As County Administrator Scott Johnson stood up last week to address the media following the release of a report detailing an investigation by the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office into allegations that he had created a hostile work environment for former EMA Director Pam Tucker, he wasn’t celebrating.
While the sheriff’s office found no evidence to support Tucker’s claim of a hostile work environment, Johnson said his reputation had been tarnished by serious accusations that were totally baseless.
Johnson wasn’t proclaiming a victory.
Instead, he was standing up to clear his name.
“This is very unfortunate for Columbia County,” Johnson said, addressing the Board of County Commissioners, his staff, supporters and the media. “It has caused a lot of negative attention to Columbia County. For me personally, it’s been very trying.”
For almost three months, Johnson said his 30-year career in public service was attacked and nearly destroyed because of a disgruntle employee’s claims.
“To be tried and convicted on social media, in professional media and for people to call for your job that don’t even know what you do or don’t even know your name is pretty tough,” Johnson said.
“I’ve had physical threats and death threats given to me because of Mrs. Tucker’s popularity. And I still stand here today and say that I did absolutely nothing wrong in this situation.”
But in the arena of public opinion, accusations such as creating a hostile work environment are difficult to erase, even with an investigation clearing his name, Johnson said.
“I was falsely accused,” Johnson said. “It has been very difficult for me and for my family. Professionally, if you Google my name now, this is all you get. And I have worked a long time to build up a reputation that I feel like has been ruined unfairly.”
During the investigation by the sheriff’s office, Johnson provided two recorded conversations he had with Tucker in January, as well as numerous texts and emails between the two that clearly showed he was trying to be supportive of her needs and was making every attempt to work with Tucker to encourage her to stay on as Columbia County’s EMA director.
“This completely caught me off guard,” Johnson said, adding that he is extremely thankful that he had evidence that he could provide the sheriff’s office to corroborate his version of events prior to Tucker resigning on Jan. 31. “I really don’t think I would have gotten a fair shake with the popularity of Mrs. Tucker had I not had some kind of evidence to back up that the claims were not true.”
During the almost hour-long press conference, the four commissioners in attendance said they fully supported Johnson as administrator and accepted the findings of the sheriff’s office.
“We don’t shy away from controversy,” Columbia County Chairman Ron Cross said, adding that he welcomed the investigation by the sheriff’s office into the accusations of a hostile work environment by Tucker against Johnson, as well as similar allegations against Tucker by former EMA Deputy Director Rusty Welsh.
When Welsh resigned in late December, he accused Tucker of being “controlling, manipulative, condescending, arrogant, disrespectful, hypocritical and juvenile.”
The investigation by the sheriff’s office also found that there was no evidence to support Welsh’s claims of a hostile work environment created by Tucker.
“Basically, we knew from the beginning that there was no possibility of a hostile work environment from either party,” Cross said.
However, when such accusations are made against top ranking employees within the county, Cross said the allegations couldn’t be ignored.
“Mrs. Tucker was a very good EMA director and she followed the guidelines of FEMA and GEMA extremely well which benefited the citizens of Columbia County,” Cross said during the press conference, adding that none of the commissioners, nor the administrator, wanted her to resign.
However, Cross said he found it extremely troubling that after Tucker decided to resign and accused Johnson of creating a hostile work environment, she provided members of the media her letter of resignation, which was extremely critical of Johnson, prior to delivering it to the county.
“This appeared to be a deliberate attempt to discredit Mr. Johnson and embarrass Columbia County,” Cross said of Tucker.
Those weren’t the only critical comments that Cross made about Tucker during the press conference.
“I didn’t realize the undertow was as strong among division directors concerning Mrs. Tucker’s very narcissistic personality. Everything was about Pam,” Cross said. “I think over the years, people have gone out of their way to cater to her because of her sensitivity to constructive criticism and her ability to shut down completely if something was said she did not like.”
While Tucker has announced plans to run for Columbia County Chair in 2018, a seat currently held by Cross, he insisted that his comments were not politically motivated.
These were observations that he made after talking to several county employees, he said.
“One comment was that she was queen of the cut and paste,” Cross said, explaining that some employees accused Tucker of taking full credit for their work. “There were other comments that they ‘had to walk on egg shells around her.’”
But what truly bothered Cross was the fact that Tucker told him that “if she could get her severance, she would go quietly.”
“I didn’t like the tone of that then and I don’t like it today,” Cross said.
