Committee Recommends County Appoint An Attorney Pro-Tem To Investigate Case
BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
The Greene County Ethics Committee will recommend approval by the County Commission of a resolution calling for the appointment of a county attorney pro-tem to address allegations against County Clerk David Thompson.
This decision followed a report to the committee on Wednesday from attorney Suzanne Cook, who alleged that her investigation of Thompson has revealed "a reasonable basis to indicate that there's been breach of public trust by an elected official, the potential opportunity for improper, unethical and/or illegal activities taking place in the office of Mr. Thompson.
"With knowledge and direction of David Thompson, including the misuse of and obstruction of county property, including county records, fraud, theft, sexual misconduct, official misconduct involving public officials and employees and offenses against the administration of government."
The resolution is scheduled for consideration at the commission's meeting on Tuesday, Feb.18.
It calls on the commission to appoint Cook, an attorney with Hunter, Smith and Davis, of Johnson City, as temporary county attorney in the wake of County Attorney Roger Woolsey's request to recuse himself from the investigation of Thompson.
He explained that, as county attorney, he is the representative for all county officials, including Thompson.
If the commission chooses to appoint Cook as attorney pro tem, Woolsey explained on Wednesday that the action will give her the final decision on whether or not to implement an ouster suit against Thompson.
Allegations against Thompson first arose in July, when 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.
Since that time, other women have stepped forward with affidavits alleging complaints against Thompson.
In response, the Greene County Insurance Committee, chaired by Mayor Alan Broyles, hired Cook to determine if there was any misconduct, according to her presentation on Wednesday.
Cook said she gave a presentation of her findings to the committee in closed session in December.
"I was hired to act in [Woolsey's] stead ... because of his conflict, so to stand in his shoes," she said. "I also requested Mr. Thompson to participate, and he expressly declined to offer any facts on his behalf."
Cook said that she communicated some of her findings to the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury on Tuesday.
"I have been hired to represent Greene County, not just the Insurance Committee," Cook said.
She said that there were ethical issues raised during her investigation that the County Commission should address separately from the EEOC investigation, or from law enforcement or a civil or ouster suit.
She emphasized that her investigation is continuing as she seeks additional documents.
"It should be noted at the very outset of all these comments that, in the legal, written position statement by counsel on behalf of Mr. Thompson to the EEOC, he has admitted to a relationship with three of his employees -- admitted," Cook said in reading her legal opinion.
"In [a] position paper to the government, the EEOC, he admits to a relationship with three of his employees, including two of them perhaps simultaneously.
"He also admits that he has emails containing nude photos of all three women. These computers are county-owned property. The password to them has been requested repeatedly since July. It has never been provided," she said.
"That's government property that's being obstructed. It has been encrypted with a password. I currently have it being forensically examined, but it is heavily encrypted with a password. The passwords have not been provided despite multiple requests."
Cook noted that Thompson's personal legal counsel has denied access to the password, and his first personal counsel said it would not be provided without a court order.
County Commissioner David Crum, a member of the Ethics Committee, interjected, asking that Cook answer if she believes she has enough evidence to support the committee's binding the matter over for additional investigation to another authority.
She confirmed this.
"I don't know that this body needs to hear everything that you have," Crum said.
County Commissioner Tim White, another member of the committee, objected, saying that he would like for her to touch on every allegation.
"She doesn't have to go into the gory details," he added.
Cook then responded:
"I think there are allegations of improper relationships between the elected official and his employee. I think there is misuse of government property.
"There are very serious allegations of sex being traded for favors, including time paid when the time is not worked. There are allegations of time sheets being fraudulently created in exchange for sexual favors.
"There is disposal of records that's been alleged in contradiction of the time retention schedules that are required. There's refusal to provide the access to the government property.
"There is also an allegation about a certain fund of money within the office and how it's being used -- and I would say, improperly used is the allegation."
Thompson sat quietly at a corner deskin the conference room during the reading of these allegations. He made no comment throughout the proceedings.
Messages left for Thompson by The Greeneville Sun after the meeting were not returned.
Two members of the committee, Chairman Hilton Seay and Commissioner Robert Bird, voiced strong objections to hearing Cook's report, saying that it was confidential information, not appropriate for a public meeting, and beyond the scope of the Ethics Committee's authority.
The Ethics Committee is tasked with addressing conflicts of interest and improper receipt of gifts, gratuities or favors, according to the University of Tennessee's County Technical Advisory Service (CTAS).
Seay, at the beginning to the meeting, read a letter from CTAS in which the advisory service said that the allegations against Thompson did not fall within the Ethics Committee's authority.
However, Commissioner Tim White, who had brought the matter before the committee, argued that CTAS is only an advisory service and not the "end all, says all."
He said that the committee and the commissioners serving on it, as elected officials, must make that determination for themselves and could only do so after hearing "the facts" from Cook.
Although Seay, as chairman, tried to block the committee from hearing Cook's report, White called on Robert's Rules of Order, saying that a chairman could not block the majority of the committee's desire.
"If you want to set yourself up for liability, if these allegations are true, let them continue on and do nothing about it," White said. "If these allegations are true, we're setting a precedent."
The committee then moved forward with a 4-3 vote to hear Cook's presentation.
Those voting in favor of hearing the presentation were Commissioners David Crum, Jan Kiker, Wade McAmis and White.
McAmis has picked up, but not yet filed, a petition to run for Greene County Clerk, which is the position Thompson holds.
Voting against hearing the presentation were Commissioners Bird, Seay and Phil King.
Thompson, who is also a member of the Ethics Committee, had to recuse himself from the vote.
Bird commented during the vote that, after an hour-and-a-half debate on the matter, he still didn't think the Ethics Committee had the authority to address these issues.
Crum agreed that the committee does have the authority to refer the matter to another entity, but said, "I've lost enough sleep over this," and voted to hear the matter.
After hearing Cook's report, the committee again voted in the same 4-3 manner to sponsor the resolution to hire Cook as attorney pro tem.
Commissioners John Waddle and Bill Moss were formerly the only commissioners sponsoring the resolution.
Similar comments also followed this vote, with Bird saying that he had the same objections and Crum, looking toward Thompson, saying "I've lost a lot of sleep and, David, I hope you understand."
County Mayor Alan Broyles was not present at Wednesday's meeting.
White alleged during the meeting that Broyles failed to meet a state law requirement to report suspicion of improper use of funds to the State Comptroller within five days of learning of the suspicion.
Messages left for Mayor Broyles on Wednesday by The Greeneville Sun were not returned.