Americus Times-Recorder, Americus, Georgia

Local News

June 22, 2013

Whistle blower responds to firing

AMERICUS — From Staff reports


AMERICUS — Following the recent employee appeals hearing that resulted in the Americus Mayor and City Council’s decision to certify the termination of its CFO, Suzanne Freeman, a press release was sent to the Americus Times-Recorder from DeLong, Caldwell, Bridgers, Fitzpatrick Attorneys at Law, Freeman’s the legal representatives in the appeal.

The four-part statement maintains attorney Michael Caldwell’s assertion that Freeman’s termination was a “miscarriage of justice” and serves as the lawyers’ reaction to the hearing, the process and the decision.

The statement reads:

Former Americus Finance Director Suzanne Freeman wasn't looking for Gratitude when she wrote to Mayor Blount and Finance Committee Chair Grant about the corruption and financial misconduct she had uncovered in Bernard Kendrick's Public Works Department. She didn't expect punishment for her report; however this is what she received when the Americus' City Council rejected her termination appeal at the close of last Monday's hearing.

The Verdict-A Foregone Conclusion

The City Council's unanimous vote to reaffirm its May 29 termination decision did not surprise Freeman. Michael Caldwell, her attorney, said: "We expected to lose even though we presented evidence which gave the City Council every reason to reverse its unjust course to save Americus citizen's money. We're sorry they didn't take the opportunity."

Caldwell explained that the appeal asked the Council to over turn its own prior decision to terminate Freeman. "It was unlikely that they were going to look with fresh eyes at their own actions." As further evidence that the appeal verdict was pre-determined he noted that before the hearing the City's attorney, Jennifer Keaton, had obtained affidavits from each City Council Member attesting to their justifications for Freeman's termination and denying Freeman's "whistle blowing" claims. Caldwell objected when Keaton tried to introduce the Council members' affidavits into the record, calling it the "grossest form of hearsay." He explained, the Council was performing the function of a jury in the appeal. "No person can function as judge, jury and witness in any fair trial." Even though the affidavits were excluded, Keaton's attempt to introduce them revealed that she had engaged in improper ex part communications with the appeal decision makers about the central factual and legal issues in the case before the hearing. "This showed that the hearing was a sham. It wouldn't meet the most minimal due process standards" Caldwell said. "One can only conclude that the Americus City Council approached Ms. Freeman's appeal with the open-mindedness of General Sherman listening to Atlanta's Mayor plea to spare the city, just before he set it aflame."

Caldwell argued that "industrial due process" principles required that the City prove it made Freeman aware that she was not performing her duties at the required level, and that it told her the changes she needed to make to meet its requirements. The evidence revealed, however, that as recently as March 2013, every performance appraisal that Freeman received rated her performance as good or outstanding. She had won prestigious international awards for the City's Finance Department in every one of the eight years she worked as Finance Director. There was no evidence that the CAO, the Mayor or any City Council member ever told her about any dissatisfaction that had with her performance or that of her Department."

The Freeman appeals hearing lasting over four and one-half hours, plus 45 minutes for deliberation. Both Freeman and Public Works director Bernard Kendrick had been placed on 10-day paid administrative on May 29. Freeman requested a hearing; Kendrick did not. According, to testimony from Laura Lee Bernstein, City CAO, Kendrick has accepted a job in Griffin.

The termination of Freeman and Kendrick was preceded by the resignation of  Mark Gerbino on May 11. The former Americus Police Chief resigned after he was placed on administrative leave. The Times-Recorder acquired, via an Open Records request, a letter written to the Mayor and City Council by former police chief Mark Gerbino dated June 4.

In his letter Gerbino states, " Ms. Freeman's firing is in direct retaliation for her bringing forward events that she suspected as being improper or illegal. She made numerous attempts to have matters looked into by approaching the previous Chief Administrative Officer of the City of Americus. In fact, the former CAO asked me to conduct an inquiry into what she deemed nothing more than a 'minor issue" that was a result of 'Suzanne Freeman overreacting to time clock issues' in the Public Works Department. She anticipated a quick fix."

Read more of Caldwell’s statement in Wednesday’s edition.

 “Freeman’s Whistleblowing — and Her Problems Begin.”


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