May 16, 2020 – UPDATED 6:00 p.m.: It’s been almost a year since Alderwoman-at-Large Kesha Gibson-Carter sued the members of the Board of Directors of the Rape Crisis Center of Savannah (RCC) and members of other non-profit entities for damages, alleging violation of her rights pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She was employed as the Executive Director of the RCC from 2013 until June 2018.
More than one member of the Savannah City Council has questioned whether Ms. Gibson-Carter should recuse herself from votes which relate to City contracts that involve individuals named in the suit, including two engineers with Thomas & Hutton Engineering. Neither of the individuals who are defendants in the case, however, are partners, members of the board of the firm, or senior managers of the company.
The issue of conflicts of interest has been raised more than once in Ms. Gibson-Carter’s first four months in office. On Thursday, she recused herself during the meeting regarding a discussion on a potential major land swap between the City of Savannah and the Savannah College of Art & Design which is seeking to build a new dormitory. Her husband is an employee at SCAD in the Athletic Dept., though the land swap was not related to SCAD’s sports program.
Acting City Attorney Bates Lovett ruled Thursday during the meeting that she did not need to recuse herself from voting on the $58,500 contract amendment for Thomas & Hutton on the Agenda to repairing a cracked wall along a city right of way on River Street.
Many local officials, including six police chiefs, are also named in the suit, including former Savannah PD Chief Jack Lumpkin. A portion of the funding for The Rape Crisis Center comes from City of Savannah funds, as well.
Ms. Gibson-Carter alleges that The Rape Crisis Center board members and its Savannah Community Partners (SCP) and the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) conspired to remove her as Executive Director of the RCC after she made public statements that law enforcement entities in the surrounding community were not doing their due diligence in investigative work or subsequent arrests and prosecution of sexual assault offenders. Chatham County District Attorney Meg Heap is also one of the parties named as a Defendant.
Ms. Gibson-Carter is represented by Atty. Mario Williams, president of NDH, LLC attorneys with offices in Atlanta and Denver, and Maria-Vittoria Carminati with NDH LLC. The case is currently in the District Court for the Southern District of Georgia Savannah Division, and a jury trial has been sought. In October, the case was reassigned to Magistrate Judge Brian K. Epps for all further proceedings.
Attorneys for all of the defendants have either filed for their clients to be removed from the case, or for the case to be dismissed, but Judge Epps has made no rulings. The latest filings in the case were in mid-December by various attorneys. It is normal for a judge to take six months or more to rule on motions to dismiss, according to a leading Savannah attorney.
In the brief filed by Ms. Gibson-Carter legal team, they allege, “For speaking out as an advocate and on behalf of victims of rape, in her capacity as Executive Director of the RCC, the RCC Board members and the SCP sacrificed her, silencing her critically necessary voice from a conversation that has weight for not only the sexual assault victims in the Savannah community, but for our country’s community at large.”
“Prior to her public statements alluding to deficiencies in the Chatham County District Attorney’s office, the RCC Board never expressed any issues with Ms. Gibson- Carter’s performance as Executive Director; when the SCP sent a letter to the RCC complaining of dissatisfaction, it tipped the first domino in a fall that resulted in the end of Ms. Gibson-Carter’s career. Assisting the velocity of her fall were the numerous false accusations against her by the RCC Board and the SCP, false statements to the press, and racist behavior from Board members and community partners, a large majority of whom are white. In fact, at least one Board member admitted that attack was ‘racial.’
“In support of the retaliation and conspiracy against Ms. Gibson-Carter as a result of her statements, Board members released privileged and false information to the Savannah Morning News and other high-profile individuals, leading to false and defamatory allegations, emotional distress, loss of income, humiliation, and other indignities,” the suit states.
The corporation The Rape Crisis Center is named as a Defendant in the suit, along with 24 individuals who were members of the Board of the RCC and two other community organizations.
The individuals named in the suit include Gilbert Ballard, Cheryl Branch, Heather Booth, Robert Bryson, Deena Camacho, Sandra Clark, Pat Douglas, Kimberly Fritz-Tanner, Rose Grant-Robinson, Meg Heap (Chatham County District Attorney), Joseph Hogan, Mike Hughes, A. Blair Jeffcoat, Katie Joyner-Barber, Matt Libby, Joseph Lumpkin, Brett Lundy, Mark Merriman, Mark Revenew, Mary Roberts, Cheryl Rogers, Kevin Shea, and Lynne Wolf.
