EEOC finds Cocke County government, fire department created hostile work environment

Local News
Ellison and Smallwood

Newly released documents show the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that the Cocke County Fire Department and the Cocke County Government as a whole foster a hostile work environment due to a lack of command and control.

In March 2017, Cocke County Emergency Management Agency Director Kevin Benton filed a harassment report against Cocke County Fire Captain Clayton Skip Ellison. According to the incident report, officers were dispatched to the EMA office to review video and audio of an altercation that occurred between Benton and Ellison. The report says Ellison had to be restrained by other firefighters, while Benton stood there, all while wearing a body camera.

In the EEOC report, filed June 21, Benton reported complaints about harassment towards Operational Officer Julie Brooks to Cocke County Mayor Crystal Ottinger and Fire Chief William Smallwood. The report says documents show Benton complained about harassment and retaliation towards both himself and Brooks after reporting the complaints. 

The report also said false allegations were filed against him. He said he was also the target of aggressive and threatening behavior, as well as public criticism after the complaint he reported was posted on Facebook.

The report concluded that Benton was subjected to retaliation after he filed a protected complaint.

The EEOC found that the Cocke County Fire Department and Cocke County Government’s anti-harassment policy and procedures were ineffective. The EEOC invited the parties to work together to resolve the issue, adding that if a resolution couldn’t be reached, then the courts would have to intervene.

Chief Smallwood was fired in 2017 in the midst of a federal sexual harassment investigation and claims of retaliation, according to Ottinger’s office. Captain Ellison was fired from the department in January 2018 for stalking Benton.

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