Chattanooga's new city treasurer is named in three federal lawsuits from former police officers in Wyoming, accused of hacking a police chief's emails, sharing classified information about an investigation into city employees and firing the officers out of retaliation.
The lawsuits were filed against Kate Farmer, who was appointed to serve as Chattanooga's treasurer in late March and approved by the City Council on Tuesday.
Farmer previously served as clerk and treasurer of Guernsey, Wyoming. According to the lawsuits, Farmer failed to make funds available to the police department there to pay two additional hired officers in 2019, which began a disagreement between Farmer and former police Chief Terri Van Dam.
The former chief alleges that Farmer later illegally hacked her email and disseminated confidential information in an attempt to usurp an investigation into corruption and drug use among other city employees. The information had been turned over to state and federal law enforcement using Van Dam's city email, according to the complaints filed by Van Dam and the other two officers.
The lawsuits, all filed in April, are still underway in federal court in Wyoming, raising concern among some Chattanooga City Council members who were unaware of Farmer's legal battles when they voted unanimously to approve her appointment Tuesday.
Farmer did not respond to attempts to contact her by phone on Wednesday afternoon.
"I can only speak for myself, obviously. But I received no information or warnings or any issues of concern that would have caused me to rethink or make a different decision," Councilman Darrin Ledford said Wednesday, noting that the council is not involved in the appointment process for charter positions such as the treasurer.
"I was shocked to learn of the lawsuits after the vote, No. 1," Ledford said. "No. 2, I was very shocked that we would have that candidate presented to us with, with that kind of legal weight and possible adverse effects to our city."
According to Maura Sullivan, chief operations officer for Chattanooga, the mayor's office was unaware of the lawsuits when appointing Farmer, who was hired on March 27 to start on April 30.
"The city of Chattanooga first learned of these lawsuits" on Wednesday, Sullivan said by email. "A news article from a Wyoming news outlet regarding one of the lawsuits was shared with me.
"These case filings weren't filed with the federal court of Wyoming until after her background check and official offer. Additionally of note, Ms. Farmer received the initial service on the first case as she was leaving the city of Guernsey, so she turned all of those documents over to the city attorney of Guernsey. Since that time, she has been moving and relocating to Chattanooga and not been involved in the case that the city of Guernsey is preparing."
Ledford and Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod both said they would consider rescinding their votes to approve Farmer given the new information.
Coonrod also noted that Farmer's hiring came in the middle of a hiring freeze, which went into effect under Berke's March 13 state of emergency declaration, and that muddies the water further.
"I just want to know what this is going to mean now that we're learning this, after she's been hired in a freeze," Coonrod told the Times Free Press. "Are we going to be able to fund this position? You know, city treasury is an important appointed position, and a charter position, but what happens now, in a hiring freeze, with this position if she's not in it?"
Records obtained by the Times Free Press show that Farmer, who first interviewed for the Chattanooga position in February, was hired two weeks after the hiring freeze from a pool of dozens of candidates, with a salary of $80,000.
Sullivan told the Times Free Press that Farmer has begun training but that interim treasurer Tanikia Jackson was still serving prior to council approval.
Van Dam confirmed the allegations against Farmer, other officials and the city of Guernsey to the Times Free Press via email on Wednesday but declined to comment further on pending litigation.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at email@example.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.