A former Brooklet police officer fired for sharing information about candidates for the town’s police chief position said he was terminated unfairly and improperly, but the Brooklet city councilman who supervises the police department says the officer was fired for breaking privacy laws.
Former police Sgt. Jonathan McGahee was terminated Dec. 9 by Brooklet City Councilman Greg Schlierf, who notified McGahee in letter that day. Upon request from the Statesboro Herald, Brooklet City Clerk Lori Phillips provided a copy of the letter, as well as other records regarding the termination.
McGahee was on the search committee for a new chief, and when he received an email from Schlierf including resumes and personal information for numerous candidates, he shared the email with one of the candidates, Matt Lynn, who was also a part-time Brooklet officer, Schlierf said Thursday.
Schlierf said the email contained information about several of the 17 candidates, including resumes and applications, but only one candidate’s Social Security number was included in that particular email. Bulloch County Coroner Jake Futch, who applied for the position and whose personal identity information was shared, filed a report with the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office when Schlierf informed him of the breach.
“I’ve worked too long and too hard to become the man I am, to have something like this happen,” Futch said. “It’s scary. I have no idea whether someone in California is buying a house in my name. I don’t understand reasons behind this.”
McGahee said Tuesday that he shared the email with Lynn because he is a close friend, and he sought Lynn’s advice on selecting finalists in the bid for the chief’s position.
Lynn told the Statesboro Herald Friday that he asked McGahee to forward him the information because he was conducting his own investigation into the background of a woman he said was a finalist for the chief’s position.
Lynn said that candidate, whom he called by name, is involved in a POST (Peace Officers Standards and Training) investigation for termination from a previous law enforcement agency. He said he was concerned that Brooklet council members were considering a finalist with that background, and that is why he asked McGahee to forward the email.
Lynn said he believes McGahee’s termination was planned.
“We knew it was coming. They just needed a reason,” he said. “Jonathan was a good officer. He got the screw job there.”
Lynn has resigned from his part-time position with the Brooklet Police Department.
The town has made a decision regarding the chief’s position and will officially release the new chief’s information soon, Schlierf said.
In the original letter regarding McGahee’s termination, Schlierf wrote: “Let this letter serve as official notice that your employment with the City of Brooklet has been terminated immediately.
“As a result of an investigation of misconduct related to the chief of police search, you have been found to have forwarded candidate information to a person who was not part of the official search process (and at the time, an active candidate),” the letter reads.
”This not only violates the confidentiality order given to participate in the search, it also violates the Georgia Open Records Act. By passing this information on, you released over 30 pieces of information that is protected by this act,” the letter continues. “You are hereby terminated for: insubordination, being negligent in perform(ing) assigned duties; being unable to perform assigned duties, (and) conduct unbecoming to a city employee.”
McGahee denied ever signing a confidentiality agreement and said he was never given verbal directions to keep the information private. Schlierf disputed this, and said all members of the search committee, which included some Brooklet police officers, agreed during a meeting that they would keep the information confidential. After McGahee’s termination, the remaining committee members signed a confidentiality clause, Schlierf said.
McGahee appealed the termination, submitting a handwritten letter asking for a public hearing with Brooklet City Council members except for Schlierf, whom he said he felt would be biased. The appeal was heard before the entire council, including Schlierf, McGahee said.
After the Dec. 23 meeting, Brooklet Mayor William R. Hendrix notified McGahee by letter that the council upheld the decision to fire him.
That letter reads: “Mr. McGahee, This is to notify you that the Brooklet City Council unanimously upheld your termination effective Dec. 9, 2014 during the meeting on Dec. 23, 2014.”
McGahee was given until noon Dec. 12 to surrender city-issued equipment and was informed by Schlierf’s letter that he would receive full pay for that week ending Dec. 12, and pay for five accrued vacation and compensation days.
McGahee said Tuesday he did not intend any harm in sharing the email with the candidates’ information. He said Lynn is a “closer friend” and he was only seeking Lynn’s input. His actions were “not to hurt the police department or the city, but was me as a sergeant wanting the best for Brooklet.”
He also said he feels his termination is connected to former Brooklet Police Chief Mike Buchan’s resignation in September. At that time, Schlierf said the town and Buchan had “differences” leading to his resignation and that terms and conditions of Buchan's resignation were sealed upon "mutual agreement" between the city and Buchan.
McGahee’s claim is untrue, Schlierf said.
“Absolutely not,” Schlierf said. “I like Jonathan, but this has nothing to do with (Buchan) or (McGahee’s) performance.”
The termination was caused by McGahee’s actions, Schlierf said.
McGahee also said Schlierf, in a conversation regarding rumors that the councilman had issues with the sergeant, told him “I’d be better off as a Statesboro police officer or with the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Department.”
Schlierf said during a past conversation with McGahee, he did say that, but meant it to suggest that McGahee further his career in an environment with more opportunity.
“I have never been out to get him,” Schlierf said. “It’s like this. He was a good guy, but I will not tolerate an employee who undermines the business we have to do. It’s not the person so much as the action. It’s not ethical, and (it is) in violation (of confidentiality laws).”
McGahee declined to comment on whether he intends to take the matter further via court action, but a letter from an anonymous person referenced a potential lawsuit.
The letter, a copy of which was provided to the Statesboro Herald by Phillips, was from “a concerned citizen on behalf of Brooklet Police Sgt. Jonathan Eric McGahee,” asked that he be reinstated until the vacated position could be filled, or that he be allowed to resign with 90 days’ pay and that the termination letter be expunged from his records. The anonymous letter said McGahee’s termination was wrongful and “may possibly result in further legal action against those responsible.”
The anonymous letter questioned whether McGahee was made aware of the investigation against him, whether those investigating were qualified to do so and whether there are any legal documents to support claims, and suggested the investigation was illegal because the Brooklet Police Department does not have an internal affairs department.
Schlierf said there was no official investigation beyond his discovery that McGahee shared the confidential information. A woman who allegedly received the forwarded email from Lynn contacted Schlierf, who traced the emails back to McGahee, the councilman said.
Futch said Thursday that he is seeking an attorney’s advice on the matter of the security breach and may possibly file suit regarding the incident.
Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.