The whistleblower lawsuit filed last month against Franklin County, its jail and its jailer raises serious concerns. The jail has been one of the most litigious arms of county government over the years, and millions in taxpayers’ dollars have gone to cleaning up its messes.
One of the most sensational cases put former Jailer Hunter Hay in prison for committing sex crimes against women employees. He received a 10-year sentence in 1995 and five victims later won a $5 million civil judgment. The county had to raise its property tax rate in 2008 to retire a bond issue that was required to pay off a settlement reached with the complainants.
More than 415 former prisoners sued in 2000 over illegal strip searches. That led to a $6 million settlement in U.S. District Court. Then three women filed complaints in 2005 claiming they were illegally searched. It also required a monetary settlement.
The jail’s newest legal problem came to light when employee Chris Blankenship filed suit May 3 charging Jailer Billy Roberts exhibited favoritism toward certain workers. Blankenship claimed he was involuntarily transferred from his former job as government services program director to food services director. The complaint has since been amended to allege the jailer inflicted “emotional distress” on the employee. His lawyer, Richard Guarnieri, said Blankenship told Fiscal Court and Kentucky State Police of Roberts’ alleged personnel abuses.
State police have since acknowledged an investigation into “allegations of possible misconduct.” Lt. David Jude, public affairs commander, expects a lengthy inquiry.
The State Journal’s Lauren Hallow reported that last summer Fiscal Court amended the jail policy manual to prohibit “fraternization,” including dating, cohabitation, marriage and physical/sexual relationships among jail employees and officials. County officials would not say whether this decision stemmed from matters related to Blankenship’s suit, but County Attorney Rick Sparks said the policy was long overdue, “given the issues we previously had under the Hunter Hay administration.”
The current jailer has declined to comment about the lawsuit.
Blankenship’s lawyer, who emphasized that he’s not part of the investigation of jail activities, said he understands the focus is on Roberts’ employment and pay policies.
“A lot of it,” Guarnieri said, “relates to the hiring of employees, recording of their time, people being paid for work they weren’t performing, people being treated preferentially ... favoritism of certain employees who have relationships with Roberts.”
That actually sounds relatively tame, by jail standards. We’ll just have to wait and see what devil is or isn’t in the details. It may be next year before a trial date is set. The litigant is asking for unspecified damages and reinstatement to his former position.
We’ve previously expressed hope that Roberts and Fiscal Court were dedicated to inaugurating a new era of professionalism and fairness at the jail. Unfortunately, there’s a new cloud over that optimism.