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Federal lawsuit filed against Jones, county over alleged harassment

An Anderson County woman has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Anderson County Circuit Court Clerk William Jones and the Anderson County government, alleging that Jones sexually harassed her and that the county government did not act to protect her from his alleged actions.

Gail Harness’s lawsuit was filed Tuesday in US District Court in Knoxville by attorney Richard Collins and seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, plus court costs. The suit also asks for a jury trial in the matter.

The lawsuit accuses Jones of violating the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, “to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex in public employment.” The complaint alleges that Jones has “subjected Plaintiff (Harness) and other women working under him to unwanted sexual advances, unwanted touching, intimidation, threats of retaliation, retaliation, and epithets offensive to women,” creating what the suit calls a hostile working environment.

Jones has denied all of the allegations against him, which to this point include at least six women, and claims that the accusations are politically motivated. He is seeking re-election in the May 1st Anderson County Republican primary, challenged by former County Mayor Rex Lynch.

The lawsuit states that Harness began working in the Circuit Court Clerk’s office in January of 2016 as an unpaid intern while completing her college degree, and was hired as a part-time file clerk the following month.

According to the suit, “Jones wasted no time in subjecting [Harness] to his toxic workplace, alleging that he insisted that the employees in his office call him “Daddy” and bestowing nicknames like “Daddy’s b***h” and “Daddy’s prissy b***h.”

The suit states that, as a file clerk, she often had to work by herself in the juvenile court file room, where she alleges that Jones would “corner” her and make suggestive comments about her appearance, encourage her to wear more provocative clothing and compliment her on her breasts and cleavage, encounters she says more than once left her in tears.

The lawsuit claims that Jones often bragged about being the boss and that he was “above the law.”

The complaint points out that when the county government approved a new anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policy in 2016, Jones refused to implement the policy change in his office, leaving employees believing that they had no recourse and that “submission to Jones’s offensive behavior became a condition of her employment, something she had to endure to remain employed.”

The lawsuit goes on to say that Jones subjected Harness to “a slew of verbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature throughout her employment.” Those included suggestive comments about her attire or the way she looked, as well as allegedly putting his hands on her hips or rubbing her back while she was working and pulling up a chair next to her at her desk and “rest his head on her shoulder, at times staring down her shirt.”

The suit also claims that Jones would contact Harness via social media site Snapchat and warned her against saving the messages he sent, many of which were more comments about her attire and appearance.

Those messages allegedly became sexually explicit and vulgar, according to the suit, when a full-time position opened up in the office that Harness wanted. Harness’s lawsuit states that she tried reasoning with Jones, reminding him that they were both married and warning he could get himself into trouble.

In June of 2016, the lawsuit states that Jones called Harness into his office and told her that his wife had found out about their Snapchats and accused her of telling his wife, allegedly saying that she “could forget being hired full-time” and that “you’re going to pay for it.”

In July 2016, Harness’s husband went to County Mayor Terry Frank and complained that Jones had not hired his wife for the full-time position despite her qualifications, because of the Snapchat fallout. The lawsuit alleges that the conversation “should have been enough to put her (the Mayor) on notice that Jones, was, once again engaging in inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature.” The lawsuit goes on to cite former Human resources Director Russell Bearden’s statements that he brought a previous allegation of harassment against Jones to Mayor Frank in May of 2015, and that he was told there was nothing that could be done about it due to Jones’s status as an elected official.

Frank told the husband to have Harness’s resume on her desk and Jones’ and within a week, Harness was hired for the full-time position.

The lawsuit states that while the Snapchat messages ceased, Jones’ behavior in the office did not, alleging that the unwanted comments and touching continued.

In the fall of 2016, Jones allegedly told Harness that she was “lucky” to still have job after her husband “almost got you completely fired for running his mouth.”

In the late winter of 2017, Harness claims that Jones issued two written disciplinary warnings for what she calls “bogus, trumped-up infractions” that were never entered into her personnel file, as she alleges that “their sole purpose was to intimidate and punish” Harness.

In the summer of 2017, Jones began threatening to transfer Harness to the Oak Ridge satellite office, widely viewed as a “clerk graveyard” with little to no hope for advancement.

That is when she filed a formal complaint with Bearden, which officials have said–along with an anonymous letter sent to the Courthouse detailing similar allegations–started the investigation into Jones’ alleged conduct that resulted in the County Commission unanimously voting to censure Jones and ask him to resign. Jones has said that he has no plans to step down.

Five days after making the complaint, August 14th, 2017, Harness says that Jones transferred her to the Oak Ridge office, where he allegedly visited her and warned her that “her days working for the County were…numbered” as he indicated he was aware of her complaint to HR.

Harness was removed from the office and placed on paid leave in September, and according to the suit, Harness “still does not know whether or if she will be able to return to her job, an uncertainty that has led to serious mental anguish and distress.”

Again, the suit names Jones and the county government as defendants, Jones for his alleged conduct, and the county for not taking action despite having already been notified of at least one allegation.

As we reported earlier this week, WYSH has obtained emails between Bearden and Law Director Jay Yeager that shows that, contrary to public comments and two sworn statements by Bearden, Yeager did in fact know about the first sexual harassment allegations leveled in 2015, but did nothing to address the situation. You can read more about that here and we have included images of the email exchange between Yeager and Bearden from 2015 as well as Yeager’s assertion to WYSH on March 1st that he “did not know of the 2015 sexual harassment allegation regarding Mr. Jones because Russell was instructed not to tell me and he followed those orders from his direct superior, the mayor. I knew nothing of the incident until briefed in September of 2017. I knew nothing of the 2016 incident where the husband went to the mayor and made additional allegations, and neither did HR because the mayor did not tell my office or HR,” on our website.

    Image of emails obtained by WYSH. The exchange is between Russell Bearden (then HR Director) and Jay Yeager (AC Law Director) from May 6, 2015.

 

Picture of printed email sent on March 1, 2018 to WYSH’s Ron Meredith from AC Law Director Jay Yeager

We will continue to follow this story for you as more information becomes available.

 

About Jim Harris

Jim Harris has been WYSH's News & Sports Director since 2000. In addition to reporting local news, he is the play-by-play voice for Clinton High School football, boys' and girls' basketball and baseball. Catch Jim live weekdays beginning at 6:20 am for live local news, sports, weather and traffic plus the Community Bulletin Board, shenanigans with Ron Meredith and more on the Country Club Morning Show on WYSH & WQLA. Jim lives in Clinton with his wife Kelly and daughter Carolina, his mother-in-law and cats Lucius and Oliver.

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