Pay raise investigation targets ex-North Las Vegas city manager

Updated February 1, 2018 - 9:51 pm

Qiong Liu allegedly tried to give herself a $30,000 retroactive raise just days before an unusual series of events led to her resignation as city manager of North Las Vegas, city officials said Thursday.

Rather than allowing Liu to resign and receive a severance, the North Las Vegas City Council on Feb. 7 will decide whether to fire Liu without any additional pay or benefits. Liu, who stepped down as the city’s chief executive on Jan. 10, has five days to request a public hearing to dispute the move.

City officials said law enforcement officials are conducting a separate investigation, but declined to specify an agency or whether any criminal charges are pending.

Liu said she had not reviewed the city’s allegations, but will hire a lawyer.

“I’m shocked by this blatantly dishonest violation of a separation agreement they already made with me,” Liu told the Review-Journal by phone Thursday evening.

“I don’t know if they will use this to incriminate me, but I think they are trying to publicly embarrass me because I am someone who plays by the rules,” Liu said. “They are not thinking about the impact this will have on me as a person, or the city as an organization. It makes everyone a laughingstock.”

Liu was appointed as city manager in 2014 after working for North Las Vegas for nine years, including a role as the public works director. Her annual salary in 2014 was $190,000, and it was raised to $220,000 in 2016. If Liu had succeeded in giving herself the $30,000 raise, to $250,000, in early January, it would have been retroactive to 2015.

She is accused of intentionally breaching her employee contract, along with city, state and federal laws, according to a council meeting agenda posted on the city’s website Thursday afternoon.

“It saddens me to have to be involved in this situation,” North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee said. “I’m not sure why things happen the way they do, but the city is moving forward and continuing to find every reason to win for its residents.”

Liu allegedly directed city staffers on Jan. 4 to process a form that would have allowed her to receive a $30,000 raise retroactive to November 2015 without the required approval of the City Council, according to the agenda item prepared by City Clerk Catherine Raynor.

One day earlier, the City Council delayed a discussion about Liu’s annual performance evaluation.

At the time, Liu provided the Human Resources Department with the copy of a memo she claimed to send to City Council members, informing them of her raise.

However, the memo was never delivered to the council.

Liu agreed to go on paid leave on Jan. 10 and has since tried to negotiate the terms of a severance package leading up to her retirement on Feb. 9.

“The city manager has demonstrated a lack of courtesy, professionalism, integrity, cooperation, skill and judgment necessary for the position,” Raynor’s report said. “The City Council has lost its confidence in the city manager’s ability to carry out her duties in a manner satisfactory to the City Council.”

North Las Vegas faced a $152 million deficit when Liu was appointed city manager, prompting her to freeze merit pay raises to all appointed employees — including herself. As a result, city officials said Liu was not eligible for a retroactive raise.

However, Liu said she volunteered to defer her pay increase to 2016, anticipating that it would be retroactive to November 2015. As a result, Liu said she believed the $30,000 raise awarded in September 2016 included retroactive payments, but she didn’t catch the “financing error” until recently.

If the raise had gone through, Liu would have received higher pension payments upon retirement, city officials said.

Liu said a separation agreement tentatively reached with the city on Jan. 23 included a $25,000 raise retroactive to September 2016.

“All of this was included in our agreement, but they just want me out,” Liu said. “I did not anticipate for them to play so dirty and get so low.”

Liu is also accused of trying to weaken the city attorney’s powers by refusing access to her emails without public approval by the City Council.

Additionally, city officials accuse Liu of subjecting the city to legal liability on Jan. 9 by firing Assistant City Manager Ryann Juden, a longtime friend and associate of Lee.

Liu and Juden had butted heads over several topics in recent months, including a plan to fund water infrastructure projects at the Apex Industrial Park.

The disagreements erupted into an argument that resulted in Liu firing Juden without consulting the city attorney.

Afterward, she sent an email to the City Council stating that hiring Juden was “the biggest mistake that I have made,” and characterized his presence as bringing “widespread fear and damage” to City Hall.

Although Liu rescinded her statements and reversed her firing of Juden the following day, city officials said Liu’s actions were a violation of personnel policies and procedures.

Liu reversed course again on Thursday, saying, “I stand by every word I said in there.”

Contact Art Marroquin at amarroquin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @AMarroquin_LV on Twitter.

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