Note: This story was updated at 10:40 a.m.
CLINTON—He’s been accused of inappropriate behavior that includes unwelcome sexual advances, unwanted touching, and lewd and vulgar text messages. He’s been unanimously censured and asked to resign by the Anderson County Commission. He’s been sued in federal court. And some residents have joined commissioners in asking him to resign, or at least not seek re-election.
Despite those pleas, though, Anderson County Circuit Court Clerk William Jones, who has denied many allegations and called others false, is seeking re-election in the Anderson County Republican Party primary election on Tuesday, May 1. Jones has filed counterclaims in federal court and filed a defamation lawsuit in state court.
Some of the sexual harassment allegations appear to have been forwarded to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies, including the Tennessee Attorney General, Tennessee Department of Labor, and Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts, according to records released by Anderson County. It’s not clear which outside agencies, if any, might be investigating the complaints, or whether the local district attorney general might be investigating.
Commission censures Jones, asks him to resign
The accusations against Jones, who is seeking his second four-year term, were publicly disclosed during a review of a sexual harassment complaint at an Anderson County Commission meeting on February 20.
During that meeting, Kim Jeffers-Whitaker, Anderson County’s chief deputy director of human resources and risk management, said her department had received five reports of inappropriate workplace behavior by Jones.
“The five reports create a harassing pattern,” Jeffers-Whitaker said.
She said the reports are supported by two affidavits and four sworn statements that the county’s human resources department obtained from the victims, who include four past or present employees and one citizen.
According to Jeffers-Whitaker, the alleged instances of unprofessional conduct include:
- degrading nicknames,
- request for employees to dress inappropriately to please Jones,
- unlawful interview questions,
- unwelcome sexual advances,
- sexually explicit messages,
- solicitation of sex, and
- unwanted touching.
Those acts combined to create a hostile work environment, Jeffers-Whitaker said.
She said there was an expression of retaliatory behavior, up to discharge, for those who didn’t participate in or succumb to Jones’ conduct. Jones repeatedly boasted of his close relationship with Anderson County government officials, declaring he was above reproach, Jeffers-Whitaker said.
The Anderson County Commission has approved healthy workplace policies that cover elected officials, and there has been training on workplace bullying, ethics standards, and harassment and sexual harassment, Jeffers-Whitaker said. There were training sessions in November and December 2016.
But after Jones attended one session, he announced he would not sign a form acknowledging the training, and he would not implement the policies for his department, Jeffers-Whitaker said. Jones said his staff would not attend the training, Jeffers-Whitaker said.
The resolution to censure and admonish the alleged “deplorable and dishonorable” conduct of Jones was brought to Anderson County Commission by Chair Tim Isbel on February 20.
“If true, his actions have brought disgrace and embarrassment to this county and the citizens we serve,” Isbel said, referring to Jones.
The workplace should be free of harassment in any form, and commissioners will not tolerate harassment of county employees by anyone, including elected officials, Isbel said.
The multiple reports of workplace conduct received by Anderson County Human Resources demonstrated a pattern of conduct that was ethically and morally indecent for anyone supervising or working alongside county employees, Isbel said.
If the allegations were true, he said, the behavior could have violated civil rights and the county’s personnel policy. It could expose Anderson County and its taxpayers to costly litigation that could have been avoided, Isbel said.
Human Resources had been forced to remove and relocate one employee for her protection, Isbel said.
Isbel said the commission was asking Jones to immediately cease the alleged disgraceful conduct, resign, and publicly apologize to the affected men and women, and to the citizens of Anderson County.
With no discussion, Commission approved the resolution to censure Jones 16-0.
Before the vote, Isbel said Jones chose not to attend the meeting to defend his behavior.
But Jones did send a statement, which was read at the County Commission meeting.
In it, Jones said he had just been made aware of the statements by a citizen and current and former employees who alleged “various inappropriate workplace actions.
