SOCIAL CIRCLE -- The former director of public safety for the city of Social Circle has filed a lawsuit against the city under the Georgia Whistleblower Protection Act.
Tom Fox, who served as the director of public safety for Social Circle from February 2010 until September 2012, is alleging that he was fired after he reported to city officials that some Social Circle firefighters were falsifying training records and submitting fraudulent time records. As public safety director, Fox was in charge of the police and fire departments.
"The city retaliated against Fox because he disclosed in good faith violations of a law, rule or regulation and refused to overlook or participate in such violations," the lawsuit states. Fox could not be reached for comment.
City Attorney Joe Reitman responded, "I've carefully reviewed this lawsuit and there are a number of false allegations therein. There was not retaliation whatsoever by the city. The city will file an answer within the next 30 days strongly denying the allegations of the lawsuit and we're confident that we will get a favorable ruling on this when it comes to court."
According to the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Walton County Superior Court, "Fox discovered that certain Social Circle firefighters were falsely, and unlawfully, attesting to the Georgia Firefighter Standards and Training Council that they had attended certain firefighter training sessions," in order to satisfy minimum training requirements. A firefighter is required to complete at least 24 hours of training per year in order to retain state firefighter certification and cannot earn creditable service under the Georgia State Firefighters Pension Fund without remaining certified.
"Thus, the firefighters' falsification of training records constitutes waste, fraud and abuse in connection with a state program," the lawsuit states.
Reitman said Fox's claim that city officials ignored or attempted to cover up the allegations is "completely false and utter nonsense."
The city launched its own investigation in November 2011, said Mayor Hal Dally, but added that he could not comment further. Reitman said that investigation is now in the hands of other authorities.
Although the lawsuit states that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation "has corroborated the wrongdoing that Mr. Fox uncovered and disclosed," Jesse Maddox, assistant special agent in charge of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Athens Regional Office, said the investigation is still ongoing.
"The GBI Athens Office has an open investigation concerning the former Social Circle Department of Public Safety. With that being said, no conclusion has been reached to this point," Maddox said. "We anticipate a review of the facts of this case with the (District Attorney) in the very near future."
Dally said he was not comfortable speaking about specific personnel issues when asked if any firefighters have been disciplined or terminated due to the allegations.
The lawsuit states that Fox first raised concerns to former Mayor James Burgess Jr. and City Manager Doug White on Sept. 20, 2011, and Sept. 23, 2011.
"The city failed and refused to investigate Fox's complaints of fraud, waste, and abuse regarding the falsified training records. In fact, city employees deleted certain electronic files that were relevant to Fox's complaints," the lawsuit states.
Burgess declined to comment for this story.
Three days after Fox reported the issue to White, he claims he was subjected to an unscheduled performance appraisal that was "uncharacteristically negative." A prior appraisal, in December 2010, indicated Fox had "exceeded expectations."
During the meeting with White, Fox claims he was given a six-page memo detailing his alleged performance deficiencies. Fox claims this was the first notice he had received about any of the alleged deficiencies and that they were "completely without merit," according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also states that White threatened Fox with termination if he would not accept an amendment to his employment contract making it terminable at the city's convenience, with no notice to Fox.
"Fox reluctantly accepted the modification because he needed to keep his job in order to support his family," according to the lawsuit.
Fox took his complaints all the way to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, also reporting to the GBI that certain firefighters were submitting fraudulent time records to the city and receiving compensation to which they weren't entitled.
In February 2012, Fox claims he met with Dally and an investigator with the Georgia State Firefighters Pension Fund, during which time the mayor learned that Fox had a scheduled meeting with GBI investigators on Feb. 16 at City Hall.
On Feb. 15, after learning that Fox had scheduled a meeting with the GBI, "City Manager White expressed concern that Fox would 'throw him under the bus' in the GBI meeting," according to the lawsuit. "To prevent Fox from attending the meeting -- which was to be held at Social Circle City Hall -- White placed Fox on administrative leave, took possession of his city issued laptop, phone, vehicle, gun and keys and told him not to set foot on city property until further notice. White's stated reason for placing Fox on leave was because of complaints made about Fox by former Social Circle employees, but White refused to divulge to Fox the nature of those complaints."
White declined to comment on specific allegations in the lawsuit.
"The only thing I'd say at this point is I think when all is said and done we're going to be in good shape," he said.
The lawsuit also alleges that on Feb. 19, Reitman asked Fox to meet him and Dally on a Sunday in a parking lot off I-20 several miles outside city limits. "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, Mayor Dally told Fox to return to work on Monday and to report to Dally and Reitman instead of White."
In May 2012, city officials began discussing breaking up the Department of Public Safety into two divisions -- fire and police -- and eliminating the director's position. That occurred in July. According to Dally, Fox was given the opportunity to apply for the position of police chief, and did, but was not selected. Instead, the city hired former GBI Special Agent Terry Sosebee. On or about Sept. 10, Fox was notified he would be terminated effective Sept. 15.
Dally said the City Council decided during a planing retreat to restructure the public safety department and split it into two separate divisions because the department was not functioning as it was designed to do and denied that the restructuring was related to retaliation against Fox.
Fox is also the former city manager for the city of Porterdale and a former member of the Rockdale County Water and Sewerage Authority.
The Georgia Whistleblower Act was enacted in 1993 to protect public employees who disclose an alleged violation of or non-compliance with any federal, state or local law, rule or regulation related to the possible existence of any activity constituting fraud, waste and abuse relating to any state programs or operations, according to the Office of the Inspector General's website. Any public employee who reports a potential violation is to be free from discipline or reprisal from his employer, unless the disclosure was made with false and reckless disregard.