This story was updated at 4:52 p.m. on Thursday, May 7, 2020, with more information.
Chattanooga City Treasurer Kate Farmer was placed on administrative leave Thursday, less than two days into the job, amid concerns about three ongoing federal lawsuits against her that were not disclosed during the hiring process.
The Times Free Press reported this week that Farmer, who was approved by the Chattanooga City Council to fill the role late Tuesday, is a defendant in three lawsuits filed by former police officers in her previous town of Guernsey, Wyoming.
Chattanooga officials, who say they were previously unaware of the lawsuits, have now placed Farmer on administrative leave. A spokeswoman for the mayor's office said late Thursday that Farmer, 37, who makes $80,000 annually, will still be paid during her leave.
"The city of Chattanooga has placed Kate Farmer on administrative leave until further notice and will be using outside counsel to conduct an independent investigation of the three pending civil cases in the federal court of Wyoming, in which she is named," the city said in a statement.
"Any questions regarding the pending litigation in the federal court of Wyoming should be directed toward attorney John Bowers, who is serving as counsel for the town of Guernsey, Wyo., and all named parties in those three cases," Chief Operating Officer Maura Sullivan wrote in an email Thursday. "As prescribed by the Chattanooga City Code, Assistant City Treasurer Sharon Morris will cover Ms. Farmer's absence at this time. The administration will have no comment on this matter until the independent investigation is concluded."
According to the lawsuits, Farmer failed to make funds available to the Guernsey police department to pay two additional hired officers in 2019, which began a disagreement between Farmer and former police Chief Terri Van Dam.
Questions from the Times Free Press unanswered by the city:
-Did the city complete a background check on Farmer? If so, what day was it initiated and what was the process? Is it done through a third party service or in house? Which service or department performs it?
-City council members are considering recalling their vote to approve her appointment. If this happens, can she serve in this chartered position or does she have to vacate the role?
-If she has to vacate the role, will she be considered for something else in the city or be out of the job entirely?
-There were a number of other applicants including local ones for this role. What qualifications landed Farmer the treasurer position in the first place? Does she have any connections to the city?
-Did anyone in charge of hiring Farmer ever Google her?
In her complaint, Van Dam 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. All three officers were later fired by Farmer and other city officials, according to the lawsuits.
After the lawsuits were disclosed Wednesday, multiple members of the City Council told the Times Free Press that they are considering rescinding their approval of Farmer's hire.
Council Chairman Chip Henderson told the Times Free Press that he has called an attorney-client meeting with City Attorney Phil Noblett on Tuesday to assess the options of the council.
"There have been some council members ask what options there are, and we want to make sure we know," Henderson said Thursday. "But we don't approve or hire anyone, we just confirm the hire made by the mayor. This is their decision."
Sulivan declined to answer further questions about what happens if council undoes approval of a charter position appointment and other details of Farmer's hiring.
"Out of respect for the integrity of the investigation and privacy for all concerned, the administration will have no further comment on this matter at this time," she wrote.
Phone messages left with Farmer and Bowers by the Times Free Press Wednesday have not been returned.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter