appealed that decision, and appeared poised to fight Reams returning to work as recently as Friday after losing their appeal.
Prosecutors filed for a new restraining order in response to the state Supreme Court decision. But in addition to filing for the restraining order, prosecutors also began negotiating the terms of Reams’ possible return, according to Reams’ lawyer Michael Ramsdell.
“They didn’t have a choice,” Ramsdell said about seeking an agreement. “The superior court found the suspension unlawful. The Supreme Court denied an expedited appeal.”
Coyle said the agreement allowing Reams back into the office while he remains accused of sexual harassment and mismanagement makes little sense to him.
"It’s frightening to me to think that just because someone is an elected official, they have some sort of immunity,” Coyle said.