A former campaign staffer took over former Chattanooga mayoral candidate Monty Bruell's campaign social media account, using it to accuse Bruell of stiffing her and other staffers for work done during his 2021 campaign.
Alix Thornhill, 23, a student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, worked as Bruell's communications director from September 2020 until his campaign ended after the March 2 mayoral general election. In that time, she said, she went from small assignments to working full time, doing everything from social media and news releases to coordinating lists of donors, volunteers and endorsements for the candidate for anywhere from two to 12 hours a day.
According to Thornhill, Bruell in October "agreed to a rate of $25 an hour, and he said 'keep timetables of your work, and submit them to me when the campaign is over.'"
Thornhill, who now works for Nathaniel Doss's congressional campaign and serves as vice president of the Tennesee College Democrats, said that she didn't receive a penny for the work.
"Like I almost had a mental breakdown at one point on the campaign because I had not done laundry in like three or four months, and I had no time because they were — everybody was asking me to do things," she said.
In January, Thornhill said, she found some reprieve when Bruell gave her a one-time payment in an envelope with $500.
"He said that verbatim, 'This is a drop in the bucket of what I owe you,'" she said. "So I took that as a good sign that he was going to pay me."
Bruell told the Times Free Press that he did pay Thornhill the $500 in January, which was not reported in any of his subsequent campaign financial disclosures.
"I paid her without any discussion, out of the goodness of my heart and recognition of her work," Bruell said of the one-time cash payment.
Asked if that meant he was paying campaign staffers out of personal funds, Bruell later said in a text message that it wasn't a payment.
"It was a personal gift and acknowledgment of her effort and dedication," he said.
No other staffers received any such gift, according to Bruell.
"That $500 gift goes under the heading 'No good deed goes unpunished,'" he added.
Thornhill took over Bruell's campaign account on Facebook last week, using administrative access that she still had.
Thornhill said she removed him and others as admins so they could not take control of the account, then she deleted her "intellectual property," including all of the posts shared during the election, and then began to criticize Bruell on the account.
She changed the page's cover photo to read "Monty Bruell proudly steals from college students" and wrote "professional wage thief" in the page's information section.
"The more I hear about Monty Bruell, the less I respect him," Thornhill said of the takeover. "I had heard more about him possibly not paying someone else. And it just made me mad."
Bruell said Monday he was shocked by the complaints from Thornhill, who he had considered a friend before the social media takeover.
But Thornhill wasn't the only staffer who Bruell allegedly shorted.
The Times Free Press reviewed a contract for another worker that called for $10,500 in payments over the course of the campaign. She said she was terminated a month early by Bruell, and her contract and campaign financial disclosures indicate she may have been shorted as much as $3,000.
Asked about the claim, Bruell acknowledged Monday that he ended the staffer's contract a month early after the employee said she was "unhappy" working for him. According to Bruell he decided "unilaterally" to end her contract a month early, shorting her approximately $1,500 in work.
According to the contract, the agreement "may be terminated upon mutual agreement or by either party upon written 30 days notice."
Thornhill and Bruell met in May to discuss pay, at which point Bruell told her that he did not have the money to pay her. During that meeting, she said, he tried to offer her a job at the city, where he believed he would soon be hired.
Bruell said Monday he was offering to "put in a good word" for her, like he would any friend.
A spokesperson for the administration of Mayor Tim Kelly said Monday that Bruell is not being considered for any position with the city, adding that officials are "grateful" to Bruell for his work on the transition team, but "there is currently no plan for him to serve in any paid capacity."
Jeremy Grabiner, the deputy campaign manager for Bruell, said he worked with the understanding that it would be volunteer work unless the campaign raised more than enough money to cover other expenses.
"He offered me to come on as deputy campaign manager, and I said, 'Well, can you afford to pay me?' and Monty said at that point he couldn't afford to pay me and other staff," Grabiner said, noting that the relatively low-funded campaign had to pay for ads and other campaign expenses before any staff could be paid.
Grabiner said Bruell routinely bought meals for staff and expressed his appreciation for their work, but that they all knew it was voluntary.
"It seemed to me at the time that we were all in agreement that what was most important was the goal to win the campaign," Grabiner said. "I don't think that Monty would ever, ever, ever swindle anybody or not do good by someone."
Another former staff member, outreach director Kelsey McBride, reached out to the Times Free Press on Monday after speaking to Bruell. She corroborated Grabiner's claims. McBride said she served strictly voluntarily and that, to her knowledge, the rest of the staff did too.
Regarding the Facebook cover photo, Bruell said he was considering legal action over Thornhill's actions.
"My page has been hacked. I am exploring legal remedies," he wrote in a comment on the post.
But Monday he said that while he has looked into his legal options he hasn't taken any action because "that's the nuclear option."
Thornhill said the alleged actions of Bruell — who advocated for higher wages and other pro-labor policies during his campaign — shows he intended to take advantage of young and or female staffers, and that any denial of that is hypocrisy in the Democratic party.
"I feel like people, they want to be a Democrat who calls out the bad, but only when it comes to Republicans. When it comes to actual Democrats — because obviously it's not like you become a Republican suddenly you're an evil person or you're a Democrat and you're a great person, right — evil is on both sides because humanity is a spectrum," Thornhill said. "It's all relative to your intentions, and he absolutely had bad intentions. But some people just can't see that in the Democratic Party."
Bruell said he treated all of his staff equally, citing Grabiner, and denied that there was any sexist or ageist intent.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.