By Laura Militana, Herald Citizen
A former employee of Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency has filed a lawsuit against the agency, the executive director of the agency, and one specific board member, alleging conspiracy and corrupt bargains were conducted and her whistleblowing of the activities, conducted mainly by one of the two named defendants, eventually resulted in her firing.
Jana Hill, the former long-time executive administrative assistant to the executive director, filed the suit in circuit court on November 7.
“The claims made in her suit are false,” UCHRA Executive Director Luke Collins said in a memo to board members. “We are committed to fighting this case and expect to be successful.”
Hill hired attorney Gary Blackburn out of Nashville and claims that Mike Gannon, Cannon County executive, entered into a corrupt bargain with the agency’s executive director to have her fired for “unlawful or unjustifable purposes.”
The issue revolves around the finding that Gannon “compelled agency management on at least two occasions to misappropriate for his use two contract employees. These individuals were required to perform clerical and maintenance services for the Cannon County government... none of these services benefitted the agency or its clients.”
This same issue was pointed out in the investigative audit conducted on the agency and released by the state comptroller’s office earlier this year. The audit notes that the agency contracted with and paid $4,194 to those two individuals. There was no written agreement or contract with Cannon County outlining these individuals’ duties and responsibilities.
No other government was provided this benefit either, the comptroller notes in the report.
Hill notified then-interim director Ruth Ann Woolbright of the misappropriation of agency funds and personnel. Both worked to try to correct the “mismanagement and abusive practices, in particular those engaged in by Defendant Gannon.”
“Ms. Woolbright disapproved of these misappropriations of agency funds, and demanded repayment in a letter drafted and transmitted by Ms. Hill,” the suit claims. “Mr. Gannon refused to reimburse the agency.”
Woolbright had been in the interim position since April 2011. She left the position once Collins was appointed.
The suit goes on to allege that Gannon has a relationship with a UCHRA employee, who was recommended to be terminated by agency’s program directors due to the fact her position was “idle.” This person was under Hill’s supervision.
Woolbright and Hill recommended that instead of termination, the employee (whom Gannon allegedly has a relationship with) should be moved to the offices in Overton County.
“Five days following this recommendation, Defendant Gannon called Ms. Woolbright, who included plaintiff (Hill) in the call by speakerphone,” the suit claims. “Mr. Gannon, who had no personnel authority in the agency and was not even chair of the UCHRA board, told Ms. Hill that ‘there will be repercussions for you by the Board.’”
The suit goes on to say that “following the efforts to recover funds and the transfer of Mr. Gannon’s friend, Mr. Gannon relentlessly questioned the accuracy of the minutes, all of which were confirmed.”
When Woolbright declined the permanent position of executive director, the worker was transferred back to the Cookeville office.
In December 2011, applications were accepted for the position of executive director and it’s alleged that Gannon told applicants that “Ms. Hill and another employee ‘need to go.’ He made the statement to another Board member.”
Luke Collins was appointed executive director in late May of 2012. The suit claims that Gannon reached an understanding with Collins that required him to terminate Hill “as a condition of his employment as executive director.
“Mr. Gannon also reached an understanding with Mr. Collins to favor his friend regardless of the needs or welfare of the Agency or its clients,” the suit states. “On May 25, 2012, Luke Collins’ first day as executive director, Mr. Collins told Ms. Woolbright that he ‘had something you are not going to like – to get rid of Jana Hill.’ Ms. Woolbright accused him of “cutting a deal.” Mr. Collins replied, “No, I made a commitment.”
The deal reportedly involves Gannon’s “friend” be favored, “regardless of the needs or welfare of the Agency or its clients. This allegedly involved bumping her up to the executive assistant position.
“On May 29, 2012, Mr. Collins told the plaintiff that board member(s) had told him to fire her. He explained that this was ‘because you can’t be trusted. You might tell Earl and Ashley something that I am doing.’”
That statement refers to Earl Carwile and Ashley Pealer, who were, at the time, acting executive director and deputy director, respectively, at Upper Cumberland Development District.
The suit goes on to say, “On June 4, 2012, Mr. Collins posted Ms. Hill’s job. On June 22, 2012, he conducted interviews. On June 26, 2012, plaintiff (Hill) was advised by email her job was being ‘eliminated’. Despite this representation, the same email indicated that another position was being created, to be called ‘administrative assistant’. This position entailed essentially the same responsibilities as plaintiff’s ‘eliminated’ job, but paid 45 percent less. Luke Collins promised board members that he would not ‘cut’ anyone earning less than $59,000. Plaintiff earned $53,000 annually at the time of her unlawful termination.”
Hill was terminated July 13, 2012.
“Mr. Collins disingenously misrepresented to board members that the elimination of plaintiff’s position made it possible to provide 100 individuals home delivered meals,” the suit claims. “He later admitted to a board member this was not accurate ‘because the funds derived from personnel reduction could not be lawfully used in this fashion.’”
“The claims in this lawsuit will be responded to in the coming weeks,” Robert Watson, the attorney representing Gannon and Collins, said. “I cannot comment on ongoing litigation, other than to say that this matter is going to be vigorously defended. My clients will deny the allegations in their answer and in various motions to be filed throughout this litigation. They both look forward to their day in court when they can cause these allegations brought against them to be dismissed.”
Hill requests reinstatement to her position with the UCHRA, judgment from and against the defendant in an amount equal to all back pay, together with damages for emotional distress in an amount not to exceed $1 million and punitive damages from and against the defendants in an amount not to exceed $1 million.