“This was a collective conspiracy—instigated and led by the government-- against Ms. Gibson-Carter in retaliation for being an African American woman in a position of power and for leveraging that position to engage her First Amendment rights, speaking truth in order to educate the community about the realistic status of the diligence surrounding the prosecution of sexual assault offenders. The ring leader was Defendant Meg Heap, Chatham County District Attorney, who stepped out of her prosecutorial role, to pressure other Defendants to collude in firing Ms. Gibson-Carter, who was Ms. Heap’s public critic. If the Executive Director of the Rape Crisis Center is not permitted to be the public voice for sexual assault victims, who is permitted to?
Who should be?,” the initial case filing states.
She also filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on June 27, 2018 – within 180 days of the occurrence of the discrimination and the RCC’s termination of her employment - and received her Notice of Right to Sue on March 5, 2019 and instituted this civil action in the appropriate federal district court within 90 days of the receipt of Notice of Right to Sue.
The Rape Crisis Center of the Coastal Empire serves Chatham, Bryan, Effingham, Liberty, Evans, Long and Tattnall counties, and is funded by the city of Savannah, Chatham County, United Way of the Coastal Empire, and Georgia’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
Time Line of Alleged Actions Against Gibson-Carter
According to her attorneys, the case began at a December 2017 Savannah City Council meeting, Ms. Gibson-Carter where she publicly expressed her concerns about deficiencies in the Chatham County District Attorney’s Office and its law enforcement affiliates’ arrest, prosecution, and conviction rates of sexual assault offenders, referencing the RCC’s law enforcement and community partners Joseph Lumpkin, Gilbert Ballard, Matt Libby, Robert Bryson, Cheryl Branch, Rose Grant-Robinson, Robert Merriman, A. Blair Jeffcoat, Mark Revenew, Meg Heap, Wendy Furey, and Cheryl Rogers. Joseph “Jack” Lumpkin, Chief of the Savannah Police Dept. was present at the meeting.
After making her statements, District Attorney Meg Heap sat down with Ms. Gibson-Carter and communicated that she could be charged with a misdemeanor for neglecting to redact a child’s name from an email when checking on the child’s welfare in August 2017 (4 months prior); this issue was never brought up by Defendant Meg Heap until after Ms. Gibson-Carter publicly stated her concerns about the deficiencies the Chatham County District Attorney’s office.
In an open meeting between Defendant RCC and law enforcement, Defendant Meg Heap’s staff member, Asst. District Attorney Jenny Parker, publicly uttered the same sentiments related to the alleged misdemeanor; this meeting was recorded without Ms. Gibson- Carter’s knowledge.
In a later Savannah City Council meeting in December 2017, Ms. Gibson-Carter publicly remarked that Defendant Meg Heap, ADA Jenny Parker, and the District Attorney Office’s reaction to her comments at the last City Council meeting was “workplace bullying at its finest.” Ms. Gibson-Carter publicly stated, “I won’t give up, let up or stop or keep quiet.”
One month after Ms. Gibson-Carter’s public statements, in January 2018, a collection of Savannah Community Partners (SCP) delivered a letter to the RCC Board of Directors complaining that “important community relationships have become unnecessarily strained and less than productive.” The letter from the SCP Defendants to the RCC Defendants complained of dissatisfaction but did not provide specifics as to any of the perceived challenges or suggestions on how to solve them; rather, the SCP requested time to speak with the entire RCC Board. The 10 signatories to the letter were all Caucasian, the legal filings states, adding “Savannah-Chatham County Public School System Chief Terry Enoch and Savannah State Police Chief James Barnwell were not asked to sign the SCP’s January letter of concern, despite the fact that Ms. Gibson-Carter had more cases with the Board of Education and Savannah State University than many of the law enforcement agencies who signed the January letter; both Enoch and Barnwell are African American.
Pursuant to the meeting requested in the January letter, the SCP met with the RCC Board in February 2018 and requested the removal of Ms. Gibson-Carter as the Executive Director, hosted at Thomas & Hutton Engineering’s office in Savannah.
“Thomas & Hutton Engineering is a firm in Savannah heavily supported by the Mayor in Savannah and Alderwoman Carol Bell. Upon information and belief, the Mayor and Alderwoman Carol Bell had a vested interested in silencing Ms. Gibson-Carter because of her public statements on deficiencies in the state of Georgia’s and the City of Savannah’s arrest, prosecution, and conviction rates of sexual assault offenders,” the case states.