Those are not comments made by someone who cares about Columbia County, he said.
“It has been said that Mrs. Tucker was the face of Columbia County. She may be,” Cross said, looking around the room filled with county staff and commissioners. “But she is not the heart, the soul and backbone of Columbia County. That is right here with the people in this room.”
Cross wasn’t the only commissioner critical of Tucker’s action.
Her decision left the county with only a newly hired operations officer, Andy Leanza, at the helm.
While Leanza is highly qualified and has recently served with GEMA as an Area 5 Field Coordinator, Morris pointed out that he had only been on the job a few weeks.
“As a former principal, I had an assistant principal leave. She was very valuable. She had been there longer than I had,” Morris said during the press conference. “I thought about quitting, too, because the superintendent and the board said, ‘You can finish out the year without an assistant principal.’ I was panicked. But I didn’t quit.”
Morris refused to turn his back on the school and its students.
“I sucked it up and I got the job done for the kids, for the parents and for the citizens of the county,” Morris said. “And this just infuriates me that she would walk out on the citizens of Columbia County.”
“For her to say that she loves this county and loves her job, uh-uh. To walk out like that when your second in command had quit, no sir. Don’t quit. Never, never, never quit.”
Following all of the commissioners’ comments, Cross ended the press conference by insisting that Johnson was not only an excellent county administrator, but he was also a very good person.
“Mr. Johnson is not the gruff individual that some people think,” Cross said. “He is great at his job. He is aggressive, which we want him to be. He demands a high level of excellence. But what has been portrayed of him is nothing short of a crime.”
Cross said that Johnson is an outstanding human being.
“This is the guy that I know that gives a $100 tip on a $30 meal because the waitress seems to be struggling. This is the guy who pays a hotel bill for a battered wife and her two daughters so that she can stay there until her other residence is taken care of. This is the guy who starts a Christmas fund for one of the custodians here because she doesn’t have enough money to buy gifts for her children. This is the guy who will loan his brand new pick-up truck to a county employee so he can bring a four-wheeler back from Atlanta for his daughter,” Cross said. “This is the guy that I know. The guy that has been portrayed on social media is not the Scott Johnson that I know.”
A few days after the release of the report by the sheriff’s office, Johnson agreed to sit down with the Metro Spirit to discuss the findings in the report, as well as some of the previous articles that ran in the newspaper regarding Tucker’s allegations and his leadership style.
“I just didn’t do the things that I have been accused of. I am not the boss that I’ve been made out to be,” Johnson said. “It is very disheartening for the public to think that we operate like that in Columbia County. We don’t.”
Johnson said the truth of the matter is that Tucker never once voiced any concerns that she had about him or his leadership style, and certainly nothing about a hostile work environment, to anyone, including the commissioners or human resources until she decided to resign in January.
“She never voiced anything to me. I went to the commissioners and asked them. She never voiced anything to any individual commissioners about me,” Johnson said. “I asked the other division directors. She had never voiced anything to the other division directors about any problems that we had. She had never been to HR. Not one time.”
In fact, Johnson said he thought Tucker was very happy in her position.
He specifically pointed to a Dec. 14 article in The Columbia County News-Times that stated Tucker was looking forward to the future and didn’t plan on going anywhere.
It wasn’t until EMA Deputy Director Rusty Welsh called him on Dec. 27 and told him he was going to resign that the problems first began, Johnson said.
Johnson met with Welsh in his office the following day while Tucker was still on vacation for the holidays.
Welsh informed Johnson that he was resigning due to what he described as “intolerable working conditions” created by Tucker.
Johnson said, under county policy, he felt he needed to investigate the matter.
Therefore, on Dec. 29 and Dec. 30, Johnson met with three of Tucker’s managers to discuss the allegations against Tucker.
After meeting with the managers for about 15 minutes each, Johnson said he quickly learned that all three mangers did not share Welsh’s sentiment that Tucker created intolerable working conditions.
“After talking to the three that I brought up, I found there not to be any validity to Rusty’s hostile work environment claims,” Johnson said. “What I found was a situation where Pam may have been a little bit overbearing in my opinion, but there was no violations. She was exonerated of any wrongdoing. She wasn’t in trouble in any way, shape or form.”
So, when Tucker returned to work on Tuesday, Jan. 3, Johnson met with her, along with Deputy County Administrator Glenn Kennedy, that afternoon to discuss Welsh’s resignation.
