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County leaders continue probe of misconduct, harassment claims

Local leaders are remaining tight-lipped as they look into various allegations of misconduct against McDuffie County's Finance Director and full-time administrator.

On Monday, McDuffie County Commission Chairman Charlie Newton and Commission Vice-Chairman Sammie Wilson, Sr., spent more than four hours with various people, including Finance Director Jimmy Whitaker and McDuffie County Manager Don Norton.

The tempest began earlier this month when county leaders publicly disclosed that more than $7,000 had been taken in an internet scheme. Commissioners say they first learned of the missing money after three female finance department employees met with County Commissioner Fred Favors on Oct. 21 and laid out a series of allegations and concerns.

"They told me that they feared for their jobs," Rev. Favors said. "One of the employees said that Mr. Whitaker told them, 'Only five people know about this incident and it better not go any further.'"

He said the group of employees decided to come and talk with him after one of them had attempted to file a grievance with Mr. Norton, who oversees day-to-day government operations.

"The employee said they tried to talk to Don concerning an incident that had happened earlier that week, but decided it likely would not receive the immediate attention they thought the matter deserved," Rev. Favors said. The commissioner refused to elaborate about the nature of the allegations, saying to do so might hamper the integrity of the commissioners' fact-finding mission.

However, details about the formal complaints against Mr. Whitaker - initially filed by one finance department employee - came to light this week. Another finance department employee filed written complaints against both men, while another's complaint was against only Mr. Whitaker.

Both Mr. Whitaker and Mr. Norton have said they will not publicly comment about those accusations.

"I will not respond to unproven and unknown allegations," said Mr. Whitaker, who has served as county finance director since 2001. Mr. Norton, meanwhile, said he thought it "best" not to respond at this time.

Mr. Newton's closed-door Monday meeting included both men and the three finance employees, along with County Attorney Sammy Fowler and Butch Whiddon of Baird & Company of Augusta - the auditing firm used by McDuffie County for the past several years.

Commissioners are focused on two things:

• First, officials are trying to grasp allegations that include sexual harassment, intimidation and a hostile, offensive work environment within the finance department.

• Also, commissioners want to know why they weren't told about the missing money when it was initially discovered in June 2007.

The second issue may be easier to decipher. Both Mr. Whitaker and Mr. Norton knew about the missing money soon after the illegal transactions occurred. Mr. Norton said he told Mr. Whitaker to tell Mr. Newton about the missing money. Mr. Whitaker said he did so, and claims to have a note to prove it. However, Mr. Newton said he can't remember being told of the missing money.

And now, commissioners have asked a third party - the auditing firm of Mauldin and Jenkins - to compile a forensic audit. The audit will determine, among other things, whether there is any other money missing from county coffers. Mr. Newton said he predicts that it will be a week to 10 days before commissioners announce anything public regarding either one of the issues.

Meanwhile, the commissioners' investigation of the allegations against Mr. Whitaker and Mr. Norton began in earnest shortly after Rev. Favors met with the three employees. On the night of Oct. 22, commissioners met with all the employees in the finance department. The meeting was held behind closed doors, as are all government meetings regarding personnel matters.

"These things that have been kept in the dark are now coming to light," Rev. Favors said. "We're going to get to the bottom of all of this."

The complaints against Mr. Norton center on his "inaction" on the complaints against Mr. Whitaker.

The initial complaints against Mr. Whitaker - obtained last week by The McDuffie Mirror - were filed by one employee, who contends problems at the office led her to postpone her recent planned wedding. The written grievance was filed last week with commissioners, Mr. Norton and the county's Human Resources Director, Ruthie Thomas.

"I felt I was choosing between this special someone and my career," the employee wrote, noting that her work performance, as well as her personal life, has suffered because of the harassment in the workplace.

She accuses her boss of going through her desk drawers, trash and looking at the caller ID on her office telephone, as well as listening to actual phone conversations. She claims Mr. Whitaker also promised that she would be promoted to Finance Director after his retirement and would plan overnight, out-of-town trips to seminars for the two of them - excursions she would back out of at the last minute.

"I felt like I was his wife - that whatever I did on my off time would be treated as if I rejected his affection," the employee wrote.

And that could be dangerous to her career, she claims.

"Mr. Whitaker had made it known in the office that he was second in charge of the county and he could fire us for insubordination and no one would care," she wrote.

She also described Mr. Whitaker as an avid gun collector, who once laid a shotgun on an office table in the middle of a verbal dispute with Mr. Norton.

Last week, Mr. Whitaker said he didn't want to specifically respond to the allegations, but said they were rooted in a common cause: "They are just trying to get me out."

Web posted on Thursday, November 27, 2008

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