published Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Murray County investigates harassment claim

CHATSWORTH, Ga. — Murray County Manager and Interim County Commissioner Tom Starnes has hired an independent investigator to look into allegations made by a county employee that she was sexually harassed by former County Commissioner David Ridley.

In a news release sent out Tuesday, Starnes denied any “direct knowledge” of the harassment before the employee hired an attorney to represent her. In her lawsuit, the employee claims that Starnes knew Ridley was sexually harassing her and did nothing to stop it.

Starnes refused to say how much the county is paying the investigator.

The woman, who has been a county employee for 29 years, filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint in March and, after receiving a right to sue from the commission in May, filed a federal lawsuit against the county and Ridley.

Both the complaint and the lawsuit allege Ridley sexually harassed the woman over the course of a year. Ridley resigned soon after the EEOC complaint was filed.

Starnes, who has declined to talk about the complaint or the lawsuit because of the ongoing litigation, issued the news release to address several allegations made in the lawsuit, including that he knew about the alleged sexual harassment.

“We believe it is important for all citizens to recognize that [the employee’s] allegations exclusively concern her interaction with former Commissioner David Ridley,” Starnes wrote in the news release. “I had no such direct knowledge that [the employee] was contending that she was subject to any inappropriate interaction with Mr. Ridley. [The employee] never complained to me about inappropriate interactions, and any allegation that she did is incorrect.”

Starnes said he has hired Chuck Bachman, an employment law attorney, to investigate the woman’s allegations. Ridley has said he will cooperate with Bachman’s investigation, Starnes said, but the woman and her attorneys have refused to meet with the investigator.

Starnes served as county manager under Ridley and assumed the position of interim sole commissioner after Ridley’s resignation. He is vying to become full-time sole commissioner in the June 21 election.

Starnes did not respond to an email and phone message requesting information about how much the county is paying Bachman. After the monthly county commissioner’s meeting Tuesday evening, he declined to answer the question.

Starnes said the Chattanooga Times Free Press could file a public information request for the information.

Hiring an investigator “was the best way to get to the bottom of the situation without having to wait literally years for this matter to work its way through the courts,” Starnes said in the release.

According to Starnes, Ridley’s resignation came after the woman’s attorneys said they would publicize her allegations if she was not paid $1.3 million.

One of the woman’s attorneys, Stuart James, said they discussed a settlement with the county attorney before filing the complaint. James declined to say how much money they requested. The lawsuit ask for “damages” but does not ask for a specific sum.

Starnes also noted in the news release that the woman is still employed by the county and will continue in her job.

“Finally, I want to emphasize that the county respects [the employee’s] right to assert allegations made in good faith and to pursue her legal rights,” Starnes said.

The public will be informed of the outcome of the investigation after it is complete, Starnes said. He said Tuesday evening he did not know how long that would be.

The investigation and lawsuit were not discussed at a political rally Tuesday, which was attended by six of the 14 other candidates for Ridley’s job. Early voting for the June 21 election began on May 31 and will continue through June 17.

Interim County Clerk Tommy Parker said about 200 people have voted in the first week of early voting.

Contact staff writer Mariann Martin at mmartin@timesfreepress.com or 706-980-5824.

about Mariann Martin...

Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...

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