“While some minor offensive joking may have taken place, I categorically deny any actions which would create a hostile work environment,” Jones said. “I suspect these false allegations are politically motivated with convenient timing. I am in the process of engaging attorneys to respond and appropriately deal with these claims. I have not been interviewed or asked a single thing about any of these matters and look forward to setting the record straight in the proper forum.”
Jeffers-Whitaker disputed parts of Jones’ statement.
She said she had personally delivered redacted statements to Jones the previous week, and he had also been “put on prior notice” by Human Resources, Anderson County Law Director Jay Yeager, and the County Commission chair.
The statement that Jones sent to commissioners, claiming that he had just been made aware of the issue, was false, Jeffers-Whitaker said.
She also objected to Jones’ claim that his statements to the alleged victims were minor offensive joking.
“It is clear that the victims never perceived his words or intent as jokes,” Jeffers-Whitaker said.
“Mr. Jones has created a hostile work environment that continues to have an adverse impact on all those who have been exposed to his harassing conduct,” Jeffers-Whitaker said, citing the conclusion of the report that she presented to commissioners.
Jeffers-Whitaker asked County Commission to allow her to help set up counseling and job assistance for the victims. Sexual harassment has a lingering mental and physical effect on victims and their families, Jeffers-Whitaker said.
“It is imperative that counseling be attainable to assist the victims through this very stressful time,” Jeffers-Whitaker said.
Commission unanimously approved her request on a voice vote.
Since the February commission meeting, Anderson County has released 99 pages of documents related to the sexual harassment and retaliation complaints filed against Jones.
Among the allegations in those complaints are claims that Jones, an elected official, has claimed he was untouchable and has no boss, called himself “daddy,” called one office manager “daddy’s prissy bitch” and called another “daddy’s bitch,” laid his head on the shoulders of clerks, and had grabbed at least one around the waist.
The alleged victims talked of intimidation, bullying, “moles” in the office, panic attacks and emotional instability—and the fear of being fired. They said Jones would sit on employee desks, impeding their ability to do their jobs, and he would stand behind them or beside them and “pet the top of our heads.” Those who lost their jobs mentioned the financial hardship that followed.
One complaint from August 2017 includes photocopied graphic messages under the labels “William Jones” and “William” that mention “boobs,” a garter belt and corset, and descriptions of oral sex. The complaint was filed with Bearden, the former human resources director.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Oak Ridge and Anderson County filed a sexual harassment complaint for that alleged victim in October and addressed it to an FBI special agent. The complaint said members of the Legal Redress Committee of the Oak Ridge-Anderson County unit of the NAACP had agreed that the allegations warranted an investigation, and it asked that the complaint be reviewed and sent to an investigative body that has jurisdiction. It wasn’t immediately clear Monday afternoon if the FBI or another agency is investigating. The TBI said it is not involved in an investigation of the Anderson County Circuit Court Clerk’s office.
The NAACP said sexual harassment is prohibited according to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The alleged victim, who had worked as a deputy clerk in Anderson County General Sessions Court, said Jones told her that he would not hire her full-time after she told Jones to stop his sexual harassment and because his wife had learned about Snapchat messages. The sexual harassment had included extremely vulgar and sexually explicit Snapchat comments, including graphic descriptions of oral sex, the complaint said.
“I informed him that his comments were very inappropriate, derogatory, and I did not appreciate it,” the complaint said. “After I told him to stop the sexual harassment, he told me he would not be hiring me full time.”
The complaint includes other allegations, including of intimidation, harassment of others, and inappropriate comments about breasts.
The victim asked for a full investigation in August and had a deposition with Bearden and Jeffers-Whitaker in September.
There are four sworn statements included in the records released by Anderson County. Names of the victims have been redacted, and so has information that could be used to identify them.
Another sworn statement, also from September 2017, said Jones remarked, while discussing a potential intern, that “‘the shorter the skirt and the tighter the clothes and basically the more her—her titties hang out, the better, because that’s what daddy likes’ and laughed about it.”
In a separate incident, according to the statement, Jones allegedly put his hands on the woman’s waist while she was in a back room where a copier is kept and while she had her back turned toward the door.
