Like thousands of other Kentuckians over the last few months, Travis Powell just wanted a simple answer from the state Office of Unemployment Insurance.
Powell is not an unemployed worker; he’s vice president of the Council on Postsecondary Education, and he wanted to know what to tell state universities about how to handle unemployment claims from work-study students. On April 20, he was put in touch with Muncie McNamara, the executive director of the Office of Unemployment Insurance.
According to emails obtained through an open records request, McNamara said he’d look into it. After a week went by with no answer, Powell followed up again. McNamara never responded, and after another week, Powell learned why: McNamara was no longer working for the state.
The head of the Office of Unemployment Insurance was quietly fired on May 5, amid an unprecedented number of jobless claims, a race to overhaul an archaic computer system and a belatedly-reported data breach.
McNamara had been on the job only four months. The 38-year-old lawyer from Nelson County had no experience with unemployment systems or state government before taking the job.
But what he did have was connections.
He volunteered for and donated to Gov. Andy Beshear’s campaign last year. His wife, a recent chair of the Nelson County Democratic Party, considers Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman “a good friend,” according to an interview she gave to the Kentucky Standard. Coleman called McNamara to offer him the job personally, he said.
He was paid $15,000 more than his predecessor, a career unemployment official who the cabinet kept on staff as a special assistant.
But by early May, he was gone, fired “without cause,” according to his personnel file.
McNamara alleges he was fired for raising serious concerns about corners the office was cutting amid the rush to fulfill record-high unemployment claims.
In an emailed statement, the Cabinet for Education and Workforce Development disputed that claim, saying the concerns he raised were not a factor in his firing.
Travis Powell is still waiting for an answer to the question he asked McNamara on behalf of the state’s universities back in April. He said he’s happy to be patient. But for the over 68,000 Kentuckians whose claims have gone unresolved since the pandemic began — including over 5,000 who filed claims back in March — patience doesn’t pay the bills.
Donor, Volunteer And Friend Of Campaign
McNamara moved to Kentucky in 2011, after he and his wife, Audrey Haydon, met in Washington, D.C. The two settled in Bardstown, her hometown, and began practicing law with Haydon’s father at the firm McNamara and Haydon, handling mostly social security and workers compensation cases. They also became involved in Democratic politics.
Haydon was in the 2012 class of Emerge Kentucky, a training program for Democratic women who want to run for office. In 2014, she ran for the state House of Representatives, but lost to incumbent Republican David Floyd.
Another Emerge Kentucky alumnae also ran for office that year: Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, who lost her House race in the district adjacent to Haydon’s. An MSNBC story from the time paired Coleman and Haydon, as well as other Emerge Kentucky alumnae, as Democratic women to watch.
Before becoming Lieutenant Governor, Coleman was a high school basketball coach and assistant principal at Nelson County High School. She founded a non-profit for college-age women, Lead Kentucky, that’s modeled after Emerge Kentucky.
Haydon went on to chair the Nelson County Democratic Party, and when Coleman was named Beshear’s running mate, Haydon heaped praises on her friend. She told the Kentucky Standard that Coleman was “incredibly smart, a hard worker and excellent campaigner.”
“I think she’s a great pick for Andy,” Haydon told the newspaper. “She brings a lot of experience to the ticket that he doesn’t have.”
McNamara donated $2,000, the maximum allowed under state law, to the Beshear/Coleman campaign during the primary and another $2,000 during the general election. He declined to comment on any personal relationship with Coleman.
“I did knock on a lot of doors for the campaign and help raise money for the campaign, which, you know, a lot of people did,” he told KyCIR. “We weren’t, obviously, the only ones.”
He applied to work for the administration generally; his application says his preference was to work in legal services for either the Cabinet for Health and Family Services or the Public Protection Cabinet.
But when Beshear named Coleman secretary of the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, she called McNamara personally to offer him the job of executive director of the state’s unemployment office.
J.T. Henderson, executive director for communications at the cabinet, confirmed that Coleman and Haydon have been friends for several years, and that he supported the campaign.
“That support did not factor in Mr. McNamara’s hiring,” he said. “He had previous public service in Maryland and had practiced in Social Security disability, workers’ compensation and personal injury.”
Back in January, McNamara told the Kentucky Standard that he was excited for the change of pace the new job would bring.
“I’m looking forward to having some time off from the actual practice of law, doing something different for a little bit,” he said.
McNamara was hired at $85,000 a year, with a 5% raise promised after six months. His predecessor, Katie Houghlin, made $70,000 in the same job.
Houghlin became executive director in 2018 after 16 years in the cabinet. She was moved to a special assistant role within the cabinet when the Beshear administration came in. McNamara characterized it as a promotion, though Houghlin didn’t get a pay increase. She declined to comment.
McNamara told KyCIR he had no direct experience with unemployment systems before taking this job. When he came on in January, the agency was handling 3,000 claims a week. But then, coronavirus came to Kentucky, and both McNamara and the office he was leading were thrown into the deep end.