Candidate running for sheriff's seat was focus of 1990s legal battle that ended in settlement
Robert "Bobby" Waggoner, a candidate for Knox County Sheriff, was at the center of a federal lawsuit that accused him of employment discrimination and using racial slurs, 10News has learned.
The case, initially filed against Southern Railway Company in U.S. District Court in 1990, was eventually settled out of court five years later.
Waggoner, who at the time served as the chief of the company's Atlanta-based internal police department, has – in and out of court – long denied the allegations levied against him.
In the lawsuit, Marina Cooper-Houston, a former employee, accused the company of civil rights violations and said Waggoner racially discriminated against her because she is black.
Waggoner in April 1989 had fired Cooper-Houston, a 20-year employee, for violating the company's confidentiality clause, according to court records. He accused her of leaking private information about a 1988 drug investigation.
The legal battle went through various levels of appeals but the courts never reached a resolution on the claims. The parties eventually settled.
"It was very hard on me – for someone to just take away your livelihood…," Cooper-Houston, 72, told 10News in a telephone interview.
Cooper-Houston added that she received a "decent settlement" but declined to elaborate.
Waggoner, who left Southern Rail on Dec. 31, 2000 and took a job with the Knox County Sheriff's Office a week later, said very little about the lawsuit.
He blamed Cooper-Houston's dismissal on "upper management," although he was one of the top ranking officials in the department at the time, according to court records.
"I wanted her out of my office," he said. "That was my recommendation at the time – not to get her fired from the company."
Waggoner, 67, retired as administrative assistant chief with the Knox County Sheriff's Office last August. He is running against incumbent Jimmy "J.J." Jones and former Knox County deputy Sam Hammett in the May Republican primary for the sheriff's seat. No Democrats filed to run, so the winner will be determined next month.
The sheriff earns about $140,000 annually and is in charge of roughly 1,000 employees and a $70.3 million budget.
Waggoner, who served as Cooper-Houston's general supervisor for roughly four years, fired her in 1989.
He said she leaked confidential information regarding an investigation into police employees buying and selling drugs.
Cooper-Houston, denied it, and her attorneys said Waggoner got his information from "an admitted drug seller" who would "likely have said anything to keep his job and to avoid criminal prosecution," according to records filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.
Her attorneys said he wanted to replace her with a white female, and that Cooper-Houston had long been treated "far worse by her superiors than were her white colleagues," and that she was "obviously being singled out for adverse treatment."
Specifically, the attorneys said Waggoner:
- Imposed restrictions on Cooper-Houston's lunch breaks that weren't applicable to white employees;
- "Intentionally and discriminatorily depressed" her yearly pay raises;
- Denied her requested time off "when a white employee received it without question";
- Refused her training;
- "More closely scrutinized" her trips to buy soft drinks.
During a deposition, Waggoner said: "In my opinion, (she) was not asked to account for her activities any more than anyone else in my office."
But, court records said that Waggoner "was aware of and tolerated racial remarks on the part of his subordinates."
After Waggoner's interview Wednesday with 10News, he sent the station a statement.
It reads: "The claims are absolutely ridiculous and anyone that knows me knows I don't use racial slurs and I never have. Those kinds of words are inconsistent with my personal beliefs, with my faith and with the history and tradition of the Waggoner family."
During a two-day trial in November 1991, several employees testified before a federal magistrate that Waggoner also made a number of racial comments during work and at a "social gathering."
One agent said that he called a black suspect who was under surveillance "that invisible (n-word)," and another worker testified that Waggoner admitted using the term, but indicated that he would apologize to the agent who heard it.
A former lieutenant also said that years prior to Cooper-Houston's dismissal, two employees – one "a reputed homosexual" and the other, a Filipino – had left. At the time, Waggoner said "two down, one to go," referring to Cooper-Houston, according to court records.
Waggoner during testimony denied making these statements "but the magistrate judge found these denials to lack credibility," court records note.
But, the defense team argued that even if Waggoner made the comments, they weren't made toward Cooper-Houston or about her.
"Although The Magistrate judged found Chief Waggoner's denial not credible, the magistrate judge erred by failing to find that Plaintiff was not present when the alleged comments were made," Waggoner's attorneys stated.
The court told Southern Railway to rehire Cooper-Houston and award her back pay for the time she missed while fired. At the time, she earned $36,000 annually as a special agent whose duties were primarily administrative and clerical.
The order was appealed to the District Court where the panel overturned the magistrate's decision.
The District Court, however, noted that Waggoner "did not hold black people in equal respect," but said there "was no evidence that the chief's general attitude played a part in the decision" to fire Cooper-Houston.
That decision, however, was reversed on an appeal to U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. The case was sent back to the trial court because the 11th circuit found that the conflicting explanations for Cooper-Houston's firing needed to be resolved.
The two sides then settled the case in 1995.