“I immediately pulled away from him and turned around and, to be quite honest, he’s lucky I didn’t punch him in the face,” the woman said. “Thinking back on it, I probably should have. I probably would have been fired, but I would have dealt with that.”
The woman said she told Jones to never touch her again.
“And he looked at me with a smile, like he was just kidding or something,” she said. “You know, I don’t know if he thought I was serious. I don’t know what he thought. But it—it just really—it tore me up to the point where every time he would walk in the door, I was so cognizant of that instance that I would go. If I was filing or something, I would drop what I was doing in the filing room and just go sit back down at my desk. So whenever he was in there, I was not putting myself at any kind of risk.”
The woman told her husband and other co-workers about the incident.
In a third sworn statement, another woman said she wanted to report allegations because the intimidation and bullying were too much. She thought it was strange that Jones wanted to talk to her, an intern pursuing a degree, after hours.
“I guess as women, we just—I feel like we have to put up with more of that kind of thing,” she said. If she didn’t “sort of please him,” the woman said, she might not be able to get her internship and might not be able to graduate.
“It was more or less just kind of ‘go with it and laugh it off and hope it doesn’t escalate’ kind of thing,” she said.
But she said the Snapchat messages from Jones started escalating, getting “very provocative,” “very gross,” and “very inappropriate.” Jones asked her to send her a picture of herself without clothes, according to her statement. She said Jones hired her part-time and she didn’t think she would get hired full-time unless she conformed to what he wanted.
Jones wanted the woman to work for his wife at a tanning salon. She interpreted the “alone time” mentioned by Jones as sexual, and she did not want to go.
At some point, Jones’ wife found out about the Snapchat messages, and Jones told the alleged victim that he wasn’t going to hire her full-time, the statement said.
The woman said she was always felt upset.
“You never know what he—we’re like pawns in his game of chess,” she said. “You don’t know where you’re going the next day. You don’t know what’s happening. So that’s enough for anyone to worry.”
There are other allegations included in witness statements released by Anderson County. They include allegations of pictures sent from a tanning bed in Rocky Top or at business conferences, requests for pictures of a woman in bathing suits or of her breasts, and reports of inappropriate sexual comments, including about oral sex.
“I was stunned and very embarrassed to the point I didn’t know what to say,” one woman said of one alleged graphic comment.
Jones gave her raises, but eventually told her one raise would be her last one until he was able to “get me out of my shyness,” the witness said
“At that point, I knew I wasn’t going to get anymore raises because I had absolutely no desire to put myself in that situation for a raise,” she said.
Summoned to Jones’ office another time, the woman said Jones had her pull up the back of her shirt, and he then proceeded to tell her that what she had on was very nice. The woman said she felt extremely uncomfortable and very nervous but thought she had to do what her boss said.
Another witness, in an affidavit, said the nicknames that Jones allegedly used—“Daddy’s Bitch” and “Daddy’s prissy bitch”—were not flattering and made her feel like Jones thought that she was his puppet, meant to do his bidding.
“I felt like if I didn’t go along with Mr. Jones that I would be the next employee to be targeted,” the woman said. “Mr. Jones would make comments about women he found attractive, conducting business with the clerk’s office, about if they were single and if they might consider being his girlfriend. Mr. Jones asked if my sister would consider being his girlfriend. I told him ‘no’ and that he needed to back up.
“Mr. Jones is a bully and does try to intimidate his employees by making them feel like there is no one they can go to for help. Mr. Jones is a narcissist and will continue to prey upon the people that he feels he has control over.”
Jones was not immediately available for comment late Monday afternoon. He has previously declined to comment for a news story outside of two statements that he released in February. Jones has not responded to a request for comment in April on a federal lawsuit filed against him by Gail Harness, an employee, although he and his attorney have filed an answer in U.S. District Court in Knoxville.
