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Demorest’s mayor alleges sexual misconduct by Piedmont College president
Austin files affidavit in support of lawsuit by terminated professor
Rick Austin.jpg
Demorest Mayor Rick Austin during his time as a member of the Georgia General Assembly in 2009.

The mayor of Demorest in Habersham County has accused the president of Piedmont College of repeated acts of sexual harassment in a sworn affidavit signed March 13 as part of an ongoing civil lawsuit.

A wrongful termination lawsuit against the college was brought by Robert Wainberg in August.

As part of that suit, Mayor Rick Austin, who is also a biology professor at Piedmont College, detailed in a deposition several incidents of “inappropriate conduct” by James Mellichamp. Mellichamp was named the president of Piedmont College in 2012.

James Mellichamp.jpg
James Mellichamp

“As a faculty member, I have personal knowledge that Dr. Mellichamp engaged in sexual harassment of a faculty member, specifically myself,” Austin states in the affidavit filed in Habersham County Superior Court and obtained by The Times.

Wainberg, a former tenured professor who had worked at the college for about 30 years, was fired last year for alleged Title 9 violations, which cover sexual harassment complaints.

Wainberg’s lawsuit alleges that a harassment accusation against him was made by a “disgruntled male student” who had received a poor grade in Wainberg’s class. 

Robert Wainberg.jpg
Robert Wainberg

The lawsuit also alleges a breach of contract and due process, and that Wainberg has suffered by not being able to find employment and losing health insurance. It further claims that the college acted negligently in its hiring and retention of Mellichamp. 

Wainberg says that it is actually Mellichamp who has engaged in sexual misconduct, an example of the “pot calling the kettle black,” according to the lawsuit. 

Piedmont College officials have not responded to requests for comment from The Times. 

Attorneys for the college, the Atlanta firm Drew Eckl & Farnham LLP, could not be reached for comment. 

Wainberg believes he was fired in an attempt to quash free speech and academic inquiry, according to the lawsuit. 

Austin’s affidavit, given under oath and penalty of perjury, states that he has witnessed Mellichamp’s harassing behavior since Austin was a student at the school, from which he graduated in 1990. 

Austin, a former member of the Georgia House of Representatives and Demorest mayor since 2014, said Mellichamp’s behavior included the unwanted touching of a female student’s “rear end,” providing alcohol for underage students and partying with students.

Additionally, Austin said he has personally received unsolicited emails and statements that were “sexual in nature” from Mellichamp. 

In 2011, according to the affidavit, Austin said he was visiting an administrative office when Mellichamp walked past him, squeezed Austin’s buttocks, and remarked, “Oooh, you’re in shorts today.”

“I remember stating to (the secretary), ‘Did you see that?’ and she replied, ‘Yes, I saw that,’” Austin states in the affidavit. “Then I said to her, ‘I am uncomfortable,’ and she replied, ‘I am uncomfortable, too.’”

“His action and language was clearly overtly sexual in nature to me,” Austin added.

Austin’s affidavit also states that he filed a complaint about the incident with then-president Danny Hollingsworth, that “no one from Piedmont College ever conducted an investigation addressing this issue” and that it has been traumatic for him to now relive.

Hollingsworth was released as president after only nine months.

“I have always stood firmly for what is right and true,” Austin said in a statement to The Times. “I do so now, not only for Dr. Wainberg, but for myself and all victims of sexual abuse, harassment and assault. It is an abuse of power that happens to both men and women.”

Austin states in the affidavit that he believes the Title 9 violations lodged against Wainberg are “an unjustifiable mechanism to terminate him in bad faith.”

Austin adds that he has requested assurances from Piedmont College officials that he and other faculty being deposed for the lawsuit not be subject to retaliation from Mellichamp or his office.

In the affidavit, Austin said that he believes his own son, for example, had been the subject of retaliatory punishment while attending Piedmont College, and Austin’s wife met with school officials about this perceived “inequitable” treatment.

“Piedmont College is sued for negligent hiring and retention of James Mellichamp because they were put on notice of President Mellichamp’s unfitness to lead as a result of his failure to comply with Title 9 laws concerning sexual harassment,” Julie J. Oinonen, who represents Wainberg through her Atlanta firm Williams Oinonen LLC, told The Times in statement. “After Dr. Rob Wainberg, a dedicated professor of three decades, continued to speak out against corruption by the administration, the president wrongfully retaliated against him by terminating him in violation of the tenure and Title 9 policies, falsely accusing him of violating Title 9, before he even had a chance to defend himself or be interviewed by the Title 9 investigators. We are proud of Dr. Rick Austin, a leader of integrity who has shown his courage and leadership in speaking out against abuse of power. Dr. Wainberg filed this suit because he believes the current president threatens the well-being of faculty, students and the institution as a whole.”