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VOL. 123 | NO. 45 | Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Former Commissioner Kirk Sued For Sexual Harassment

By Andy Meek

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A female employee in the office of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners filed a lawsuit this week in federal court alleging that a former county commissioner sexually harassed and assaulted her over a four-year period beginning in 2002.

Lynn Ford, a program administrative specialist who’s worked in the commission’s office since 1993, filed suit Monday in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee. The suit lists five separate instances in which she claims former commissioner Cleo Kirk sexually harassed and physically assaulted her, but it does not go into detail about what acts allegedly occurred.

Ford, whose attorney, Thomas Hansom, wasn’t immediately available for comment, filed her suit after obtaining a letter from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission authorizing her to pursue her claims in federal court. She filed a discrimination complaint in 2006 with the EEOC in which she claimed Kirk made several unwanted sexual advances toward her.

It was widely reported at the time her EEOC complaint was filed that Ford wrote in the complaint how she’d been “hugged, groped … fondled and kissed.”

Kirk, a dentist in private practice, left his commission seat in 2006 after he was defeated in a run against Sidney Chism, who currently holds the seat. Kirk’s tenure on the commission spanned almost two decades, from 1989 to 2006.

Reached at his home Tuesday evening, Kirk alternately denied Ford’s claims and professed confidence in his ultimate vindication, saying that anyone who knows him would know the accusations are unfounded.

“It’s not true, that’s the main thing I can say,” Kirk said. “It surprised the daylights out of me that she would (file) something like that.

“I was chairman of the (commission’s) budget committee for so long, and she used to gather information for me. I considered her a close working friend.”

As a demonstration of their friendship, Kirk recalled writing a personal check more than once for Ford to use when her family was dealing with health-related problems, among other things. Both checks were for at least $100.

“Everybody down there was close to me,” he said. “I just helped her. I helped everybody down there.”

Among her other duties, Ford is the staff member who prepares and distributes the agendas for the commission’s regular meetings. In the suit, Ford says she repeatedly informed county officials including Calvin Williams – the former administrator of the county commission’s office – about the treatment. Each time he was informed, Williams told Ford he would handle the situation, according to the lawsuit.

Williams was convicted on bribery charges in early 2007 as part of the federal Tennessee Waltz corruption investigation and sentenced to 33 months in prison. Williams, with whom Kirk says he once enjoyed a father-son relationship, was recorded by an FBI informant in the federal probe saying how he planned to steer money to Kirk in exchange for Kirk’s support in a matter before the commission.

Kirk was never charged with any wrongdoing and was never called to the witness stand during Williams’ trial.

Ford’s suit, meanwhile, goes on to explain that she asked to be placed in a different work environment on several occasions following the treatment she says she received from Kirk. Kirk and Shelby County government are both named as defendants in the suit.

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