Here’s what Jones said on February 24, around the time that some of the specific allegations against him first started to become public:
“I categorically deny the allegations against me. What we are seeing is a premeditated political character assassination, carefully planned out and timed for release just before this election. Those who are behind this are willing to act without concern for the collateral damage done to my family. I trust the people of Anderson County to understand that an election year allegation is not an indication of truth. This is not just about me. It is the good ole boy system sending out a warning that they will not be challenged by any of us.”
Yeager, the Anderson County law director, notified Jones in September that the county had received a sexual harassment complaint against him and that the complaint would be investigated, with the results forwarded to the proper office.
In the meantime, the county would take steps to ensure there was no additional liability, Yeager said. The original complainant was to be reassigned when a new position was made available, and she would be placed on administrative leave in the meantime, Yeager said.
“This decision is primarily being made to protect the legal interests of the county and complainant,” he said.
Isbel, the county commission chair, notified Jones of the reports from multiple women on February 9. They had made allegations that Jones had engaged in inappropriate and unprofessional activities, which were generally characterized as sexual harassment, Isbel said.
Jones was asked to attend the February 20 meeting of the Anderson County Commission.
“In the meantime, please discontinue unprofessional behavior at once and do not contact or retaliate against any of the alleged accusers and employees,” Isbel said.
The week after the allegations against Jones were made public, a few dozen people rallied at the Anderson County Courthouse in Clinton. Several said Jones should resign.
“I think he needs to drop out,” said Brittany Humphrey of Oak Ridge. “I would like him to go to jail. I think that’s where someone like him deserves to be.”
“The facts seem outrageous and also the fact that he thought he could get away with that,” said Harry Schatz of Norris. “I think everyone should be aware of this and stand up. This is an abomination.”
Those present said they think Jones has abused his office.
“Women should be respected,” said Linda Whitson of Norris.
“Women have endured sexual harassment for years and years,” said Marsha Livingston of Clinton.
Despite what appears to be incontrovertible proof, she said, Jones is still on the ballot.
“It horrifies me,” Livingston said.
Jones has not publicly shown any sign of wavering in his re-election bid. His re-election signs dot the county, and he’s attended two candidate forums. An online ad posted Monday said Jones has served the people of Anderson County diligently, improved online computer access and customer service, and overseen financial cuts.
“Don’t be fooled by dirty politics and what looks like the new way of campaigning,” Jones said in the online ad. “Vote for honesty. Vote for the true conservative in the race.”
Jones has some online supporters who say they already voted for Jones, in early voting in April.
But others do not support him.
“If people will read the allegations against him, I don’t see how anybody could vote for him,” said Angeleque McNutt of Oak Ridge.
The 18-page federal lawsuit filed against Jones in U.S. District Court in Knoxville on March 13 alleged that Jones has for years subjected women working under him to unwelcome sexual advances, unwanted touching, intimidation, threats of retaliation, and retaliation, resulting in a hostile work environment in violation of the 14th Amendment.
The lawsuit was filed by Gail Harness, an employee of Jones’ office. It names Jones and Anderson County as defendants. Harness is represented by attorney Richard E. Collins of Collins & Doolan of Knoxville and attorney Darren V. Berg.
Harness started working for the clerk’s office in January 2016 as an unpaid intern, and then a month later, as a part-time file clerk. At the time, Harness was a senior in college, and the job fulfilled a graduation requirement, the lawsuit said.
“Jones wasted no time before subjecting plaintiff to his toxic workplace,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit said Jones would corner Harness in the juvenile court file room and make suggestive comments about her appearance, encourage her to wear more provocative clothing, and compliment her on her breasts and her “cleavage.” The encounters made Harness uncomfortable and at times left her in tears, the lawsuit said.
“From the beginning, Jones made it clear that he was ‘the boss,’ that he answered to no one, and he often bragged about his position of power and how he was above the law,” the federal complaint said.
It said the clerk’s office has no written policy or protocol for reporting these abuses, especially without fear of retaliation. Jones “defiantly refused” to implement an anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policy approved by Anderson County government in 2016, the lawsuit said.