Attorneys with Gordon Rees Scully Manshukhani, LLP, on behalf of the twelve RCC board members who are defendants, filed a Motion to Dismiss stating that the case “is not about freedom of speech or discrimination. It is about an at-will non-profit director who forgot about the mission that she was hired to fulfill and the people that she was hired to help. Plaintiff Kesha Gibson-Carter (“Plaintiff”) stopped being an advocate for victims of rape on behalf of the Defendant Rape Crisis Center of the Coastal Empire, Inc. (the “Rape Crisis Center”) and morphed into a politically motivated activist whose mission was to win an election.”
“Plaintiff became a bridge burner. And, one cannot be a director of a major non-profit corporation like the Rape Crisis Center, whose mission to help victims relies on its relationships with community partners, when you are an unapologetic bridge burner. After Plaintiff burned almost all of the Rape Crisis Center’s partner bridges, the Rape Crisis Center’s Board of Directors, Lynne Wolf, Heather Booth, Deena Camacho, Sandra Clark, Pat Douglas, Kimberly Tanner, Joseph Hogan, Mike Hughes, Katie Joyner, Brett Lundy, Mary Roberts, and Kevin Shea (the “Individual RCC Defendants” and together with the Rape Crisis Center, the “Rape Crisis Center Defendants”) did what Plaintiff’s actions and the Rape Crisis Center’s Bylaws compelled them to do. The Rape Crisis Center and its Board of Directors had no choice but to terminate Plaintiff’s employment. The Rape Crisis Center and non-profit corporations like it simply cannot exist without the support and funding of community partners. The Rape Crisis Center needed a bridge builder, not a bridge burner.”
Should Gibson-Carter Recuse Herself?
Alderman Nick Palumbo raised the issue at Thursday’s meeting of whether “a member of the Council should elect to recuse themselves” as the discussion was underway on the contract amendment for Thomas & Hutton, and Gibson-Carter was asking a number of questions about why they City Manager had not put the repair out to bid.
Palumbo did not name Gibson-Carter, stating that perhaps the Council member would “like to identify themselves.” No member of Council responded.
But in an interview on Friday, Palumbo stated that he was concerned about whether Gibson-Carter was able to be objective about decisions relative to Thomas & Hutton, which has a number of contracts with the City of Savannah.
“Legally, she may not have to recuse herself, but there is the moral question,” he said, and the intent of conflict of interest laws at both the local and state level.
Gibson-Carter ultimately voted in favor of the contract for Thomas & Hutton to repair a cracked historic wall on River Street that is on a city right of way, after listening to the reasons given by Monahan. She states that she questions all contracts, and did not realize that Alderman Palumbo was referring to her in asking if any Alderperson wanted to disclose a possible conflict of interest relative to the agenda item. The amendment was made to an existing contract in the streetscape that the firm is completing for the city.
Alderman Kurtis Purtee, representing District 6, stated Friday, “We just went through and signed an Ethics pledge. And, anybody can go online and look at the Municipal Cities of Georgia Assn. ethics information on how city government should run ethically and morally. There are two items that, if they came up, I would recuse myself on because they’re my employer, or part of my campaign. If those people were to come up, I’m going to disclose that, and recuse myself. If I had a lawsuit, 1) you should disclose it, and 2) you should recuse it. Moving forward any of those entities that she’s involved with, she needs to disclose it and recuse,” he said, in an interview Friday.
Alderwoman Bernetta Lanier said that she didn’t know anything about Gibson-Carter’s case, but “I trust the legal opinion of Bates (Lovett). He’s an excellent attorney. I’m going to go on that.”
Lovett stated Friday morning, in a telephone interview, that there was no law that required her to recuse from voting on the Thomas & Hutton contract.
As to the state of her lawsuit, attempts to reach the attorneys representing Ms. Gibson-Carter were unsuccessful, regarding their view on when the judge may rule on the motions to dismiss.
Attempts to reach Burton F. Peebles, lead attorney on the case for the RCC board members were also unsuccessful.
The six police chiefs named in the case are represented by Oliver Manor of Savannah. The firm is seeking to remove their clients from the case as they were not members of the board of the RCC which dismissed Ms. Gibson-Carter.
Editor’s Note: CORRECTION: This article was corrected on Sat. May 16 at 5:00 p.m. We originally reported that Ms. Gibson-Carter voted against the Contract Amendment for Thomas & Hutton.