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Firefighter alleges county retaliated against him after he shared concerns

A whistleblower complaint filed in Troup County Superior Court Tuesday alleges that firefighter Clayton Bryant was retaliated against by the county for information he shared with his superiors about alleged problems within the Troup County Fire Department.

Bryant submitted a 10-page complaint to the county in March, alleging inappropriate comments made by Fire Chief John Ekaitis about an incident where firefighter Jordan Johnson was injured in recruit school and allegedly told not to seek medical treatment. The complaint was the center of a third-party investigation led by investigator Frances Clay and resulted in Ekaitis’ being suspended for two weeks.

The findings of Clay’s investigation have not been released publicly due to pending litigation, per previous conversations with county officials.

“Clayton Bryant has told the truth. He will continue to tell the truth, and he has nothing to hide,” said attorney Charles Cauble.

“We hope the county will start doing the same thing. First by releasing the investigation by Frances Clay.”

The lawsuit asks that Bryant be awarded compensatory damages in the amount of $1 million for his diminished future earning capacity, mental anguish, humiliation, pain and suffering, and other damages as a result of the defendant’s alleged improper conduct. It also asks for punitive damages in an amount to be determined by an impartial jury. 

Bryant had sent the 10-page letter to Human Resources Director Valerie Heard in March, detailing issues he alleged were happening within the fire department.

Bryant’s letter alleged that Ekaitis twice made inappropriate comments about females.

The first alleged complaint occurred at a Marathon convenience store in LaGrange, where he allegedly called an employee a derogatory term.

Ekaitis said in a previous interview that the employee misidentified him, as she reported the person who made the comment had white hair and a beard.

Mosley said he reviewed the tape from the incident, but no audio was available, making it impossible to know what was said.

Mosley said in previous reporting that Ekaitis was written up because he admitted to using terms such as honey, baby or sweetie, when referring to the employee, which made her uncomfortable.

The second instance allegedly occurred in November 2020 during a meeting among several fire departments and other first responders.

According to the complaint, when asked what he wanted for Christmas, Ekaitis allegedly pointed at a female in attendance and said he wanted her under his Christmas tree wearing nothing but a bow.

Mosley said in April that he investigated this complaint, but none of the other fire chiefs in Troup County corroborated the story, and the person spoken about never came forward to file a complaint.

Therefore, the investigation was dropped.

As part of Bryant’s letter to the county, Kevin Norred, deputy chief of operations at the time, was accused of numerous complaints of bullying and mistreatment of personnel.

Mosley noted in previous reporting that one of the issues discovered during the outside investigation was the use of abusive language within the department.

In April, Mosley said Ekaitis was suspended because he “either condoned or looked the other way while others did things that should’ve been addressed.”

As a result of Clay’s investigation, Norred was demoted to fire marshal, and was moved to work at the Troup County Government Center, per Mosley.

Captain Rusty Brown, the training officer, was also suspended, though he remained the training officer.

Per the complaint, Bryant was also suspended for 48 hours for “lying in the investigation to Frances Clay.” Cauble said the county has given Bryant no evidence that he lied to Clay during the investigation.

Bryant was also suspended 24 hours for improper equipment violations for responding to a fire without the required, proper equipment on, per the complaint. The complaint notes that Bryant lives near where a fire occurred on Jandale Drive, was off duty, and arrived on scene to assist before on-duty firefighters could arrive. That suspension was later rescinded, according to the complaint.

Attached to the complaint is a letter from Ekaitis to Bryant, rescinding the 24-hour suspension for the fire on Jandale Drive.

“To be consistent throughout the Troup County Fire Department, the suspension of 24 hours has been revoked by me concerning your actions at a structure fire on Jandale Drive. I need to hold everyone within the Troup County Fire Department to the same standard and I did not do so at the fire located on Jandale Drive,” the letter signed by Ekaitis reads. “With that being conveyed, your 24 hours suspension has been nullified and will be removed from your personnel file. You are to return to work on your assigned duty shift day on May 6, 2021.”

The complaint notes that the letter is dated May 6, which would’ve fallen inside Ekaitis’ two-week suspension, which Mosley told the LDN in previous reporting would be from May 3-May 17.

Cauble said he believes the 24-hour suspension being rescinded is an admission of retaliation.

“I believe it’s essentially an admission that it was retaliatory,” Cauble said.

Another portion of the complaint says Johnson injured his knee in September 2020 during recruit school, and that Bryant heard it crack loudly.

It alleges that Johnson told his supervisors about the injury and Brown told him he would have to repeat recruit school if he sought medical attention.

The complaint includes a written statement from Johnson on Oct. 10, 2020 — apparently after recruit school ended — with a detailed account of the knee injury.

The complaint alleges that Johnson was made to change his original account. Exhibit “C” as part of the complaint shows a much shorter version of events, where Johnson wrote he didn’t want to go to the doctor because he wanted to finish recruit school.

The complaint alleges that Johnson was escorted into Brown’s office and Brown stood behind him as he wrote the amended statement.

Johnson had surgery on his injured knee in June 2021, per the complaint.

Mosley was out of the office when reached Friday, but gave the LDN the contact information for attorney Michael Hill, who specializes in human resource matters, and is representing the county.

A call to Hill was not returned.

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