BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
The Greene County Commission Ethics Committee will take up next week a complaint filed by Commissioner Tim White against County Clerk David Thompson.
The committee will meet at 2 p.m., Wednesday, in the conference room of the Courthouse Annex.
In July, Michelle Diane Burke, a former employee of the County Clerk's Office, filed a formal complaint against the county with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
She alleged in her complaint that Thompson sexually coerced her, discriminated against her and retaliated against her on the basis of her gender.
The EEOC has not yet completed its investigation.
White triggered the Ethics Committee meeting by filing a formal complaint letter to Commissioner Hilton Seay, who chairs the committee.
The Greeneville Sun obtained a copy of White's letter from County Attorney Roger Woolsey's office.
Thompson is also a member of the Ethics Committee. White wrote in his letter that Thompson is required to recuse himself under the county's Code of Ethics Policy.
AUGUST 2013 CLOSED SESSION
White said that he became aware that a potential violation of the county's Code of Ethics may have occurred in the past during an August 2013 closed session of the County Commission.
(Editor's Note: Under the Tennessee Open Meetings Law and judicial decisions concerned it, governmental bodies may meet in closed session to communicate with their attorney about present, pending, potential or threatened litigation involving the governmental body.
(Any discussion among the members of the governmental body about what action to take after having heard the attorney's counsel is required to be open to the public under the Supreme Court of Tennessee decision in Smith County Educ.Assn. v. Anderson.)
"When allegations regarding violations of the county Code of Ethics, or potential violations of state law governing ethical conduct, are brought to our attention, I believe it is our duty as representatives of Greene County to refer the matter to the chair of the Ethics Committee in writing and set forth in reasonable detail the facts upon which the complaint is based," White wrote.
"This committee is requested to investigate any and all findings relevant to the substance of this complaint, and determine whether Mr. Thompson has violated any county ethics provisions, and if so, determine what actions are necessary."
In the letter, White specifies three allegations against Thompson and one against County Mayor Alan Broyles.
ALLEGATIONS AGAINST THOMPSON
"There were several allegations against Mr. Thompson presented in close[d] session," White wrote, "including but not limited to:
"A. sexual allegations
"B. missing time cards
"C. unavailable password to a county-owned computer."
In calling for an investigation, White cites potential violations of the following:
* The Greene County Code of Ethics and the Employee Handbook;
* Tennessee Code Annotated (T.C.A.) 39-16-402, which refers to "official misconduct" in exceeding a public official's power;
* T.C.A. 39-16-403, which refers to "official oppression," prohibiting the abuse of a public official's power;
* T.C.A. 8-47-101, which refers to an ouster suit, detailing conduct that could result in an official's removal from office;
* T.C.A. 39-16-504 (a3), which prohibits concealing, destroying or impeding access to governmental records.
ALLEGATION AGAINST BROYLES
The allegation against Mayor Broyles refers to his alleged response to the circumstances regarding Thompson -- specifically, the fact that Mayor Broyles did not appoint a county attorney pro tem when County Attorney Woolsey said a conflict of interest would prevent his participating in the Thompson matter.
"During this closed meeting [in August 2013]," Commissioner White wrote in his letter, "commissioners were notified by County Attorney Woolsey that, due to a conflict, he would not be participating [in the Thompson legal situation].
"At this point, Mayor Broyles, who is Chief Administrator, did nothing to have a county attorney pro tem appointed to protect the citizens of Greene County, or the commissioners of Greene County, from liability issues that could stem from the allegations against Mr. Thompson.
"To an extent, that could be a violation in and of itsself, according to T.C.A. 39-16-404," White wrote.
This section of state law refers to the "misuse of official information," in which an official is prohibited from using non-public information accessed through his office to aid another for a return benefit.
MAYOR BROYLES COMMENTS
Mayor Broyles emphasized in an interview with The Greeneville Sun on Friday that the EEOC investigation is still underway.
"At [the August closed session meeting], the EEOC was in the process of investigating the allegations against Mr. Thompson," Broyles said.
"As of this date, they have not concluded their investigation.
"We don't discuss what has been discussed in closed session."
After reading the complaint by Commissioner White, County Clerk Thompson provided the following response:
"I want to start by saying I've been 100 percent cooperative with the EEOC investigation and with Mr. Woolsey's investigation.
"I would question if it is within the authority of the Ethics Committee to even investigate.
"Secondly, I find that there are some misstatements in there.
"Thirdly, I find the timing of the request for the Ethics Committee investigation and the resolution that's [on the February agenda for the County Commission] regarding appointing a county attorney pro tem and potentially an ouster suit, I find the timing ironic considering that I filed my petition to run for re-election earlier this week.
"I'm not sure what's going on with some of the county commissioners, but it appears to me that this is a political vendetta.
"Mr. White, who had made this complaint, was the subject himself of an ethics investigation. I find that ironic as well, that he's the one that makes the complaint against me.
