BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
Greene County Attorney Roger Woolsey said Thursday that he believes Greene County provides a safe working environment for its employees, free of sexual harassment or discrimination.
In addition, he said he believes that the county will be shown to have maintained a working environment of that quality in the past.
He spoke after conducting several weeks of in-house investigation in response to a recent U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint filed against the county.
The complaint, lodged by a former employee, alleged that County Clerk David Thompson sexually coerced her, discriminated against her, and retaliated against her on the basis of her gender.
Those allegations were contained in a formal "Charge of Discrimination" filed earlier this year with the Tennessee Human Rights Commission by Michelle Diane Burke.
Burke, 39, was employed as a Greene County deputy clerk from Feb. 15, 2005 to Aug. 24, 2012. Thompson has been county clerk since September 2006.
Burke, who was then Michelle Miller, ran for County Clerk during that 2006 election.
She was defeated in the Democratic Party primary by Tim Armstrong.
Thompson went on to defeat Armstrong in the General Election.
In the complaint, Burke charged: "I was forced to resign or constructively and/or wrongfully discharged by my immediate and hiring supervisor, David Thompson, after denial of my second request for Family Medical Leave in Year 2012 for a medical reason that was unrelated to my first medically-related leave, and protected under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
"The denial of my second request for FMLA was simply a pretext for David Thompson to terminate me, since he had long ago coerced me into a sexual relationship with him, in exchange for keeping my job."
'NO PRESENT ISSUES'
Greene County's deadline for responding to the EEOC's inquiries in the investigation was on Thursday.
Woolsey spoke with The Greeneville Sun at length in an interview on Thursday about his role in the EEOC investigation.
He explained that the agency sent him two pages listing more than two dozen specific items he needed to address through an in-house investigation into the matter.
The county attorney said his first role was in "securing the workplace" -- ensuring that there are no current instances of harassment or discrimination.
"We have progressed through the investigation by conducting interviews and having meetings and we have found no issues or no complaints from any current employees who make any allegation of sexual harassment or discrimination," Woolsey said.
"I am confident that there are no present issues."
The next step in the process, he said, was to conduct the investigation into the allegations in the EEOC complaint.
"I have utmost confidence that Greene County has provided a safe workplace. I do believe that the EEOC will find that Greene County has in the past [provided], and will continue to provide a safe workplace, free from harassment and discrimination," Woolsey said.
"We would suggest that there is no basis to believe that there was any sexual harassment on the part of anybody employed by Greene County.
"The evidence that I found would not substantiate the charge of sexual harassment."
Key issues in substantiating a charge of sexual harassment, Woolsey said, are whether the alleged sexual contact occurred and, if it did occur, if it was unwelcome.
"We had not received any complaint of discrimination or sexual harassment from the complainant before receiving the notice from her attorney and from the EEOC," the attorney said.
"EEOC will continue the investigation to determine whether they believe there are grounds that the former employee was discriminated against or was sexually harassed."
STATUS OF DOCUMENTS
There has been considerable expectation by the news media and the community as a whole that Woolsey's response to the EEOC would be made public after he filed the documents on Thursday.
But the county attorney declined to make the documents public, citing the EEOC's regulations.
Woolsey explained that, without his requesting the information, the EEOC investigator assigned to the case, Curtis Smith, provided him earlier this week with a document stating that, "During the course of the investigation, information received from the respondent will be kept confidential by the EEOC and will not be disclosed to the public by the EEOC."
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the EEOC is legally required to maintain complete confidentiality in regard to any complaints. (Please see related text, this page.)
EEOC spokesperson Justine Lisser confirmed this restriction in a telephone interview with the Sun.
"I can't speak to any local laws that involve availability of documents, but with respect to the laws here and the investigation process and the administration process, we at the EEOC must keep them confidential by law," Lisser said.
"I can't even confirm or deny that such a complaint is going on."
Lisser directed questions concerning Woolsey's own right to provide public access to the documents to the EEOC's Memphis branch.
There, Director Katharine Kores confirmed the EEOC cannot legally release information, but expressed her belief that Woolsey would likely not fall under that same requirement.
"[The EEOC is] statutorily prohibited from revealing information regarding charges filed with the agency -- even information regarding whether or not a charge has been filed," Kores said. "We are required to keep everything confidential.
"The agency is subject to fines and possibly imprisonment if we reveal information. I don't know that those same kinds of penalties would apply to the parties in the matter.
"But in order to carry out our confidentiality responsibilities, we inform the parties about the confidentiality requirements," she concluded.
"Technically, probably [the parties involved in the complaint and investigation] are not prohibited from revealing whatever they want to."
Although there is no technical prohibition, Woolsey said that he does not believe it would be proper for him to make public the documents he provided to the EEOC in response to the agency's request.
"They have a reason they keep it confidential," he said. "I can only assume, at least during the EEOC investigation, they have no interest in everything being aired out in the public."
The attorney explained that the first document became public because the EEOC served the complaint on County Budget Director Mary Shelton.
Any document served to a public office, such as the budget director's, is a public document, he said.
Woolsey also noted that the complaint was already being publicly disseminated before it reached his door.
"The bottom line is, my response is to the EEOC," Woolsey concluded.
"If the EEOC says it's confidential, and I'm responding to specific questions by the EEOC, it really doesn't make sense to me why my response would not need to be confidential."
As the elected holder of a constitutional office, Thompson remains in his role as county clerk and is expected to continue to serve in this role throughout the remainder of the EEOC's investigation.
At the advice of attorneys, he has declined to comment to the news media in response to the investigation.
Repeated calls to Burke's attorney, Sandra Stanbery-Foster, have not been returned.
Burke filed the complaint against the Greene County government. Although Thompson is named in the complaint, he is not a formal defendant.
Thompson, who is married, is currently serving his second term as clerk. He was first elected to the countywide position in 2006 and was re-elected in 2010.
A former county commissioner, he was elected to the County Commission in 1998. He was re-elected to the commission, a four-year term of office, in 2002.
He is also a former dispatcher with the Greene County Sheriff's Department and a former chief of the Camp Creek Volunteer Fire Department.