NC Insurance commissioners fire three in power battle for fire marshal’s office

North Carolina Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey fired his top staffer on Tuesday, along with two other top officials in an office at the center of a power struggle with the General Assembly.

In an email Tuesday to Department of Insurance officials, Causey confirmed the firings of Chief State Fire Marshal Brian Taylor and Chief Deputy State Fire Marshal Mike Williams.

Causey appointed Fire Deputy Sheriff Tony Bailey as the new Chief State Fire Marshal. Special Agent Craig Jarman will become the new Deputy State Fire Marshal. Bailey and Jarman take up their new roles on Wednesday.

The moves appear to be related to a new law targeting Causey’s duties.

For more than 80 years, the state’s elected insurance commissioner also held the title of state fire marshal, but a separate individual—the state fire marshal—performed day-to-day duties. That changed this month when the Republican majority in the General Assembly stripped Causey of the title of firefighter and created an independent state fire marshal’s office.

Causey, also a Republican, publicly complained, saying the change was made without his input.

Last week, lawmakers went further, fleshing out details of the new Office of the State Fire Marshal in Senate Bill 409. Lawmakers included 19 pages of the office’s new policy in what was an unrelated crime bill. In that bill, lawmakers wanted to protect some of the same people Causey fired.

Sen. Jim Perry, who pushed for many of the changes, told WRAL News Tuesday that after the budget passed, Causey sent his legislative liaison to threaten layoffs over the changes to the fire marshal’s office. One of the intentions of Senate Bill 409, Perry said, is to avoid that by freezing the office as it exists until the new independent office is established on Jan. 1.

Senate Bill 409 specifically mentions two of the positions Causey changed on Tuesday. It said everyone in the fire marshal’s office as of Oct. 1 “will continue to serve as employees at their option or until further action is taken by the office in accordance with law.”

“It’s strange,” Perry, R-Lenoir, said of the layoffs. “People are really upset and think this is petty and callous behaviour.”

Causey said he “never threatened anybody with anything,” but admitted he sent his legislative partner — Brent Heath — to talk to Perry.

Causey said Heath and Perry are friends.

“I said, ‘You shouldn’t do that, [Brent], but maybe you could like him on a personal level,” Causey said Tuesday. “And tell him your job might be on the line.” … I don’t know what he said to him because I wasn’t there.”

Heath was one of three employees fired Tuesday, along with Taylor and Williams.

“Work to undermine”

Causey told WRAL that there is evidence that some people in his office “worked to undermine the insurance commissioner and the state fire marshal’s office for their own benefit.”

“I don’t care that I have a title, but it’s been like this for 85 years,” he said. “I have made the changes that I have the right to make and that I have to make and put a new team in place effective November 1.”

These changes may be short-lived. Senate Bill 409 states that the fire chief will remain as the new head of the independent state fire marshal and that the Oct. 1 legislative liaison “will continue to serve in that capacity.”

However, the bill is not yet law and may not be for several weeks. It passed the legislature by a wide, bipartisan margin, but Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has 30 days after passage on Oct. 25 to decide whether to sign it into law.

If the bill becomes law, Perry said, Taylor would become the state’s fire chief because he served as chief on Oct. 1.

“So what’s the point of doing all this?” Perry said. “It just seems vindictive.”

Taylor said the firings “appear to have been a hasty response” and that he believes “a message was sent to the legislature.” Taylor, whom Causey hired in 2018, said Causey didn’t give him a reason for the firing other than “he just felt like he was going in a different direction.”

Attempts to reach Heath and Williams for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.

An insurance department announcement about the moves noted the new appointments and focused on the long experience of the promoted employees without mentioning the layoffs.

“I have complete confidence in both Tony and Craig as I have seen firsthand their leadership qualities in the office and on fires,” Causey said in the release. “These appointments will continue our close working relationship with fire departments across the state. My goal as commissioner has always been to help our fire departments, both volunteer and career, as much as possible. This ensures the best possible service to residents in the relevant fire districts.”

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