Discrimination, nepotism charged against Wilson County

Putative class action claims African Americans denied county jobs

Wilson County is facing a federal class-action lawsuit, claiming that a system of chronic cronyism there denies job opportunities to African-Americans.

The lawsuit, filed in federal district court last week, alleges county jobs routinely go to friends and family of county officials without being advertised and the lack of a consistent human resources policy has the effect of denying employment to African Americans.

The case centers around Karl Tartt, a Rutherford County man who sought Wilson County's animal control officer position. Tartt applied for the job in December 2008 and repeatedly called to check on the status of his application. In January, he was told the job had been filled six months prior, before he filled out his application and before the help-wanted ad for the job appeared in The Lebanon Democrat.

The complaint alleges that between the time Tartt asked for an application and the time he called to check on its status, four people – all white men – were hired by Wilson County Solid Waste, the department responsible for animal control.

Tartt filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in August. Asked about that complaint, Wilson County Attorney Mike Jennings told the Democrat, "We don't know anything about him. We don't have any record of him. We don't know who this is. We are trying to find out."

Tartt's attorney, Jerry Gonzalez, said there's no record because Tartt's application was thrown in the trash, a violation of the county's policy to retain job applications for five years.

But, the lawsuit claims, that Tartt's case is a symptom of a rampant problem: systemic racism and nepotism which reaches even to the highest level of Wilson County government.

"Wilson County is run by a ship of fools and the ship will not run aground until the people realize it's time for a change," Gonzalez said. "This will continue until the people of Wilson County decide to get an effective government and not incompetent good ole boys."

The complaint details numerous friends and families of high-ranking county officials, all white, who have been given jobs in county government:

• The current county mayor, Robert Dedman, hired his wife when he served as property assessor.

• The county's finance director, Ron Gilbert, hired his granddaughter, the son of his secretary and a friend from church to work in his office without ever advertising the jobs.

• The children of a number of county commissioners are employed by county government, also in jobs which were never advertised.

• Randy Hall, a commissioner himself, filled a position in the finance department that was never advertised and which the lawsuit claims the hire "was completely unqualified for."

• The daughter of a former county commissioner, who is white, was elected as a judicial commissioner in 2006 over the recommendation of a committee who recommended a black candidate.

The lawsuit quotes several county officials as saying the policy of hiring relatives and friends is de riguer. “Well, there’s plenty of department heads up there that hire their wives. So, would they be just as guilty? And their daughters and their sons. No more than that, you know,” Dedman is quoted as saying.

Gilbert acknowledged there is an official anti-nepotism policy, but "there's no real penalty" for violating it.

The lawsuit also claims county officials routinely and casually make racially and sexually charged remarks. During a break from testifying in a deposition for another lawsuit, Dedman allegedly made a joke containing the N-word. Gilbert told an attorney he wanted a higher salary but was "jew'd down" and county Road Superintendent Steve Armistead referred to one of his employees as "that little black girl." 

The lawsuit further claims on the occasions jobs are advertised – something that's only happened 10 times in the past six years – the ads appear almost exclusively in Wilson County newspapers, further limiting the opportunities of black candidates.

"African-Americans [in other counties] would commute for good jobs if they knew about them," Gonzalez said.

All of this taken together, the lawsuit claims, creates an atmosphere where African Americans are denied employment, having even created a feeling within the county's black community that it's not worth it to try for county employment because "they won't hire you anyway."

The lawsuit, filed as a class action, seeks damages under the Tennessee Human Rights Act and a Reconstruction-Era law passed to enforce the 14th Amendment and injunctive relief. Tartt's EEOC complaint, which asks for a right-to-sue letter under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, is still pending. 

Jennings said Tuesday he had not had a chance to fully review the complaint. A case management conference is scheduled for Feb. 1.