Towaliga assistant public defender fired after months of tension

lcorley@macon.comOctober 18, 2013 

Jim Kight, a former Towaliga Judicial Circuit assistant public defender, was fired last week after months of friction between him and his bosses.

Kight said former Circuit Public Defender Wanda Johnson attempted to fire him on two occasions before she was replaced in September by Doug Smith of Marietta. Kight was finally ousted by Smith Oct. 9.

Smith confirmed the termination but refused to say why Kight was let go.

The Towaliga Circuit includes Butts, Lamar and Monroe counties.

Kight said Smith told him he wanted to go in a new direction. The Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, which oversees the state’s circuits, would not comment about the firing.

Kight said the standards council told him he was fired for not showing up to work.

Kight said his wife was in a car wreck on Oct. 3, and that he called Smith that evening to tell him. Kight said he also came down with a lung infection that weekend but checked in with Smith daily. Kight said he told Smith on Oct. 8 he would be back for court Oct. 10. Instead, Kight said Smith called and fired him the day before he was due back at work.

Smith declined further comment on the firing.

Kight’s conflicts in the office date back to May, when he filed a grievance with the standards council while Johnson was still his boss. That grievance alleged poor working conditions.

Kight, who commutes from his home in St. Augustine, Fla., said the Forsyth office where he worked would reach 89 degrees in the summer, and there was no air conditioning. Kight said he discussed his concerns with Johnson before filing the grievance. He tweeted pictures of black mold and rotting wood.

Johnson and Kight served together in the circuit for more than eight years. The two had what fellow assistant Public Defender Elmo Remick called “personal clashes.”

“He was wanting to improve, and (Johnson) didn’t go along with his means of trying to make things improve,” Remick said.

Kight said the standards council suggested he take some of his issues to the local supervisory panel, which was nonexistent for eight years until it was revived in June.

Panel inactive for years

In 2011, the Monroe County Commission provided the standards council with the name of attorney Franklin Freeman, who on paper had been a panel member for five years. In his June resignation letter to the standards council, Freeman said he served on the panel around 2005, when the public defender system first set it up. Freeman understood then that he was only needed temporarily. He said he retired and closed his law practice in 2006 and was surprised to learn he was still on the panel.

Current members Mike Dillon, an attorney in Forsyth who replaced Freeman, and Eric Hearn, an attorney in Barnesville, were appointed in June to the voluntary panel. The third member is chosen by the governor, which has yet to happen.

The only responsibilities of panel members, Hearn said, are submitting two names to the standards council to replace the circuit’s public defender and review the office annually.

One of the names submitted by the panel for the public defender position was Smith, who got the job. Kight and several others applied for the position, too.

Kight said he recorded Johnson attempting to fire him in June for filing a grievance with the state. That’s why Kight says he thinks he has a solid whistle-blower case.

When reached by phone about Kight’s allegation, Johnson said, “It’s not even worth the comment.” Johnson declined further comment.

In July, the public defender’s office moved out of its non-air-conditioned space into an air-conditioned studio on Jackson Street in Forsyth.

Kight said he thought things were getting better until Johnson tried to fire him a second time in September, just before the panel released names of the two chosen applicants for circuit public defender.

Travis Sakrison, executive director of the standards council, said Kight was not officially fired by Johnson despite two attempts.

“There is a process for terminating someone in our system, and that process was never completed,” Sakrison said.

Kight said he feels like he has been used.

“There’s no real reason to remove me except that I caused such a ruckus,” Kight said. “Nobody likes the person that shines the light on everything.”

Kight said he is weighing his legal options.

To contact writer Laura Corley, call 744-4347.

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