“So like many of the women working under Jones, plaintiff (Harness) believed she had no recourse,” the lawsuit said. “Submission to Jones’ offensive behavior became a condition of her employment, something she had to endure to remain employed.”
The harassment of Harness did not end in the file room, the lawsuit said.
“Jones subjected plaintiff to a slew of verbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature throughout her employment,” the complaint said. “Nearly every time he encountered plaintiff, he would make some suggestive comment about her attire or how she looked; he would frequently approach plaintiff from behind while she was making copies, and place his hands on her hips; he would often rub plaintiff’s back while she was trying to work; he would often sit on top of plaintiff’s desk, making her work around him; and during his visits to plaintiff’s work area, Jones would pull a chair next to where plaintiff was working and rest his head on her shoulder, at times staring down her shirt.”
Jones communicated with Harness via Snapchat, an instant messaging application, the lawsuit said. That’s an ideal tool for a harasser, the complaint said, because messages are automatically deleted unless “saved.” Jones warned Harness not to save his Snapchat messages, according to the suit.
Around April or May of 2016, Harness, who was nearing graduation, expressed interest in an open full-time position in the juvenile court clerk’s office to help support her family, the lawsuit said.
“Knowing he had a job to hold over plaintiff’s head, Jones’ Snapchat messages turned sexually explicit and vulgar,” the lawsuit said.
Harness tried reasoning with Jones, according to the complaint, reminding him that she was married and so was he, and his behavior, if it continued, would get him into trouble.
Then, a few weeks later, in June 2016, Jones told Harness that his wife had discovered his Snapchats, and he accused Harness of telling his wife.
“He told plaintiff that she could forget being hired full-time,” the lawsuit said. “Jones said, ‘You’re going to pay for it.’”
The next month, in July, Harness’ husband called Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank, according to the lawsuit.
“He spoke directly to the mayor and told her that Jones was refusing to hire plaintiff because his (Jones’) wife had learned about the Snapchats,” the lawsuit said. “The information plaintiff’s husband supplied to the mayor should have been enough to put her on notice that Jones was, once again, engaging in inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature.”
Citing documents produced by the county, the lawsuit said the mayor had been “on notice” of Jones’ offensive conduct toward female employees since May 2015, when Bearden, who was then human resources director, reported serious allegations of sexual harassment involving another female employee.
“Remarkably, at the time, the mayor told Bearden, ‘I can’t do anything about it, that’s just the way it is in local government,’” the lawsuit said.
It accused the mayor of again failing to take any corrective action.
“Instead, her solution, upon information and belief, was to encourage Jones to hire plaintiff for the full-time position in question, a quid-pro-quo, which he did a few weeks later in August 2016,” the lawsuit said.
Jones stopped sending offensive Snapchats after his wife “caught on, but to be clear, he never stopped the sexual harassment,” the lawsuit said.
“He continued to leer at plaintiff, suggest she should dress to please him, sit on her desk, touch her, and he continued to pull a chair up next to plaintiff’s and rest his head on her shoulder,” the complaint said. “In fact, during the summer of 2017, plaintiff and her female co-workers hid the chair that Jones would use for this purpose. Jones got angry, found the chair, and put a sign on it which read ‘not to be removed’ or words to similar effect.”
Jones told Harness she was lucky she was still employed because her husband almost got her fired for “running his mouth,” according to the suit.
Jones issued two disciplinary warning to Harness for “bogus, trumped-up infractions,” but he did not put them in the personnel file, the lawsuit said.
“Their sole purpose was to intimidate and punish (Harness),” it said.
Jones also began to threaten Harness with relocating her to the clerk’s Oak Ridge office, the “clerk’s graveyard,” in the summer of 2017, the lawsuit said.
“Realizing that her job was in jeopardy, even if she were to continue to remain silent about the sexual harassment, plaintiff bravely contacted then-HR Director Russell Bearden on August 9, 2017, and opened up about the harassment, intimidation, and threats of retaliation,” the complaint said. “Five days later, on August 14, 2017, Jones carried through with his threat to transfer plaintiff to Oak Ridge.”