According to Johnson, Tucker was “taken completely by surprise by the resignation itself and the complaints,” and she became emotional after reading Welsh’s letter criticizing her as a division director.
Tucker was also extremely upset that Johnson had spoken to her three managers about the accusations without her knowledge.
According to Tucker’s account of that same meeting to the sheriff’s office, she described it as 2.5-hour “interrogation” by Johnson, where she thought “the big bright light was going to brought down into her face.”
Johnson insists that wasn’t the case at all.
Instead, Welsh was asked to meet with both Johnson and Tucker to discuss his intentions of resigning.
According to Johnson, Tucker wanted to convince Welsh not to leave, but Welsh stated he needed more time to think about it.
During the meeting, everyone agreed that Welsh should take some time off and return on Jan. 9 with his decision about whether he intended to resign.
On that same day, Johnson said he also spoke to Tucker about her management style and the importance of the department’s actions being a “team effort” and not about one individual.
During the conversation, Johnson said they began talking about Tucker’s popularity throughout the county.
But Johnson claims that Tucker took the discussion the wrong way.
“I said, ‘You know, Pam, 70 percent of the people in this community love you,’” Johnson said. “And she stopped me. Now, she quoted me in her interview with the sheriff’s office as saying, ‘The other 30 percent hate your guts.’ But that’s not what happened, I said, ‘Pam, 70 percent of the people in this community love you.’ And she said, ‘You mean to tell me, you think 30 percent don’t like me?’”
Johnson said he quickly corrected her.
“I said, ‘No. That’s not what I said, but maybe. But 50 or 60 percent maybe don’t like me. You have got a better percentage than I do,’” Johnson said, adding that he thought they were just joking at that point. “But she kept going back to that. And I really think, for her, it was about being liked.”
Tucker’s embarrassment over the false allegations by Welsh may have been at the root of the problem, Johnson said.
“I don’t want to put words in her mouth.”
“I try to take the high road in this situation, despite what I feel like is her attempt to ruin me professionally,” Johnson said.
“But it was almost as if she felt like people were whispering behind her back and she felt like other people knew what was going on (with the allegations against her). And they didn’t. Nobody knew what was going on but us. We kept it very close and very quiet.”
About a week after their Jan. 3 meeting, Johnson said he received a surprising text from Tucker that stated, “Scott, this is hard to write, but I really need your help. Please would you help me get my severance pay if I just leave and go into the sunset? I do not want any public circus. I want to leave with my dignity and not embarrassment.”
She also wrote that the county has a “good team here” and everything will be fine.
Not long after receiving the text, Johnson asked Tucker to meet him in his office at 9 a.m. the following morning on Jan. 11.
Prior to the meeting, Johnson decided to record the conversation because he was meeting with her alone and he wanted the details of the meeting to be accurate when he talked to the commissioners about her request.
“In my 30 years of working in public service, I have never recorded a conversation with an employee,” Johnson said, adding that the only time he secretly recorded a conversation was when he did undercover work during his law enforcement career. “Never with an employee, face-to-face, would I ever do that,” Johnson added. “It was very uncomfortable for me to do that, but now I’m glad that I did because I was accused of things that I just did not do.”
“I think without the tapes, people would have just automatically believed Pam,” he said. “Pam was a trusted source of information for this community for a long time and she put out a lot of information. People went to her for information.”
The public was very comfortable trusting and relying on Tucker, he said.
“That’s why I decided to record the conversations,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that what was said was accurate.”
When Tucker and Johnson met on Jan. 11, Tucker said she “didn’t want to be micromanaged” any longer and she felt “unappreciated.”
In fact, Tucker told Johnson that she felt like she had been through “post traumatic stress” that week after reading Welsh’s allegations.
According to the recording, Tucker was upset that she was the last to know about Welsh’s accusations and she wanted to resign.
“At one point, she stated that nobody wanted her to stay at Columbia County to which I responded that both I and the commissioners wanted her to stay and that she was ‘the best EMA director in the state,’” Johnson said. “I explained to her again the issues I had with her management style, but that in no way was she in trouble nor being disciplined.”
Tucker also brought up the hiring of the EMA’s operations officer, Andy Leanza.
Last fall, Johnson had a meeting with Tucker where he insists that he simply asked Tucker to reconsider the employee she wished to hire as the operations officer because there were several other applicants that were more highly qualified for the EMA position.
