The City of La Vergne fired Assistant City Recorder April Lawrence on Oct. 30 after receiving a consultant’s report alleging that she allowed tens of thousands of dollars in tax checks to pile up on her desk unprocessed, among other reasons.
The report leading to Lawrence’s firing was based on the investigation of a complaint she had filed in December 2018 “alleging discrimination and harassment by a number of city officials, principally among them city administrator Bruce Richardson,” according to a previous auditor’s report on a series of political scandals at city hall. Richardson also serves as city recorder.
Those scandals were involved in the decision by the La Vergne Board of Mayor and Aldermen in March to strip Alderman Matt Church of the title of vice mayor on a 3-2 vote. The city has an unresolved case pending to remove Church as alderman.
The board’s actions to demote Church stemmed from complaints filed by Kyle Brown, assistant city administrator; Richardson; and Phillis Rogers, director of finance. The complaints were against Church, according to a Murfreesboro Post story in March.
Lawrence’s complaint also was mentioned at the time.
According to the March story, Lawrence told investigators Church knew beforehand that she planned to file a complaint against Richardson, whom Church had “singled out in social media posts before the November 2018 election” when he was a candidate. She said she had spoken to Church twice about the complaint.
Church’s lawyer, Terry Fann, had not issued a statement by press time.
Lawrence also in March filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, Nashville Division. The defendants are the City of La Vergne and Mayor Jason Cole. Lawrence claims that Cole ordered her to be placed on administrative leave as of Jan. 10 and did not allow her to return to work in retaliation of her filing a grievance.
Anne Smith, La Vergne’s public relations specialist, said Cole would not be able to comment given that the lawsuit is still ongoing.
Although the lawsuit is not finished, the city’s report based on Lawrence’s complaint was completed.
The city notified Lawrence in an Oct. 30 letter that she was being fired. The reasons cited were alleged violations of state law, city policy and the city’s internal control memo; audit findings by Gregory Howell, CPA, dated Oct. 25; and her statement that she “lied to City employees, Mr. Kyle Brown and Ms. Cheryl Lewis Smith, in a meeting on December 11, 2018, that then Vice Mayor Church coerced and threatened you to file a complaint.”
The final investigative report, dated Oct. 1, was issued by lawyers Thomas H. Lee and Katharine B. Fischman of Frost Brown Todd LLC.
The Lee-Fischman report details the history of Lawrence’s complaint, in which she claimed the city had a bias toward white men for jobs and promotions. The investigators detail their numerous attempts to get Lawrence to sit down and talk with them about her complaint. They allege she either failed to respond or expressed concerns about the potential bias of a white male reviewing her complaint about bias regarding white males. Cole placed her on leave with pay in January for not complying with city policy, which requires her to participate in the investigation. After they did interview her in late February, she filed the lawsuit.
Her alleged refusal to help in the investigation was a violation of city policy, the report says. Lawrence told investigators she stayed silent for 40 days because she misunderstood the request. The report says that is not credible.
Report refutes discrimination
Some of Lawrence’s complaints about her employment are nearly three years old, beyond the statute of limitations, the report says, including her time spent in the City Codes Department.
The Lee-Fischman report says the city did not discriminate against Lawrence in her role as assistant city recorder. There is no statutory office of an assistant recorder. So, Richardson was free to assign his office’s duties to her. Also, the report says her being placed on leave with pay is not an adverse employment action.
In one grievance, the report said, Lawrence said a supervisor became angry over her talking to others in the city about an enforcement issue and that she took a leave of absence; when she returned, she was offered the job of assistant city recorder. The report found no “actionable harassment or discrimination.” Instead, the city moved her to another job with a higher rate of pay, more responsibility and a private office. She said the man who replaced her in codes was paid 50 cents more per hour. The report finds no actionable claim since that was more than two years before her December 2018 complaint.
The city’s second reason for firing Lawrence was her alleged cooperation with Church “in pitting City employees against one another.” The report alleges violation of internal control policies regarding the timely processing and deposit of tax checks.
“The confusion and struggle in Ms. Lawrence’s time in office in December 2018 is evidenced most eloquently by the stack of tax checks found in her office after she was asked to take a leave of absence with pay for her refusal to cooperate in the investigation … Taking into account her assertion in her interview that she occasionally received misdelivered tax checks from other City offices, and crediting that statement as true without contrary evidence, we find no plausible reason consistent with city policy or best financial practices for citizens’ tax payments covering a lengthy period of time to be unsecured and undeposited on Ms. Lawrence’s desk.”
Taxes allegedly not deposited
The report provides examples of Lawrence’s receipts and deposits between July 1, 2018 and her departure in January 2019. All receipts were deposited, but state law requires that to be done in three banking days. The report gives a list of deposits that were not made within that period. There were three receipts totaling $150. There also were $41,835.33 in wholesale liquor/beer tax receipts that were not deposited in that period; seven of the nine receipts were found in her office and deposited after she left.
Also, Richardson allegedly found a stack of unfiled and unrecorded city documents including meeting minutes, ordinances and resolutions dating back several years.
The report also says, “We previously found Alderman Church’s conduct regarding a number of matters, including distracting Ms. Lawrence from the performance of her duties with repeated requests for, and regarding the status of, a voluminous grievance—combined with the exercise of power that adhered to his former office of Vice Mayor, to approach, if not cross, the line drawn by (city code) Section 11-304.”