Social Circle’s former director of public safety has filed suit against the city, alleging they fired him for being a whistleblower.
Tom Fox filed a complaint in the Superior Court of Walton County on Jan. 28. In it, Fox claims that he discovered that “certain Social Circle firefighters were falsely, and unlawfully, attesting to the Georgia Firefighter Standards and Training Counsel that they had attended certain firefighting training sessions.”
The complaint states that Fox took the information to then-Mayor James Burgess and City Manager Doug White on Sept. 20 and 23, 2011. Three days later, the suit claims Fox was given an unscheduled performance appraisal by White which was “uncharacteristically negative,” And that Fox was also given a six-page memo detailing his performance deficiencies, which the suit calls “completely without merit.”
He was also, according to the suit, threatened with termination if he refused to accept an employment amendment that allowed the city to terminate his contract at their discretion at any time. In March 2011, Fox’s employment contract stated that his employment contract would for a basis of one-year at a time, and would renew automatically each year on Dec. 31, “unless either party notified the other of its intent not to renew by Sept. 30.” The suit states that Fox initially declined to accept the amendment to his contract, but eventually agreed to do so “because he needed to keep his job to support his family.”
Roughly a month later, on Nov. 29, 2011, Fox made a report to the
Georgia Bureau of Investigation regarding the falsification of records by firefighters, along with an accusation that certain firefighters were submitted fraudulent time records to the city, thus getting paid for work they had not done.
GBI spokesman John Bankhead acknowledged that an investigation was ongoing regarding the city.
"The GBI Athens office has an open investigation concerning the former Social City Department of Public Safety," he said in an email Monday. "With that being said, no conclusion has been reached to this point. We anticipate a review of the facts in this case with the DA in the very near future."
Bankhead added that once they turn their investigation report over, the DA will the make the decision on what action, if any, to take.
District Attorney for the Alcovy Circuit Layla Zon confirmed she was waiting to review the completed investigation.
The suit further states that on the date Fox was to meet with the GBI, White expressed concern that Fox would "throw him under the bus" in the meeting and placed Fox on administrative leave to keep him from attending the meeting, including taking Fox’s city issued laptop, phone, vehicle, gun and keys, and reportedly told him not to "set foot on city property until further notice." The reason given was complaints made about Fox regarding former employees of the city, though he would not divulge their names, according to the suit.
Several days later, Fox alleges that city attorney Joe Reitman asked Fox to meet with him and Mayor Hal Dally in a parking lot by Interstate 20.
"Mayor Dally opened the meeting by asking Fox if he was wearing a wire, and then asked if Fox believed White was involved in criminal activity." At the end of the meeting Fox was allegedly told to return to work but report to himself and Reitman instead of White.
Several months later, the Department of Public Safety was split into two divisions — fire and police — and thus Fox’s position was eliminated, though in the suit he alleges that White assured him he would be remain employed as the chief of police. However, Fox said he was terminated in September 2012.
"The city did not fire Tom Fox," said Dally, Tuesday. "His position was eliminated and he was given the opportunity to apply for police or fire chief… The top candidate (for chief of police) was a 29-year veteran of the GBI and highly qualified to be the police chief of Social Circle."
Fox alleges that he was retaliated against by the city and that they violated the Whistleblower Act by doing so. He is requesting a trial by jury, actual and compensatory damages, attorney’s fees and expenses and an award of prejudgement and postjudgement interest.
"I think when it’s all said and done, the city will come out OK on this," said White. "But I don’t think it’s smart for me to get into it at this point."
Dally called the suit "baseless," adding, "I think you’ll see when our answer is filed that there is no truth to the allegations and the city of Social Circle will vigilantly defend against the lawsuit." He added that he had no concerns about White’s performance as city manager.
Social Circle city attorney Joe Reitman could not be reached for comment.
"We obviously disagree with Social Circle’s characterization of the complaint as baseless," said Fox’s attorney J. Matthew Maguire Jr. "As to why Mr. Fox chose this route, we asked Mayor Dally for a meeting back in October to discuss his whistleblower claim, hoping to avoid the time, expense and publicity of litigation. The city refused to even meet with us, leaving Mr. Fox no choice but to file the lawsuit in order to protect his rights."
This is the fourth suit filed against the city for retaliation. The city settled a suit in 2011 with former police officer Chauncey Dixon, who accused some city employees of discrimination. The settlement was for $25,000, and the city agreed to change its personnel records to show that Dixon resigned. Dixon agreed to cooperate with the city with any investigations or legal matters, not seek re-employment with the city and drop all claims against City Manager Doug White and the city of Social Circle. The settlement agreement made clear that ‘this agreement shall not be deemed in any manner an admission, finding, or indication for any purposes whatsoever that the city or Mr. White acted contrary to the law or violated the rights of Mr. Dixon, or any other person at any time.’
After much consideration, the city and Mr. White decided that an early resolution in this case, with minimal expense to the parties, outweighed the costs of continuing to litigate Mr. Dixon’s through trial despite the belief they would have been fully vindicated," according to a previous story.
Also in 2011, former Public Safety Director Steve Shelton alleged that he was forced to resign and was a victim of retaliation; and former employee Jerome Knox told The News that he had filed a lawsuit against the city and White for retaliation and discrimination.