"He said he was informed of this in closed session in August 2013. His letter to Mr. Seay was dated Jan. 29, 2014.
"It appears to me that the proper thing to do is let the EEOC conduct their investigation and see what their findings are. If the commission felt like then it would be appropriate to take action, it would be up to them to do so.
"It kind of looks like we're getting the cart before the horse here.
"I would like to refer everyone to the fact that Mr. Woolsey has done an investigation and made a statement to the media that he found no wrongdoing, and that Greene County does provide a safe working environment for their employees."
County Attorney Woolsey has declined to make public the county's response to the EEOC complaint.
Federal law prohibits the EEOC from commenting on, or even acknowledging, an ongoing investigation.
In addition to the EEOC complaint, Burke's lawyer, Sandra Stanbery-Foster, has also collected statements from five other women who allege that Thompson abused his role in office relative to them or otherwise behaved inappropriately towards them.
Woolsey has told The Greeneville Sun that he believes Greene County provides a safe working environment for its employees, free of sexual harassment or discrimination.
In addition, he has said he believes that the county will be shown to have maintained a working environment of that quality in the past.
White provided the following response to Thompson's allegation that the calling of the Ethics Committee is politically motivated:
"First and foremost, I'm looking for the facts. I'm seeking the facts. I want the facts to be known to the commissioners as well as the citizens
"I'm tired of allegations; I'm tired of rumors. We need to get to the bottom of whatever has went on or is going on and deal with it accordingly -- or put it behind us.
"I feel that there's been plenty of time for these rumors and allegations to have been looked at by whoever needs to look at them. The rumors and allegations have been floating for a long time, and I feel that our county mayor, as chief administrator, needed to have already addressed these issues, these rumors and allegations, in some shape, form or fashion.
"I, along with a lot of other people, have been waiting for the EEOC to give some kind of response. But as I thought the thing through, the EEOC is not looking at it from the standpoint of the county government or the citizens of Greene County. They are looking at it from the standpoint of an employee of Greene County.
"I think it's time we look at the allegations and the rumors from the standpoint of the county government and be proactive as far as heading off anything that is happening or could happen in the future.
"Mr. Thompson might find irony in some of the statements made, but I assure you I am seeking only the truth. No vengeance, no self-satisfaction, only the truth for the citizens of Greene County.
"These allegations are serious enough that it does affect the citizens of Greene County and their tax dollars. I've been waiting on someone else to do something long enough.
"I feel we're setting a precedent if we do nothing for the future of Greene County, in that any officeholder or official will look back at this and feel that they would not be investigated in the same circumstances.
"The precedent needs to be that, if something's going on, the County Commission is going to look at these allegations. We're not going to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear."
WADDLE, MOSS RESPOND
The resolution for a county attorney pro-tem to address the issue of County Clerk Thompson's conduct did come out on Friday as a part of the County Commission's February meeting agenda.
In the resolution, Commissioners John Waddle and Bill Moss call for the county to appoint attorney Suzanne Cook, of Hunter, Smith and Davis, to "conduct an independent investigation concerning ... alleged misconduct by the county official and the liability issues related thereto."
The resolution requests this action following a reported statement by Woolsey that he has a conflict of interest in the matter and cannot act as county attorney to address the allegations about Thompson.
The resolution goes on to explain that Cook has been employed by the Greene County Insurance Committee to investigate the allegations and the potential liability of the county in the matter.
Both Waddle, a Democrat, and Moss, a Republican, are members of the Insurance Committee.
The resolution they are sponsoring does not name Thompson, nor does it mention an ouster suit.
Waddle did attempt to bring the resolution up for a vote at the January meeting of the County Commission, but it was not on the formal agenda for the meeting and failed to receive majority support to be brought up for consideration as an off-agenda item.
Therefore, it was not formally considered or voted on at the January meeting.
Waddle identified the official referenced in the resolution as Thompson in a separate letter he provided commissioners prior to the January meeting.
"This wasn't a new thing," Waddle said in a telephone interview with the Sun on Friday. "I tried to bring this up 30 days ago.
"I did not know he had a petition out there [to run for re-election] for County Court Clerk.
"It's not a new thing; it's not a vendetta. It's a matter of right and wrong. Most of the time, I'm going to stand on what's right."
Moss declined to comment.
As for Thompson's questioning the authority of the Ethics Committee, the University of Tennessee's County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS), which provides governmental reference materials, includes details of the role of such a committee.
According to the CTAS website, such a committee has "very little, if any, authority to do anything other than to screen ethics complaints and direct the complaint to the proper county official or county or state agency that can take appropriate action on the complaint."
Further, the committee is not formally required to address the complaint if it is not related to "the acceptance and/or disclosure of a gift or a conflict of interest."
"If the ethics complaint does not address one of these two issues, the Ethics Committee should direct the complainant to the appropriate person or agency that may properly address the complaint and proceed no further," according to the website.