Federal discrimination lawsuit: Sheriff Darr, his chief deputy give conflicting testimony

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 11, 2013 

Lt. Donna Tompkins of the Muscogee County Sheriff's Department, left, leaves federal court with her attorney Edward Buckley and an unidentified woman.

ROBIN TRIMARCHI — rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com

During a day spent on a witness stand explaining and defending his hiring practices, Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr and his chief deputy contradicted each other in testimony about the hiring of a captain that has landed the city and sheriff in federal court.

Darr and the city of Columbus were sued for gender discrimination by Donna Tompkins and Joan Wynn — both lieutenants in the department — when they were bypassed for a 2010 promotion to captain that went to then-Lt. Charles Shafer.

Tompkins and Wynn are seeking back pay of about $21,000 to $23,000 each, compensatory and punitive damages.

The critical witnesses in the third day of the trial in U.S. District Court, Middle District of Georgia in front of Judge Clay Land were Darr and Chief Deputy John Fitzpatrick.

Darr said the decision to promote Shafer was unanimous by a five-man committee made up of the command staff. When pressed by plaintiff attorney Edward Buckley, Darr then added, “I think Chief Fitzpatrick did say we need to promote a female.”

Darr, Fitzpatrick, jail Commander Dane Collins, Maj. Randy Robertson and Maj. Mike Massey made up the panel. Fitzpatrick was asked by Buckley if the decision was unanimous.

“It couldn’t have been if I wanted a woman,” Fitzpatrick responded.

Though Darr said the ultimate responsibility for the hire was his, he brought in the panel and made the decision to go with the candidate who was recommended by the command staff, he testified.

“I went into this process trying to be as fair as I could to each applicant,” Darr told a seven-man, five-woman jury.

In addition to Shafer, Tompkins and Wynn, Lt. William Drury was also interviewed by the command staff. Shafer had the most experience in the jail, but Wynn, Tompkins and Drury each had master’s degrees. Shafer is a high school graduate who signed an agreement in 1999 when he was promoted by then-Sheriff Ralph Johnson to obtain an associate degree in three years or face demotion. According to testimony, Shafer has not obtained that degree.

Darr said he had a conversation with his chief deputy after the interviews.

“He said we needed to promote a female,” Darr said of Fitzpatrick. “I made the comment we needed to promote the best person for the job.”

Fitzpatrick explained his reasoning for recommending a woman be promoted to captain, saying he was awaken one morning at 2:30 a.m. by God.

“And I was given instruction that a female should be promoted,” Fitzpatrick testified.

Fitzpatrick said when he told Darr of his instructions from God to promote a woman, Darr said he didn’t think they should promote based on whether or not it was a man or woman.

Fitzpatrick said he talks to God a lot.

“A lot of people don’t believe God talks to you, I know God talks to you,” Fitzpatrick told the court.

Fitzpatrick said he did not believe the hiring of Shafer was discrimination. Fitzpatrick told the court before he was promoted by Darr to chief deputy — a job he said God told him to take — he would wear a “clown suit” and “perform” in the office to protest an injustice or something that he perceived to be a wrong.

He still has the clown suit and will wear parts of it from time to time in Darr’s office.

He was asked if he believed Shafer was hired because he was a man.

“I go back to clown suit,” the chief deputy said. “I have not donned the clown suit.”

Darr testified he believed that Shafer was the most qualified based on his performance in the interview process.

“I don’t believe everything the sheriff says, but if he said he believed that Shafer was the best person for the job, I believe him,” Fitzpatrick said.

Darr was asked by his attorney Kirsten Stevenson if he discriminated against Tompkins or Wynn based on gender.

“No,” he said. “I have three daughters, and I would never discriminate against anyone based on gender or race.”

In Darr’s nearly five years in office, the 2010 opening was the only captain’s slot he has filled.

Darr spent more than five hours on the witness stand. He was the first witness of the day, and was brought back as the day’s final witness.

At times, Darr was questioned about his relationships with Shafer and Collins, a man he promoted to jail commander.

Darr testified he had played golf with Shafer a couple of times. Darr, who spent 20 years in the department before quitting to run for sheriff in 2008, owned a painting business with Collins for a couple of years in the mid-1990s.

Darr was questioned often about the value he placed on education in the promotion process. He repeatedly said it was a “factor,” along with experience and other elements.

The plaintiffs concluded their case shortly after lunch. At that point, the defense team asked Land for a directed verdict that would end the case and give the city and Darr a victory.

Buckley argued that his side had proved its case.

“We have demonstrated in a very substantive way, not only was Sheriff Darr all over the map on this and other promotion decisions, that Lt. Tompkins and Lt. Wynn were imminently qualified,” Buckley said. “They have a pattern of promotions of only men in the department.”

Land denied the motion for a directed verdict. The judge said there were genuine facts in dispute that need to be decided by a jury.

The trial resumes at the federal courthouse in downtown Columbus at 9 a.m. today.

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