SOCIAL CIRCLE -- The city of Social Circle has responded to a lawsuit filed by its former director of public safety 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, alleges in a lawsuit filed in January that he was fired after he reported to city officials that some Social Circle firefighters were falsifying training records and submitting fraudulent time records.
The city is represented by the law firm of Elarbee, Thompson, Sapp and Wilson LLP of Atlanta. In a response filed Monday, the city denies any retaliation against Fox and claims that he did not engage in protected activity under the Whistleblower Act.
According to the city's response, in approximately February 2011, two Department of Public Safety employees discovered and reported to Capt. Ron Zara and Lt. Scott Ford apparent discrepancies in one firefighter's training records. Fox did not pursue the training record issue until September 2011, after discussions began about separating the police and fire functions, according to the city's response.
Fox's lawsuit states that, "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."
However, the city's response indicates the city attorney, on behalf of the mayor and council, independently initiated an investigation into the alleged record falsification and that all files related to Fox's complaints "remain in existence and safekeeping."
Fox also alleges that the city coerced him under threat of termination to accept a modification to his employment agreement that allowed the city to terminate him without cause and without notice, placed him on suspension without justification and without informing him of the suspension, and terminated him despite the city manager's promise to retain him as chief of police. Fox also alleges that city officials attempted to threaten him by asking him to meet with them on a Sunday at an abandoned building outside city limits. The city is denying all of those allegations as "patently false."
The city's response also states that any action taken with regard to Fox's employment was for "legitimate, non-retaliatory reasons and, as such, did not violate any legal right possessed" by Fox. As public safety director, Fox was supposed to be in charge of the police and fire departments, but "he failed to effectively accomplish such, instead delegating leadership" to two lieutenants, according to the city's response.
Fox said he entered into an employment agreement in March 2011 that automatically renewed on Dec. 31 of that year and for successive one-year periods thereafter, unless either party notified the other of intent not to renew by Sept. 30.
The lawsuit 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.
The city's response states that the employment agreement entered into in March 2011 was unenforceable because it unlawfully attempted to bind future councils in violation of state law and a 2011 decision by the Georgia Supreme Court.
Fox took his complaints all the way to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, reporting to the GBI that certain firefighters were submitting fraudulent time records to the city and receiving compensation to which they weren't entitled.
Jesse Maddox, assistant special agent in charge of the Athens Regional Field Office, said that office has an open investigation but no conclusions have been reached. Maddox said a meeting with the district attorney to review the facts of the case is planned.
Fox alleges that after City Manager Doug White learned that Fox had scheduled a meeting with the GBI, he placed Fox on administrative leave.
"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."
Those allegations are denied in the city's response. "Although written complaints were made against Fox by former city employees and White advised Fox that complaints had been received, there never has been any notation in Fox's file about being placed on leave or being suspended," the response states.
City officials separated the divisions of fire and police and eliminated the director of public safety position in July 2012. According to Mayor Hal 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 claims he was notified he would be terminated effective Sept. 15. But the city's response states Fox was present at the July meeting and knew that the position would end in September.
Fox, who formerly served as Porterdale city manager and on the Rockdale County Water and Sewerage Authority, said he could not comment on the litigation but that, "It was an honor and pleasure to serve the citizens of Social Circle in the capacity of director of public safety."