Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke says that the city did vet recently appointed treasurer Kate Farmer, who has been placed on administrative leave after three federal lawsuits against her from her previous job surfaced, and that the city has enlisted outside counsel to investigate the accusations against her.
At a news conference Friday, Berke told reporters that Farmer had been scrutinized by a third party background checking service, RecordPros, days before the lawsuits were filed and the city was unaware of the lawsuits prior to her hiring in late March and confirmation by the City Council on Tuesday night.
Farmer, 37, was placed on paid administrative leave on Thursday after a report from the Times Free Press disclosed the lawsuits filed by former police officers in Guernsey Wyoming, where Farmer previously served as clerk and treasurer.
The lawsuits filed in April, less than a week after Chattanooga apparently received Farmer's background check, allege that Farmer illegally hacked the town police chief's 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 the chief's city email, according to the complaints filed by the chief and the other two officers. All three officers were later fired by Farmer and other city officials, according to the lawsuits.
The severity of the accusations stunned some citizens and council members, as did the fact that they did not come out during the hiring process. But Berke, who practiced law before serving in government and has been named in several lawsuits as a public official, says that the city has no plans to revoke the position from Farmer until the claims are vetted.
"The reason that she is on administrative leave is so that we can do an investigation and find out whether she did commit any of those acts, any acts of misconduct, and if so, we will take appropriate action," Berke said. "Understand that lawsuits are allegations. The city is regularly sued for all kinds of things. The main question that I want to find out is, did she commit any acts of misconduct. That should be our guiding principle. And that's what we've asked for an investigation to look into."
The mayor's office has enlisted Sam Elliott with Gearhiser, Peters, Elliott & Cannon, outside counsel commonly used by the city, to conduct the investigation.
In the meantime, several council members have suggested recalling their unanimous confirmation of Farmer in light of the accusations, which Chief Operations Officer Maura Sullivan says would disqualify Farmer from the position.
"Charter officials are required to be appointed under Section 8.33 of the charter by the mayor, with the approval of a majority vote of the council," Sullivan said by email to the Times Free Press. "Ms. Farmer would be required to vacate the position as city treasurer in the event that she does not have the approval of a majority of the city council or if she is discharged by the mayor pursuant to Section 8.33."
Sullivan says that while that would not disqualify Farmer from other city positions, hiring is limited due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
"To be clear, Ms. Farmer has not been found in violation of any law or misconduct. The lawsuit she is named in has not been resolved," Sullivan said. "She would be welcome, like anyone else, to apply for any jobs we have open. However, we are in a hiring freeze, so very few jobs are open now."
Sullivan said that while the city received 60 applications for Farmer's position, she was the most qualified based on her tenure in Wyoming.
After apparently learning of the accusations against Farmer just Wednesday morning when one of several Wyoming news articles about the incident was shared with her, Sullivan says no one in the city does Google searches about candidates before they are hired.
"The city considers the merit of the vendor's background and reference checks and the strength of the interview for hiring decisions," she wrote.
When asked, Sullivan said Farmer has "no connections in Chattanooga or to the city of Chattanooga government."
Phone messages left with Farmer and her attorney in Wyoming have not been returned.
Farmer's salary is $80,000, and she is being paid while on leave. According to her application, provided by Chattanooga officials, she was paid around $57,000 per year in Wyoming. She served there for five years, and previously sat on local fair and tourism boards in Guernsey, according to her resume.
Farmer graduated from the University of Wyoming with a degree in business administration and said on her application that she is seeking a master's in public administration from Ohio University.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.