County involved in federal lawsuit

Thu, 02/28/2008 - 5:55pm
By: Ben Nelms

Several members of Coweta County Commission may soon find themselves testifying under oath in federal court. Filed Feb. 22 in U.S. District Court, District 4 Commissioner Leigh Schlumper demanded a jury trail in her complaint that Commission Chairman Tim Higgins, Commissioner Tim Lassetter and Coweta County are guilty of gender discrimination, libel and slander.

The suit alleges that Commissioner Paul Poole, along with Higgins and Lassetter have made derogatory comments toward her regarding her gender, including cautioning her about interacting with male county employees.

“Among other things, these commissioners have openly accused Schlumper of having an affair with male county employees and engaged in the spreading of rumors regarding Schlumper’s infidelity. A majority of the commissioners have counseled Schlumper not to appear in public with male county employees because she is a woman,” the suit said.

Schlumper was unable to be contacted about the suit.

The suit notes that Coweta County is the only county in the state operating with a rotating chairmanship and that the position of chair rotates among the commissioners on an annual basis and in a designated district arrangement, except in instances when the commissioner in line for the chairmanship does not have two years experience. Per ordinance, the chairman receives an additional $2,000 in compensation.

The suit maintains Schlumper was slated to be next in line for the chairmanship, to take effect January 2008. “Before Schlumper took her seat as the chairman of the commission, the commissioners determined without prior notice that they would have an election to determine who among them would sit a chairman, rather than follow the established rotation,” the suit said. That vote resulted in a 3-1 vote to re-appoint Higgins.

At the Feb. 5 commission meeting, the board agreed to establish a review committee that would examine establishing a countywide chairman position and potentially re-structuring county government. The committee includes Higgins, Schlumper, County Administrator Theron Gay, former Commissioner Robert Wood and Georgia Power representative Jan Alligood.

Beyond gender discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, the suit alleges libel and slander against Lassetter and Higgins.

“Defendants’ false statements about Schlumper tended to injure her reputation and exposed her to public hatred, contempt or ridicule. Defendants’ false statements charged or implied that (Schlumper) was guilty of a crime, dishonesty or immorality and were intentionally calculated to and did injure her. Defendants caused false statements to be published about Schlumper with knowledge that they were false or with reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity of the statements. Defendants’ publication of the false accusation against Schlumper were infected with malice,” the suit alleges.

The suit seeks a trial by jury and expects a variety of damages such as her placement as commission chairman according to Coweta County ordinance, back pay and benefits of the chairman position, compensatory damages, punitive damages against the defendants individually, prejudgment interest, special damages for all costs and expenses Schlumper incurred due to the defendants conduct and attorney’s fees and expenses.

Also included in the suit is the allegation that Schlumper was damaged by comments that came after a friend of Lassetter was not hired as Deputy Chief of the Coweta County Fire Department. The suit states that Schlumper had no involvement in the selection of another applicant, Jay Jones, for the position.

“Nonetheless, as a result of being passed over for the position, the unsuccessful candidates told Lassetter and numerous fire department employees that Schlumper was having a romantic affair with Jones. Lassetter and the (unsuccessful candidate) have alleged to numerous firefighters and other county employees their unfounded and false accusation that Schlumper and Jones were or are engaged in an adulterous affair.”

The suit said Lassetter encouraged and orchestrated the delivery of numerous written allegations, signed by county firefighters, to the local media alleging that Schlumper is or was engaged in the adulterous affair. Gay investigated the matter, finding many of the written allegations to be false but was instructed by Lassetter, Poole and Commissioner Randolph Collins not to punish those who authored the letters, the suit said.

Finally, the suit alleges that Schlumper has received threatening letters and phone calls subsequent to the letter-writing campaign.

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