In response to racial discrimination suit, Georgia agency claims employee created hostile work environment

Claims come in response to lawsuit filed against Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council

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photo Jay Neal

After a former director filed a claim of racial discrimination, leaders at Georgia's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council said Nicole Jenkins did not work well with important outside agencies and let contracts run hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget. They also said her subordinates "displayed similar traits and responses as the victims of domestic violence."

Jenkins, a 10-year employee of the council who headed the victim compensation division, filed the discrimination lawsuit in U.S. District Court on April 30. The only black woman among the agency's four division directors at the time, she said she received positive feedback at work until Jay Neal became executive director in July 2016. Neal is a former state representative from LaFayette.

"She would make you feel small, make you feel extreme anxiety, or verbally dress you down like a drill instructor in the military," a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council human resources employee wrote in a statement to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in January 2018, parroting a complaint the department supposedly received about Jenkins from a contractor.

Jenkins' attorney, Adian Miller, said council leadership took complaints about her out of context. In response to a Times Free Press request for any records of discipline, the council provided one letter from May 2017, when she was suspended without pay. Neal fired her about two weeks later.

"Ms. Jenkins regularly received promotions and raises, and had absolutely no issues recorded with her performance until the date that Jay Neal, a Caucasian male, assumed control as her supervisor in July 2016," Miller wrote to the EEOC. "The [council] would have the EEOC believe that Ms. Jenkins was a poorly performing employee, but the facts of Ms. Jenkins' long and positive history at the [council] directly contradicts such a self-serving assertion."

When he took the role, Neal reviewed each department and interviewed employees. He said several workers complained about Jenkins' management and that her department was marked with low morale, high employee turnover and bullying by Jenkins.

Employees allegedly said Jenkins was particularly harsh during periods of "the push," when they needed to file as many victim compensation claims as possible in the second half of the year.

"One team member left her family in Florida during Spring Break and flew back in order to come back to work," the council representative wrote to the EEOC. "Another staff member went as far as to say that they 'just knew not to ask for time off during that period.'"

When found guilty, some criminal defendants have to pay court fees, which includes money that goes to a victim compensation fund. The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council is responsible for disbursing that money to applicants.

photo Nicole Jenkins / Photo contributed by the Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council

Miller said Neal and Deputy Director Steven Hatfield did not give Jenkins "sufficient information" to respond to complaints. (Neal said Jenkins demanded to know the names of employees who were unhappy with her, which Neal declined to provide.)

Miller said "the push" periods were not her clients' fault. She blamed the issue on the council's apparently woeful technology. The phones and software to handle victim's claims stopped working for hours at a time, she said.

"The push was never a business model," Miller wrote to the EEOC. "It was a business necessity created out of a lack of IT support."

The council also defended its diversity. In 2016, only five of 17 division directors or program managers were white, the agency's human resources employee wrote. When they added 11 supervisors in two divisions in March 2017, according to the council, eight of the employees were black. Eight of the employees also were women. The agency replaced Jenkins with another black woman in October 2017. (In her response, Miller wrote that the council did this only after Jenkins filed an initial notice of discrimination.)

Employees from some Criminal Justice Coordinating Council partners also complained about Jenkins, according to the agency. For example, the council signed a contract for a company to create a new program that would process victims' claims. The partnership was supposed to last 10 months and cost $950,000.

By the time Neal took office, according to the council, the program was about seven months past deadline and $550,000 over budget. The agency said employees of the contractors complained that Jenkins was difficult to work with, failing to properly communicate what the agency needed and intimidating the staff. In response, Jenkins wrote that her bosses encouraged her approach, saying the program was expensive and she needed to "hold [the company's] feet to the fire."

In his May 2017 memo to Jenkins, Neal wrote that she alienated employees of important partners, such as sexual assault centers. While suspending her with pay, he also told her to create a plan to mend fences. He said the process should take three to six months. He then fired her two weeks later.

At the same time he wrote the memo, according to the council's human resources employee, Neal met with Jenkins. She allegedly "refused to acknowledge her culpability." In response, Miller said Neal did not show any documented steps of giving her a chance to improve before firing her.

In her last three years on the job, Jenkins received two raises. In May 2015, Hatfield lobbied for a 5% raise, citing "the knowledge and expertise that Ms. Jenkins has shown in her position along with taking on more responsibility. ... along with an exemplary record at the agency."

In March 2017, two months before he fired her, Neal requested an 8% raise for Jenkins, bringing her salary up to $100,000. He cited the growth of the council, which has increased from 39 employees in fiscal year 2011 to 112 now.

Contact Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.