published Saturday, August 30th, 2014

Whistle-blower files lawsuit against Graysville

Recorder says she was improperly fired, seeks damages

Graysville City Recorder Michelle Horton works at her desk in this file photo.
Graysville City Recorder Michelle Horton works at her desk in this file photo.

A former Graysville, Tenn., employee says city officials fired her for tattling on their chief, who allegedly broke the law.

In August 2013, City Recorder Michelle Horton told District Attorney Mike Taylor that Police Chief Erik Redden illegally seized $4,000 from a citizen during a drug-related arrest. She said he denied taking the money, blamed his detective, borrowed another $4,000 from a friend, gave it to city officials and lied to them about where he got it.

Taylor turned the information over to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. In June, a Rhea County grand jury indicted Redden on 10 counts of official misconduct.

But before that could happen, on May 13, the Graysville City Commission fired Horton. Now Horton has sued Graysville, asking a U.S. District Court judge to make city officials put her back to work and pay her for the time she has been unemployed.

Horton's attorney, Donna Mikel, filed the lawsuit Aug. 14. She said City Commissioners Andy Beene and Michael May and Vice Mayor Denesa Reel violated Tennessee's whistle-blower statute when they voted to terminate Horton.

"She turned [Redden] in for unlawful behavior," Mikel said. "You can't retaliate against someone for doing that."

If Horton wins the lawsuit, Mikel said it's unclear how much money a jury should award her. The value of back pay depends on how long she remains out of work, which could depend on how long the court proceedings last.

Beene, May and Redden did not return calls seeking comment Friday, and Reel could not be reached.

Mayor Ted Doss, who voted against firing Horton, said the lawsuit comes at a tumultuous time for the city.

After Horton reported Redden to Taylor in August 2013, the city suspended the chief. A month later, officials voted to hire him again. In July of this year they voted to fire him, but weeks later, they brought him back.

Meanwhile, City Attorney Carol Ann Barron left her job in early August. Doss said the city hasn't hired a replacement. He doesn't know how the city will respond to Horton's lawsuit.

"We were forewarned by our attorney," he said. "Certain things that you do, you're not under the umbrella anymore. You could be sued individually. [Beene, May and Reel] ignored that."

According to the lawsuit, the root of Horton's firing dates to August 2013, when a woman complained to the Rhea County Sheriff's Office that a member of the Graysville Police Department stole $4,000 from her during an arrest.

Under civil forfeiture laws, police officers can seize money or property that are the result of illegal activity. But in this case, the woman proved that the money came from an inheritance, not crime.

When Horton asked Redden about this, according to the lawsuit, the chief said his department did not take any money. He gave Horton some paperwork that showed the police legally seized a vehicle, but no cash.

Later, Redden changed his story. He told Horton that the problem was Detective Shawn Shelton's fault, that Shelton illegally took the money. Either that, Redden said, or Shelton screwed up the paperwork.

Horton decided to suspend Shelton. But when she called him into her office, Shelton handed her an audiotape.

The lawsuit says that on the tape, Redden asked Shelton to come with him to visit a man who promised to lend him $4,000. He said he needed the money because somebody lost cash previously confiscated from a resident.

When he got the money, according to the lawsuit, Redden told city officials he found the missing confiscated cash behind a cabinet in his office.

That's when Horton alerted the district attorney and suspended the chief.

But, according to the lawsuit, Reel and May "flipped in favor" of Redden. The lawsuit alleges that Reel supported the chief because her cousin's DUI arrest disappeared from city records, though the lawsuit does not provide any evidence of that.

The lawsuit also alleges that Beene supported Redden because he is the chief's landlord.

The commission voted in September 2013 to reinstate Redden. Court Clerk Michele Yearwood objected, arguing that a man under criminal investigation for activities within the city should not have access to city records.

"When the stuff comes out, people are going to be asking why you paid him, why you're letting him come back to be around evidence," Yearwood said. "It's not just one person that doesn't want to work with him. It's the whole darn city, because we know what he is up to."

A month later, Beene proposed that the city create an internal affairs committee so the TBI and the district attorney could not poke around in city affairs.

"We can take care of it ourselves," he said.

For months, members of the commission discussed firing Horton.

"I don't know how she worked through all that stress, knowing any day they could fire you," said Doss, the mayor.

Finally, in May, the commission voted 3-2 to fire Horton. Doss and Commissioner Charles Kaylor opposed the decision, and Kaylor warned the others: Their vote could lead to a lawsuit.

"There is a whistle-blower law," he said. "You need to be careful."

In a separation notice filed with the Tennessee Department of Labor, Doss wrote that the city fired Horton because commissioners "did not appreciate her turning the chief of police in for his criminal activity."

The grand jury indicted Redden and the commission voted a month later to fire him. A couple weeks later, they voted to reinstate him.

Doss said he can't explain what is happening.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.

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