During this recorded meeting with Johnson, Tucker seemed very positive about the hiring of Leanza and she said he was “1000 times better” than her original choice.
While she seemed happy with the hiring of Leanza during her discussion with Johnson on Jan. 11, Tucker had an entirely different opinion of that decision when she spoke to the Metro Spirit last month.
When Johnson approached her about reconsidering a new hire last year, Tucker told the Metro Spirit in April that her meeting with him was not only unprofessional, but frightening.
“I had been called up to the small conference room on the second floor, which is really the room where the beratements always took place with the doors closed,” Tucker told the Metro Spirit, adding that Deputy County Administrator Glenn Kennedy was also present for this meeting. “Scott came in with a stack of papers with his hands shaking.”
Tucker said she had never seen Johnson that incensed.
“His hands were shaking so badly that I took it to mean that he was more than just furious. That if he could have had his hands around my throat, I probably would have been dead,” Tucker said. “It was terrifying. People have no idea.”
Johnson said when he read that in the Metro Spirit on April 19, he was speechless.
Not only did Tucker never discuss those fears to any of the commissioners or human resources, but Johnson pointed out that Tucker did not give that account to the sheriff’s office during its investigation of a hostile workplace.
“Not one time did she ever say she had been berated,” Johnson said. “And, certainly, she never said that if I could get my hands around her neck, she would be dead. She never said any of those things. She also never said any of those things to the investigator. Nothing about the hands around the neck and the shaking and that I threw papers at her.”
Johnson also pointed out that Kennedy was in the room during that meeting last year with Tucker.
“I have a witness,” Johnson said. “And I know people will say, ‘Oh, Glenn Kennedy is on board. He is your deputy administrator. He is going to do whatever you tell him to do.’”
People who say such comments don’t know Kennedy, Johnson said.
“Let me tell you something about Glenn Kennedy. He is a retired full-bird colonel from the Army. The man has a ton of integrity. He would not lie for me or anybody else. I fully believe that. He would not,” Johnson said. “He told the truth, but Pam has changed her story two or three times. We have never changed our story from day one.”
But back to Johnson’s Jan. 11 meeting with Tucker that was recorded.
During the meeting, Tucker stated that she wanted to resign because she could not continue to take any badgering from Johnson.
She told Johnson that, “Nothing I ever do is right.”
After discussing the issue at some length, Johnson said he pledged to do a better job of meeting her needs and being more sensitive to the way she likes to do her job.
Johnson told her, “I don’t want to lose one of our best employees because you feel you can’t work here.”
He added, “I need you and this county needs you.”
At that point, Tucker agreed to stay with the county.
She also said that she believed Welsh should leave his job immediately and not continue to work during his final two-week notice.
Johnson offered to go down to the EMA department with Tucker and relieve Welsh of his duties together, as a “show of solidarity,” he said.
“I also told her I would meet with the same three managers that I met with previously while I was there to insure them that Ms. Tucker was the division director and that she had the support of the commission and administration,” Johnson wrote in his statement to the sheriff’s office. “So I made sure all of the employees knew that Rusty was leaving immediately and that we supported Pam. As we left the office, Ms. Tucker thanked (me) and requested a hug.”
Johnson gave her an “appropriate hug” and told her, “We’ll get through this.”
That evening, Johnson sent Tucker an encouraging text message to show his support of her.
Johnson wrote, “I really appreciate your willingness to press on today. I know it has been a tough week for you. We’ll get through this together. As I said today, you are a vital part of our team in Columbia County. I hope you get some rest tonight.”
Tucker appeared to appreciate Johnson’s comments.
“I feel a lot better and greatly appreciate you working with me also,” Tucker texted back. “We are a good team and I will always be there for you to help in any way.”
In Johnson’s mind, he felt they were on a positive path forward.
But less than a week later, on Jan. 18, he received another text from Tucker in the evening stating that she wanted to leave.
Johnson quickly responded by saying, “No one wants you to leave. Has something else happened? I thought we were working towards a better situation. What has changed? Do you really want to leave so bad?”
Tucker answered, “Yes I do.”
Once again, Johnson decided to record the conversation.
During that meeting with Johnson and Cross, Tucker said that she felt like “part of her soul and her spirit was taken away.”
She further stated that an AED donation to Columbia County had been scheduled, but she was told not to attend the meeting because, she claimed, “The sheriff didn’t want me there.”
