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In this 2016 staff file photo, Kerry Steelman, Hamilton County Administrator of Elections, speaks about preparations the Election Commission made in preparation for an expected large early voter turnout. / Staff file photo

The termination of former Hamilton County Election Administrator Kerry Steelman and subsequent uproar in the county's election office ahead of the November election stem from a 10-page human resources investigation.

An August report by the county's human resources department — which represents all of Steelman's now former subordinates but not him as administrator — uses employee interviews to present a series of allegations against Steelman. Those allegations combined created a "poor state of affairs" in the election commission office, the report states.

A rebuttal by Steelman and his attorney, however, details what it describes as a "prejudicial" and "flawed" investigation and report that ultimately led to his termination.

In the report, Steelman is accused of six violations including creating a hostile work environment, treating women and minority employees disparately, retaliating against employees and creating unwanted physical contact with an employee.

Through 23 specific instances, employees accuse Steelman of ripping an employee's protective mask off, making disparaging remarks about female lawmakers, favoring Republican employees and candidates and other hostile behaviors.

"Given the findings detailed in this report, it is the opinion of Human Resources that Mr. Steelman is unfit to serve in this capacity and should be removed from his position immediately," states the report, given to the election commission before Steelman's recent voluntary leave of absence.

"If action to remove Mr. Steelman is not taken, it is a great possibility that several of the employees will leave during this critical period which will jeopardize the voting process for all Hamilton County residents."

But Steelman's attorney, Harry Burnette, says the county not only failed to address with Steelman each of the specific allegations but also denied him the opportunity to provide evidence in his defense.

"The human resources report impugns Mr. Steelman's character, in writing, based on an incomplete, and possibly biased, investigation," Burnette wrote in the rebuttal submitted this week, which implores the county to rescind the report, and asks the election commission to seek an independent review of accusations made in it.

"If made public, the erroneous report could negatively impact [Steelman's] ability to obtain future employment," Burnette wrote.

While on administrative leave, Steelman was terminated by the election commission Wednesday in a 4-1 vote, apparently before commissioners read the rebuttal.

"It was really sudden and he wasn't given a fair shot to give his side," Burnette said Wednesday, echoing concerns by dissenting election commissioner Jerry Summers. "They didn't even read the report before terminating his employment, though he was on a voluntary leave to avoid any kind of distraction from the impending election."

Election Commission Chairman Mike Walden has not responded to repeated requests for comment over the last two weeks.

County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who does not oversee the election commission but is the chief officer over the county general government, including the human resources department, said Thursday he had not yet read the initial report or Steelman's rebuttal.

An attempt to reach the human resources department for comment on Thursday was unsuccessful.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at 423-757-6416 or staylor@timesfreepress.com or on Twitter @_SarahGTaylor.

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