By Amye Anderson
UCBJ Managing Editor
COOKEVILLE – Effective immediately, UCHRA’s executive director Luke Collins has been placed on paid administrative leave, pending the outcome of several ongoing investigations into allegations of misconduct.
Collins, who was already on family medical leave, per the memo he sent to committee members last Friday, was in attendance during the various agency board and committee meetings held Tuesday. However, he quickly disappeared after the adjournment of the executive committee meeting.
When asked why he was in attendance at the meeting while on family medical leave, Collins said he was there to defend himself from accusations of misconduct.
“The reason I’m here, is because I felt like it’s important. I have an obligation to this agency,” Collins said. “I’ve been falsely accused, and I’ve come here to defend myself.”
Some of those accusations stem from a recent investigation spurred by Nashville’s WSMV news station which alleges Collins was falsifying time sheets and using company vehicles for non-work purposes. In recent months, a now-former employee, Eulanda Goolsby, who served as the agency’s finance director, claimed Collins instructed employees to falsify their own time records by charging any “grey” area time to the agency’s transportation department because “because they had plenty of money.”
“It affects all of us,” Putnam County Executive Randy Porter said in encouraging the committee members to discuss the allegations. “I don’t know what the answer is, as far as what needs to be done … I think we need to discuss it.”
In an effort to distance itself from Collins during the ongoing investigations by the media and the state, the committee began discussing placing Collins on leave. Committee member and White County Executive Denny Robinson made a motion to place Collins on unpaid administrative leave. However, attorney Danny Rader advised that he recommended an employee placed on leave should receive pay, pending an investigation.
“I think you need to take the attorney’s advice, I think you need to do it with pay and remind everybody that I am on family medical leave, sick leave, with my mother,” Collins said. “She is in a difficult situation and I don’t know how (administrative leave) applies to family medical leave but I think you make a mistake any time you put an employee on leave without pay.”
The majority of committee members voted in favor of placing Collins on paid administrative leave. As a condition of his paid administrative leave, Collins has been barred from having contact with any agency employee for the duration of the leave.
The executive committee was quick to name an interim executive director following the vote to place Collins on administrative leave. Instead of following the chain of command and naming the next-highest ranking employee, Assistant Executive Director James Starnes, to that post, the committee voted in favor of naming Rebecca Harris, the agency’s Director of Transportation, as the interim executive director.
Harris’ time filling that role will be short, however. She will hold that spot until Feb. 27 when the committee will consider naming Mark Farley, UCDD Executive Director, who was recommended by Robinson, as the interim director of UCHRA. Starnes assumed the role of the agency’s finance director following the departure of Goolsby, a responsibility some committee members felt left him with a “full plate.”
The vote to name Harris as interim executive director for one week passed 14-8 in favor of the move while the motion to allow Farley and his staff to run the agency for the remainder of Collins’ leave was approved 13-9.
The week-long transition period between Harris and Farley will allow the agency’s legal advisors and committee members time to review the proposed arrangement for any potential conflicts of interest that could stem from the director of one agency serving as interim director of another. If deemed appropriate, Farley would serve as the interim director of the agency until the conclusion of the investigations against Collins.
The committee is also seeking the assistance of its legal counsel with securing a third-party to conduct its own research into the allegations against Collins. Curtis Hayes, Livingston mayor, told committee members that after being contact by WSMV, he then reached out to Joe Parker, the agency’s Human Resources director, regarding an internal investigation. When asked about the status of that investigation, Parker revealed that he no longer reported to the board but rather to Collins, his boss.
“That’s completely inappropriate,” said Cookeville mayor Ricky Shelton. “To have an employee investigate the person (they report to).”
Shelton then called for a third-party, independent investigation to be conducted; though some committee members, including Cannon County executive, Mike Gannon, suggested awaiting the comptroller’s findings before making any decisions.
“We’ve only heard one side of the story,” Gannon said. “The comptroller’s office is looking into it. We need to wait and hear from them … If we take a knee-jerk reaction prior to the comptroller’s report, we’re opening this board and, personally, ourselves up to a lawsuit. We don’t need to touch this until the comptroller’s office gets back with us.”
The comptroller’s investigation is believed to have began sometime in September 2017 and some committee members estimate it could be months before the investigation is complete and the findings made available for review.
During the brief recesses between meetings, Collins navigated the packed conference room stopping to shake the hands and thank some of the attendees for their support. However, Collins quickly left the conference room once the executive committee adjourned and the vote to place him on administrative leave was final.
The executive committee will meet Tuesday, Feb, 27 to review whether or not Farley can serve as the agency’s interim director during the ongoing investigations against Collins. The committee will also select a candidate to complete the agency’s own study into the allegations made against Collins.