published Saturday, April 27th, 2013

TBI investigating Niota harassment claims

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is examining whether Niota City Commissioners harassed employees.

The 10th Judicial District Attorney's Office asked the TBI on Monday to start looking into the city, a bureau spokeswoman confirmed. She said the TBI assigned one of its investigators to the case, but she could not say how long the inspection will last, or whether the investigator has even started work.

The TBI's digging comes a few days after some city functions shut down. On April 19, members of the Tennessee Municipal League Pool declined to renew Niota's liability insurance. The league said the city was too risky because employees had filed harassment claims against Commissioners Richard Rutledge and Leesa Corum.

In a letter to Mayor Lois Preece on March 6, more than a month earlier, TML pool underwriting director Jon Calvin wrote, "The actions appear to be deliberate and malicious in intent, violate acceptable standards in handling employment situations, and adversely affecting employees of the city."

Adding to the problem, Preece said Corum and Rutledge have refused to cooperate as TML tries to get further information about the harassment claims against them. They won't answer phone calls, Preece said, and they won't even pick up mail.

Without liability insurance, some parts of the city stopped operating last weekend. The police and fire departments closed. Garbage trucks stopped running. City parks and ballfields shut down.

"We tried to take the proper precautions," Preece said. "If there was an accident and someone sued the city, that would come from taxpayers."

On Tuesday, all city operations resumed. Allen Carter of Athens Insurance negotiated with TML, and the two sides agreed to give insurance to Niota for 60 more days. In the meantime, the city hopes TML can address the harassment claims.

Contact Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.

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