Tucker told both Cross and Johnson that she felt like she didn’t fit in anymore.
She claimed she was “older, and not young and sexy, and don’t fit the mold.”
Cross jokingly replied, “Do you think I fit the mold?”
But Tucker added that she also couldn’t get over the fact that Johnson had talked to the three managers about Welsh’s accusations against her.
Tucker stated during the recorded conversation, “If I can just get my severance pay, we can do something that’s unified and happy. I’ll do whatever I have to do. I don’t want any backlash to y’all and I know that’s the biggest concern.”
Johnson said he was baffled by the entire discussion.
“All of a sudden we were kind of right back in the same spot again, so I think it has to do a lot with her desire to have people like her,” Johnson said. “She talked a lot about me not liking her. I never disliked Pam. I don’t dislike Pam today. I still say she is the best EMA director that this county ever had and probably the best one in the state. She is very good at being an EMA director.”
But it was clear during that meeting with Cross that Tucker was preparing to resign.
She even told Cross and Johnson, “At this point, I’m not going to change my mind.”
On Jan. 24, the commissioners met in executive session to discuss Tucker’s desire to resign and her request for severance pay. However, because Tucker had just renewed her contract, she was not eligible for severance under the county’s guidelines, Johnson said.
“She was denied her severance for a very legal reason,” Johnson said. “It didn’t have anything to do with her personality. She had just signed a contract starting Jan. 1. You can’t receive a severance right after you sign your contract.”
Initially, Cross and Tucker were scheduled to meet to discuss her resignation on Jan. 27, but Johnson said he was told that Tucker delayed the meeting until Jan. 31 at 9 a.m.
Over that entire week, Johnson said he had limited interaction with Tucker.
Finally, Jan. 31 came and Tucker met with Cross alone in his office where she presented him with the letter accusing Johnson of creating a “hostile work environment.”
Johnson said he was stunned to discover that Tucker had accused him of “harsh treatment, berating her, being dishonest with the commissioners in regard to her leadership, verbal attacks and having an ongoing campaign to force her out of her job.”
During her interview with the sheriff’s investigator, Tucker said that she is “1000 percent sure” that Johnson acted the way he did out of “professionally jealousy” of her.
“I can’t speak to what she said or how she feels, but I can tell you that I am not even 1 percent jealous of her professionally,” Johnson said. “I am not jealous of any of our division directors. I don’t think any of them are jealous of me. We work here as a team.”
In fact, Johnson said he prefers to work in the background without much attention.
“Pam made the comment one time that she could go anywhere and she doesn’t have to wear a name tag because everybody knows who she is,” Johnson said. “And that maybe very true. To the contrary, I go a lot of places and people have no idea who I am and they have no idea what I do for a living. And when I tell them I am a county administrator, they have no idea what the county administrator does. And that is the way I want it.”
Unfortunately, since Tucker’s allegations against him, Johnson said many people in the community have developed an extremely unflattering picture of him.
“Pam resigned on Tuesday, Jan. 31,” Johnson said. “Immediately following her resignation, there were thousands of comments and outpouring of support for her. There were people coming out against me saying, ‘What a bully! How terrible. Fire him and keep her. Make her the county administrator.’ It was very difficult. I was accused, tried, convicted and hung in 48 hours after Pam made the allegations before anybody ever knew what really happened.”
The very next morning after Tucker submitted her resignation accusing Johnson of a hostile work environment, Johnson said he had a budget meeting schedule with Tucker and her entire staff.
“Not even 24 hours after she resigned,” Johnson said, shaking his head. “And you know what? I went in there and conducted myself as a professional. I acted like nothing had happened. I acted like I had not been accused of anything.”
However, Johnson said he couldn’t help but notice Tucker’s change in demeanor.
“She seemed glowing,” Johnson said. “She seemed happier than she had been in a long time. So she was either happy that she was leaving, happy that she had a lot of support from the community or happy that I was being beaten up. I don’t know why she was happy, but she was very obviously happy.”
After this entire ordeal, Johnson said he has learned the harsh realities of social media, its bullying mentality, the existence of media bias and the difficulty of clearing your name once false allegations are made against you.
“Even though the investigation is out and even though what I feel like the truth is out, there is still an attempt to slander and ruin me,” Johnson said. “I hate that there is this dark cloud that is hanging over our heads because it is really not Columbia County. It is not what we are all about.”