Whistleblower’s case settled out of court

Whistleblower’s case settled out of court

By: John Brannon Messenger Staff Reporter

By JOHN BRANNON Messenger Staff Reporter A federal lawsuit filed by a “whistle blower” former employee of the Head Start program based in McKenzie has been settled out of court in the employee’s favor. James Churchwell of McKen-zie will receive $287,000 and a letter of apology from Macie Roberson, Lake County mayor and chairman of North-west Tennessee Economic Development Council board of directors. The Head Start program is a subsidiary of NWTEDC. Part of the $287,000 will be paid out of NWTEDC funds and part by the agency’s insurance provider. Roberson said Monday he signed the letter of apology last week. “I’m just glad to get this behind us,” he said. The agreement, which has been approved by NWTEDC board of directors, also provides for Churchwell’s health insurance to continue through Dec. 31. He suffers from colon cancer. Churchwell, 44, was a maintenance technician for the program. He is a veteran of 27 years’ active duty and reserve military service. In 2007, he and human resources manager Tiffany Moseley and executive assistant Lora Wofford were fired by Head Start director Pamela Castleman for filing complaints with local and federal officials outside the Head Start organization. The area Head Start program serves children of low income families in 13 West Tennessee counties. It is funded annually by a $10.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. NWTEDC executive director John Bucy said he’s glad the case is settled, “just glad it’s over.” An interim director for the program has been hired while a search committee takes applications and interviews candidates for the director’s position formerly occupied by Ms. Castleman of McKenzie. “We have hired Jane Bryant, a former Head Start director and consultant. We have a three-month contract with her,” Bucy said. “She can help us do the search for a permanent director. She has lots of national contacts.” Ms. Castleman, a graduate of the University of Tennessee at Martin, served as Head Start director from 1998 until February 2008. In February 2008, she was fired by the NWTEDC board upon recommendation of Crockett County Mayor Larry Griffin. By Roberson’s appointment, Griffin chaired a task force to look into 19 items of non-compliance revealed by audits by a Union City accounting firm and a federal team. Among the allegations of mismanagement were that Ms. Castleman hired her teenage niece and nephew to do contractor services, that she used Head Start funds to install a $4,500 TV in her office and that she gave a $1,659 full-sound TV screen to a local church. “These and other items have resulted in $126,000 in questionable (expenditures),” Griffin told the NWTEDC board. Further, in April 2007, Church-well was told not to come to work any longer but was not formally notified that he had been fired. He continued to receive his weekly salary of $640 and his health insurance coverage until Sept. 4, 2007, when he received the letter of termination. He had just returned from a hospital where he learned he had colon cancer. Griffin said Ms. Castleman had been offered the opportunity to resign but she chose not to do so. The status of Ms. Moseley and Ms. Wofford is not known. They are not included in Churchwell’s federal lawsuit. Whether they have filed or will file lawsuits on their own is not known. Neither could be reached for comment. At the outset of filing the lawsuit, Churchwell told The Messenger that it wasn’t about money but about his good name and reputation. He said he only wanted a formal apology and his job back. Whether he will return to work remains to be seen. He could not be reached for comment. The out of court agreement “closes a chapter,” according to Carroll County Mayor Kenny McBride, a member of the NWTEDC board. “I’m proud it’s closed,” he said. “I hope Mr. Churchwell’s health improves and he recovers from that illness and can move on and have a happy and productive life. Hopefully, everyone else involved in this can as well.” Published in The Messenger 6.3.08

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