Houston & Peach

Warner Robins IT employee sues city, alleges he was blamed, punished for phony email

The City of Warner Robins is being sued by an employee who alleges he was falsely accused and punished for impersonating a Telegraph reporter in an open records request emailed to the city in April 2015.

John Joseph Hildebrand III had been working as the city’s network administrator for about seven months when the email, sent from the Google address wcrenshaw0058@gmail.com, was received by the records clerk on April 8, 2015.

The message sought information about the selection of Bill Harte over John Wagoner for City Clerk and was “ostensibly” from Telegraph reporter Wayne Crenshaw. But it was found that Crenshaw didn’t write the email, according to the lawsuit filed June 30 in Houston County Superior Court.

Three days after the phony email was sent, Mayor Randy Toms “encouraged (Hildebrand) to become involved in a clandestine investigation” when he asked Hildebrand and his father, Jack Hildebrand, if they would help identify the sender, according to the lawsuit.

The Hildebrands agreed and Toms gave them his city-issued laptop to take home for examination, the lawsuit says. Jack Hildebrand tried to trace the email back to it’s sender.

Ten months later, on Feb. 12, 2016, Warner Robins police officer Brian Smith asked John Hildebrand, “under false pretenses,” to come to the police department, where Smith interrogated him about the email, according to the lawsuit.

There, Hildebrand was “threatened with criminal charges and the loss of employment by officer Brian Smith,” according to the lawsuit. When Hildebrand returned to work, he was placed on administrative leave with pay.

The lawsuit contends that he was “accused by Mayor Randy Toms and other city personnel of lying about a crime that never occurred.”

A little more than a month later, on March 26, 2016, Hildebrand was “forced to submit to a polygraph examination” given by a private detective that was hired” either by the city or Gary Rothwell, owner of Rothwell Confidential Services, according to the lawsuit.

About a month after that, on May 4, 2016, the lawsuit alleges Harte sent Hildebrand a letter stating that he would be suspended for three days with pay, pending discharge for “willfully giving false statements to supervisors, managers, officials or the public, including falsification of city records,” criminal, infamous or dishonest conduct and “any other good and sufficient cause which adversely affects the safety, welfare, efficiency or successful performance of city services.”

About two weeks later, Hildebrand received a “final notice of disciplinary action” from Harte, according to the lawsuit.

Hildebrand appealed his termination five days later and a hearing was scheduled for June.

The hearing was rescheduled for July 15, when, the lawsuit alleges, “the city ... realized that there was no evidence of any wrong-doing ... and there was no case to be made against” Hildebrand.

The same day, the mayor, city attorney Jim Elliott, Hildebrand and his attorney, met and agreed that Hildebrand would get his job back and receive some back-pay and reimbursement for some attorney’s fees, according to the lawsuit.

Elliott said he had glanced through the lawsuit but had not read through it completely. He did say, “We think the employee was treated fairly and hasn’t really suffered any damages, and so, I’m sure we’ll vigorously defend the lawsuit.”

There were no court hearings and Hildebrand never admitted any wrong-doing, the lawsuit says.

Hildebrand returned to work but was demoted to a network specialist and restrictions were imposed by the city “that are in the nature of discipline,” the lawsuit says. Hildebrand is no longer allowed to enter the Law Enforcement Center or the Municipal Court, and he can’t work on their computers or access their networks, the lawsuit says.

Hildebrand is seeking all of his back-pay and his original position as full-time network administrator and is asking for the city to pay all attorney’s fees.

City Council members Tim Thomas, Chuck Shaheen, Keith Lauritsen, Clifford Holmes, Mike Davis and Carolyn Robbins were mentioned as defendants. The lawsuit mentions Toms both individually and as mayor.

Hildebrand, who made an hourly pay of $18.37 at the start of his employment, is represented by lawyer Stanley Martin. Martin refused to comment on the matter when reached by phone Monday evening.

Laura Corley: 478-744-4334, @Lauraecor