published Monday, December 24th, 2012

Fired Cumberland Human Resources Agency worker files suit

A former employee of the Upper Cumberland Human Resources Agency and self-described "whistle-blower" has filed a lawsuit seeking her job, back pay and $2 million for emotional and punitive damages after her firing in June.

The plaintiff, Jana Hill, is the longtime administrative assistant to the agency's executive directors. Her lawsuit claims board member Mike Gannon and Executive Director Luke Collins entered into a "corrupt bargain" to fire her because she would not "favor his [Gannon's] friend." The lawsuit says the employee worked in a position under Hill.

The suit was filed in Putnam County Circuit Court in November.

Hill claims Gannon hired Collins on condition that he fire her. She said Gannon, who is Cannon County executive, was retaliating after Hill exposed "misappropriations of agency funds."

The lawsuit said two contract employees for Cannon County government were paid from agency funds, although their work did not benefit the agency or its clients.

But Gannon, in an answer to the lawsuit filed Monday, contends that Hill was laid off for economic reasons and that there was nothing improper about her dismissal.

Gannon denies any "relationship" with the unnamed subordinate employee beyond acquaintanceship. He maintains he doesn't have authority to hire and fire but did tell at least one board member he thought Hill was paid too much. She made $54,426.64 a year plus about $16,788 in benefits, court documents show.

Gannon's answer also contends former acting Executive Director Ruth Ann Woolbright was sent a letter detailing payments Cannon County made to the agency that covered the contract employees. He says Woolbright wrote him a letter apologizing for "any inconvenience."

The Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency serves 14 counties in the Cumberland Plateau region and is funded mostly with state and federal money. It provides services such as meals for elderly people, transportation aid, energy assistance, job training, juvenile offender programs and Head Start programs.

It's not the first time the agency has been linked to allegations of questionable activities.

Agency officials drew fire in September after a state audit detailed $2 million in lavish spending on board members' travel expenses, meals, entertainment, electronics and subsidies for a training complex and resort the agency owned.

The state Comptroller's Office audit covered the period from Jan. 1, 2010, to Dec. 31, 2011, before Collins' employment. He starting working for the agency in May of this year.

Gannon has served four terms on the board, two as chairman and one each as secretary and treasurer. He now is chairman of the transportation committee and a member of the finance and personnel committees.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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