On September 14, the county’s HR department placed Harness on an indefinite paid leave of absence, removing her from Jones’ supervision, and she still does not know if she can return to her job, “an uncertainty that has led to serious mental anguish and distress,” the lawsuit said.
Among the charges alleged in the lawsuit against Jones and Anderson County are a hostile work environment in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, a hostile work environment in violation of the Tennessee Human Rights Act, and unlawful retaliation in violation of the THRA.
Among the relief requested: That Jones and Anderson County be permanently restrained from engaging in the “unlawful acts and practices” outlined in the complaint, and that Harness be awarded punitive damages against the defendants and compensatory damages for mental anguish, emotional distress, and humiliation.
In his answer, which was filed April 13, Jones was represented by attorney Hugh Ward of Young, Williams, and Ward of Knoxville. The majority of the allegations included in Harness’ lawsuit are denied, and some others don’t require a response, the answer said.
It said Jones denies that Harness is entitled to any damages or equitable relief, and it denies any liability to Harness.
It also argues that part or all of Harness’ claims are barred by the statute of limitations.
Jones then filed counter-claims against Harness. His answer to the lawsuit said Harness “was a sub-standard employee” who had been admonished for serious infractions of policy and decorum.
Despite those deficiencies, the answer said, Harness was promoted and retained as a fully paid employee.
“The allegations set forth in her complaint are retaliation and retribution for repeated notification of her consistently poor work performance,” the answer said.
It said Harness started the communications with Jones through Snapchat.
Then, “apparently, in May to July 2016, unknown to Mr. Jones, plaintiff’s husband contacted the Anderson County mayor allegedly to complain of Mr. Jones’ conduct,” the answer said.
Harness and her husband asked Jones to hire her as a full-time deputy clerk, and he did, the answer said.
By March 2017, Harness had been disciplined by her supervisor for carelessness, and the Snapchat communications had stopped, the answer said.
By August, Harness was reassigned to the Oak Ridge General Sessions Court because of continuing infractions and complaints by juvenile court clerk personnel, the answer said.
“Thereafter, plaintiff continued to elicit numerous complaints and expressions of dissatisfaction of work performance from Circuit Court Clerk’s personnel and supervisors including, but not limited to, violations of courtroom decorum, inappropriate dress, carelessness, (and) misapplied bank deposits of court funds,” the answer said.
Harness complained to Anderson County Human Resources around August 9 that Jones was harassing her, the answer said.
On September 19, Jones was notified that Harness was being placed on administrative leave because of a sexual harassment complaint filed against him. That was contrary to Anderson County employee policy, according to Jones’ answer to the federal lawsuit.
“Contrary to the stated policy in the Anderson County Government Employee Handbook, as made applicable by the Anderson County Board of Commissioners, Mr. Jones was not given an opportunity to be interviewed or respond to plaintiff’s accusations and was not afforded the confidentiality, privacy, or due process requirements set forth therein,” the answer said.
In his counter-claims, Jones alleged that he has been cast in a false light before the public, which has caused him emotional distress and personal humiliation, and his privacy has been invaded.
Jones also alleged defamation.
“Plaintiff, beginning from May 2016 to the present, through her intentional, malicious, and/or reckless disregard for the truth of the statements, and/or with negligence in failing to ascertain the truth of the statements, both verbally and in writing, published and broadcasted to third parties false statements regarding Mr. Jones through the assertions set forth in her complaint, thereby causing harm to his reputation, emotional distress, personal humiliation, mental anguish, and suffering,” the answer said.
It seeks damages as the court deems appropriate.
Anderson County filed a separate answer to Harness’ lawsuit. The county was represented in its answer by attorney Arthur F. Knight of Taylor & Knight of Knoxville.
Like Jones, the county also denied many allegations of the federal lawsuit and said no answer is warranted in some cases. It denied any liability to Harness and said that some or all of her complaint is barred by the statute of limitations. It asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed.
