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Knox County, former parks director reach agreement over 2020 firing

Knox County said it fired Paul White in 2020 over his "management style," saying it had nothing to do with the misappropriation of funds of county property.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Knox County has resolved a lawsuit with its former senior parks director after firing him in 2020 for his "management style."

Soon after Tuesday's announcement of a resolution with Paul White, both sides blasted each other with accusations.

In his slightly more than two years as senior parks director, White fostered a "hostile work environment," a release from the Knox County Mayor's Office stated.

"I’m frustrated and angry our employees had to deal with bullying, harassment, embarrassment, and toxicity. I can’t undo what happened but am proud of how our team responded and the changes that resulted. Ultimately, our Parks & Recreation department is in a much better place today,” a statement attributed to Mayor Glenn Jacobs reads.

White's attorney David Burkhalter replied in a message Tuesday afternoon that the county had committed "a horrible hit job" on his client.

"This vindictive action is obviously disappointing, and it is unfortunate that the County continues to disparage Mr. White, even after he agreed in good faith to the settlement," the attorney's statement reads.

The lawsuit was settled for $150,000, according to Burkhalter's office.

According to the Mayor's Office, White got $97,771 and Burkhalter got $54,228.

As the Mayor's Office and Burkhalter traded barbs through the media, the county issued another statement Tuesday afternoon: "All relevant information can be found in reports from our internal/external auditors, the Comptroller’s office, and the previous release. The record speaks for itself. The County has nothing else to say on the matter."

Investigations and accusations

White came under scrutiny in 2020 when the state Comptroller's Office and an auditing firm began investigating potential "wrongdoings" involving White and Bryan Hair, Knox County's former chief of staff.

Hair resigned in October 2020 shortly after being accused of using a county-owned golf cart for months for personal reasons. Jacobs then fired White, who Hair had helped get hired in 2018.

A Knox County grand jury later indicted Hair on an official misconduct charge in 2021. Hair is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty in September 2022.

According to the Comptroller's Office, Parks and Recreation purchased two used carts from a Sevierville dealer on May 21. The county said the comptroller's findings showed White had signed the receipts for the carts.

Following his firing, White filed a federal lawsuit against the county. He blamed members of Jacobs' staff as well as Jacobs himself for mismanagement and failure to do their jobs.

He alleged that the mayor knew or should have known that Hair and county employee Chuck James were using county property and employees for their personal benefit. He said, for example, that he and two employees spent two hours in June 2020 at Jacobs' home helping the mayor's wife with the removal of a snake.

White alleged he tried to raise concerns about Hair using the county-owned golf cart to various people including human resources principals but no one would take action.

White faced insubordination by staff members, but no one in management would stand up in his defense, his lawsuit alleged.

The county and White originally were supposed to quietly resolve the lawsuit and announce it this month. Relations between the sides, however, turned acrimonious in recent days.

The Mayor's Office on Tuesday said it investigated what White included in his lawsuit. County employees disputed most "if not all" of his allegations.

"White himself admitted he never reported any illegal activity to law enforcement," the county said Tuesday.

"His alleged oral complaints of illegal activity are denied by every other witness and not supported by any documentation or physical record," the county said.

Transcripts of interviews with county employees about White show they thought he was vindictive, insecure, and engaged in "inappropriate" behavior while serving as boss over the parks department. He made some employees cry, the transcripts show.

One employee called him "power hungry" and "very paranoid" in her interview.

"If you don't agree with him, he becomes agitated, aggressive," another employee said.

Staff also said they were mindful that Hair was to blame for White being on staff.

"There has been no feeling of we have any safety and our jobs would be on the line if we speak up, and I think a lot of that comes back to Bryan Hair. He was good friends with Paul and it doesn't take much to understand he's the one that, you know, he's the reason why Paul was working for us," said Shauna Godlevsky.

What happens next

Burkhalter said he was evaluating his client's options.

"Here is the moral of the story: Officials will tell Knox County taxpayers that they did nothing wrong, deny any and all liability, and attempt to bully and distract with relentless attacks on those who stand up against them. Mr. White could resort to the same level since there is plenty that he could share in this Press Release, but that is not who he is," his release states.

In the settlement statement Tuesday, Knox County said it had fired White specifically for his "management style," saying his termination had "nothing to do with misappropriation of funds or Knox County property." Up until Tuesday, the county had not formally said what White had been fired for.

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