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WV DHHR lawyer involved in contract flap fired

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CHARLESTON (AP) — A West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources official involved in a dispute within the agency over an advertising contract's bidding has been fired.

Former general counsel Jennifer Taylor told the Charleston Daily Mail that she was notified of her termination Feb. 4.

The DHHR issued a brief statement confirming Taylor's termination.

Taylor, former DHHR Assistant Secretary John Law and Deputy Secretary Susan Perry were reassigned in July 2012 after they objected to the handling of a six-figure advertising contract. Law was fired in January.

Last week, Kanawha County prosecutor Mark Plants said an investigation arising from the dispute found signs of policy violations and bad judgment but no criminal intent. He said no criminal charges would be filed and that he would refer the case "to the responsible state authorities to take such administrative action as they deem appropriate."

Law, Perry and Taylor had raised concerns about how others at the department scored the technical merits of bids for the six-figure contract from four vendors. That scoring allowed Ohio-based Fahlgren Mortine to win the ad contract with a $473,000 bid, the highest among the four filed. While signed for one year, the contract can be extended and its value can increase if other agencies piggy-back on the services it provides.

The department's inspector general, which investigated the contract dispute, obtained a search warrant in September 2012 for the state-issued cellphones, email accounts and office records of Law, Perry and Taylor.

The search warrant request alleged that Law, Perry and Taylor conspired to steer the contract toward the lowest bidder, The Arnold Agency, which had won the previous version of the contract. Among other actions, the three repeatedly tried to second-guess or overrule other department staffers while arranging to extend the previous contact for two months amid the scoring dispute, the search warrant request alleged.

Perry and Taylor responded with separate whistleblower lawsuits in Kanawha County Circuit Court in October 2012. Besides blasting the search warrant allegations as designed to harm their reputations, the lawsuits also criticized the technical scoring. The DHHR asked the court in November to dismiss the lawsuits, arguing that Perry and Taylor hadn't been fired or suspended without pay.

"The defendants had argued in the motion to dismiss that one of the reasons that Jennifer's case should be dismissed was that there was no damages because she lost no pay," said Walt Auvil, Perry and Taylor's lawyer. "That defense seems significantly compromised by firing Jennifer."

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.