Mentioned in the federal lawsuit, the mayor had also been mentioned earlier, in an affidavit filed September 26 by Bearden.
Bearden said he first notified Frank of a sexual harassment complaint filed against Jones by a former employee in May 2015. The mayor seemed concerned and told him he should talk with Jones, Bearden said.
“At that time, I talked with Mr. Jones about the seriousness of this complaint, and that he needed to be very careful about what he is saying to members of the opposite sex,” Bearden said in the affidavit. “I discussed Mr. Jones’ exchange of a sexual nature, being alone with members of the opposite sex, and about inappropriate jokes and general behavior.”
Bearden said he has been involved in many classes on the subject throughout his human resources career.
“At that meeting on May 11, 2015, Mr. Jones looked at me and laughed,” Bearden said. “He made the statement, ‘The beauty of this is that I don’t report to anyone, I don’t have a boss. I could sit in my office butt naked with the door open and masturbate and there’s nothing you can do about it.’ Mr. Jones also stated that he was covered by liability insurance for matters such as this.”
Bearden said he was shocked. He said he tried to talk to Jones, pointing out that it is a violation of federal laws to harass someone in the workplace.
“Mr. Jones just laughed at me, got up, and left my office,” Bearden said.
Bearden said he went directly to the mayor’s office.
“That was early in my employment, and I mistakenly thought the mayor was the CEO (chief executive officer) of the county and would not stand for such behavior,” Bearden said. “The mayor made the comment that Mr. Jones was new and may need some training, but she could not force him to do the training since he was an elected official.”
Officials worked to set up sexual harassment training for Jones in Nashville, but he backed out, saying he was afraid someone would find out, Bearden said. Jones also said he had taken an online course through CTAS and the University of Tennessee and “felt comfortable that this was all the training he needed,” Bearden said.
Bearden said he canceled the Nashville training and reported the conversation to Frank.
“Being from the private industry, I remember her statement to me very vividly, ‘Russell, I can’t do anything about it, that’s just the way it is in local government,’” Bearden said. “I was shocked at her statement and remembered thinking that I had made the wrong decision about coming to work at Anderson County.”
Bearden resigned in October and went back to work in the private sector.
He said was not able to follow up with (name redacted), so the investigation was closed.
“There have been rumors around the Courthouse over the last two years, but I could not take action since no one with firsthand knowledge has approached me until (name redacted) in August of 2017,” Bearden said in September.
In its answer to the federal lawsuit filed by Harness, Anderson County denied Bearden’s claim that Frank told the former HR director that she couldn’t do anything about the allegations of sexual harassment because “that’s just the way it is in local government.”
“The allegations…are denied,” the county’s response said.
The response included a denial of the claim that the mayor was “on notice of Jones’ offensive conduct toward female employees” since May 2015.
In an email in April, Frank said the county strongly denies the allegations in the parts of the lawsuit that mention her.
“I look forward to a hearing where the facts can be verified,” Frank said.
She said, based on documents she has requested, that Bearden “did not produce for the media, commissioners, or the public at large his own written summary and findings of fact for the 2015 incident in which Bearden could not verify the allegations or get in touch with the alleged complainant.
“Regardless of his summary, I was notified in writing by the HR director that Mr. Jones would be participating in training. I’m no attorney, but leaving out this vital case document and other emails paints a false picture of my response as mayor, and I did notify the district attorney general on March 2, 2018, to make him aware of what I believed were the falsification of reports, including misrepresenting factual information and omitting information.”
Notably absent from the Harness allegations, Frank said, is that both Yeager, the law director, and former HR Advisory Chairman Rodney Archer, who no longer works for Anderson County, were notified in writing by Bearden and asked for guidance regarding the 2015 allegation.
“In addition, statements from the husband himself note that he ‘didn’t mention flirting’ in his conversation with my office—a statement at complete odds with the allegations in the lawsuit,” Frank said.
She said she looks forward to the legal process, where more documented evidence will be presented.
