March 28, 2013

Former Murray magistrate workers sue

Rachel Brown
rachelbrown@daltoncitizen.com

— Three former Murray County Magistrate Court employees filed a lawsuit in federal court in Rome on Wednesday, claiming they were sexually harassed by then-chief magistrate Bryant Cochran while county officials negligently failed to protect their rights.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for emotional distress, lost income, attorneys fees and other costs. It names Cochran and Murray County government as defendants.

Ben Mathis, an Atlanta-based attorney for the county, said accusations that county officials were negligent and that county policy didn’t afford employees a way to file a complaint with someone other than the supervisor who was allegedly harassing them aren’t true.

“We don’t believe there’s any liability on the part of the county,” Mathis said. “There seems to be a great deal of dispute about what occurred in that office with the former judge. He has a view, and the ladies have a view, but at least with respect to the county, there were avenues that they could have used if they really believed there was a problem.”

The former employees — Yesenia Galvan, Sonya Petty and Virginia Rector — allege in the lawsuit that Cochran used “intimidation tactics” to threaten them if they supported any other candidate during his bid for re-election, and they claim he made explicit and lewd comments to and around them in the office. The lawsuit claims Cochran touched Rector in a sexual manner and suggested they have sex and that the women believed they had no one to formally complain to without also involving Cochran.

Cochran’s attorney, Page A. Pate, didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment. In previous interviews, Pate has said allegations of the women working in a “sexually-charged work environment” are untrue.

Cochran resigned, citing an unrelated reason, after a woman whose case he was set to hear accused him of sexual misconduct, a charge he has denied. The case against him snowballed to include ethical or criminal inquiries from the Judicial Qualifications Commission, Georgia Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Two Murray County Sheriff’s Office employees resigned amid allegations they lied during an investigation. One, Michael Henderson, pleaded guilty Wednesday to a federal charge of obstructing a pending civil rights investigation by tampering with a witness while he was a captain at the sheriff’s office. He’s scheduled for sentencing on May 31 and could get up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The other, former deputy Josh Greeson, is scheduled for trial in federal court in Rome on April 15.

McCracken Poston, an attorney for the former magistrate court employees, said the lack of a sound sexual harassment policy is something that has haunted Murray County.

But Mathis said this isn’t the same as when former county employee Charlene Miles sued on claims that then-sole commissioner David Ridley sexually harassed her. That case was eventually settled out of court.

“(The former magistrate workers) could have gone to the county attorney, they could have gone to a number of people to try to stop this if they were as bothered as they claim to be,” Mathis said. “In my estimation, this kind of thing is what’s wrong with how people use the judicial system.”