“I want to reiterate my strong stand against sexual harassment and my ongoing concern for why it took over six months to appropriately investigate and act upon this particular allegation,” Frank said. “In the case of any complaint, we have a duty to promptly address all concerns by victims, and they deserve promptness, and we have a duty to faithfully allow for due process. While I am not the supervisor of the HR office, if any employee ever comes to me with a concern, I maintain a strong commitment to action.”
On Friday, Yeager said he can’t say much about “this unfortunate case” since litigation is pending, but he said the mayor is speaking about two different issues.
“I was notified by HR about the recommendation for counseling due to alleged improper interview questions, but not the incident alleged in the lawsuit where the husband of one of the ladies involved spoke to the mayor about his wife’s concerns about Mr. Jones’ conduct and text messaging,” Yeager said. “Mr. Bearden, the HR director, has said he wasn’t notified by the mayor either.”
“Two different incidents and two different ladies involving allegations of much different conduct,” Yeager said. One involved sworn written statements from a plaintiff and the other involved improper interview questions given to someone who did not give a sworn statement but did send an email to human resources describing interview questions, Yeager said.
Yeager has addressed the claim raised by Jones in February that there is a political motivation behind the allegations filed against the circuit court clerk.
“It’s not political from my office,” Yeager said. “I don’t act on political motivations. Never have, never will.”
Bearden declined to comment when contacted Monday.
A scheduling conference for the federal lawsuit filed by Harness has been set for Thursday, June 21, before U.S. District Judge Curtis L. Collier in Chattanooga. The purpose is to discuss the possibility of a settlement and to set a schedule for the “expeditious management of the case.”
Defamation suit filed in state court
Meanwhile, Jones has filed a defamation lawsuit against Heather Miller of Oneida that asks for at least $1 million. That civil complaint was filed March 7 in Anderson County Circuit Court in Clinton.
Represented by Clinton attorney David Stuart, Jones alleged that Miller voluntarily provided a sworn statement to Bearden and Jeffers-Whitaker on September 14, and she made false, untrue, and defamatory statements.
The statements, which invaded Jones’ privacy and placed him in a false light, were the result of a conspiracy by Miller and “certain co-conspirators,” the four-page lawsuit said.
“Specifically, she (Miller) falsely asserted that plaintiff (Jones) had approached her in March 2016 at the ribbon-cutting for the opening of the Coal Creek Museum in Rocky Top, Anderson County, Tennessee, and said, ‘Well, I have a silkie hen in my—under my office desk that you could see,’ and ‘Well, do you want to see it?” the lawsuit alleged.
“Defendant (Miller) knew that her statement would be publicly disseminated by print, broadcast, word of mouth, and other means, and the same has in fact been so disseminated from and after the date it was provided,” the lawsuit said.
Miller has repeated the false assertion to other people, both before and after her sworn statement, the lawsuit said.
The false, untrue, and defamatory statements were repeated in newspapers, television broadcasts, and/or other writing or broadcasts, the suit said. They exposed and continue to expose Jones to “wrath, public hatred, contempt, or ridicule,” and deprive him of “the benefits of public confidence and/or social interaction,” the complaint said.
Some of the co-conspirators are known, and some are not, according to the lawsuit. None are named in the complaint.
It said Jones has been falsely and unlawfully accused of sexual harassment with the purpose of damaging or destroying his reputation and inflicting political damage that would diminish or destroy his changes of being re-elected.
The lawsuit seeks $1 million in compensatory damages and a similar amount for punitive or exemplary damages.
Miller has not yet filed an answer to the lawsuit.
Jones is past chair of the Anderson County Republican Party, and he is facing former Anderson County Mayor Rex Lynch in the Republican Party primary election on Tuesday, May 1.
In an April 3 forum for GOP candidates, Jones said he doesn’t have a hostile work environment, and the employees in his office now are very comfortable working with him.
He suggested desperate people are after him.
“Desperate people will do anything,” Jones said. “False accusations have become the trend.”
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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