Francis Bennett made headlines nearly 30 years ago as a pioneer in the Georgia State Patrol.
She stood proudly alongside Mary Nell Arrington, Ira Nell Koran and Nancy Kay Pickett when they were introduced to Georgians as the patrol's first female troopers, and she eventually rose to the rank of sergeant first class and post commander.
Today Bennett, 63, no longer wears the light blue uniform shirt of the trooper. She was fired from her job as commander of the Blue Ridge post that covers Fannin, Gilmer, Towns and Union counties on the last day of 2006 on the basis of seven specific charges of misconduct.
Bennett, whose 1978 hiring was heralded as a turning point of equality in the Georgia State Patrol, is suing the agency in federal court on the grounds of age and sex discrimination.
"For someone who loves the job as much as I did, they've absolutely destroyed me," Bennett said. "If you're doing a good job and doing it right, they should not kick you out when you get old."
Attorneys for the state patrol, in court documents, deny that Bennett was fired for anything other than well-documented infractions.
Georgia State Patrol spokesman Larry Schnall said he could not comment on the pending litigation, but an answer to Bennett's lawsuit filed by the state Attorney General's office states that "all actions ... were taken for legitimate, nondiscriminatory, nonretaliatory business reasons."
State Patrol officials "performed an investigation into various reported incidents concerning plaintiff and prepared a termination letter containing seven charges, all seven of which were upheld by the State Personnel Board upon (Bennett's) appeal," lawyers with the Attorney General's office wrote.
It was not the first time Bennett was fired from the patrol. While working as safety educator out of the Gainesville post in 1997, she was terminated on the grounds of sexual harassment for inappropriately touching male troopers, a penalty that was later reduced by a state personnel judge to an unpaid suspension. She called her actions "simple horseplay," saying she playful slapped the legs of two subordinates.
Bennett claims that roughly seven years after her 1998 reinstatement, she was targeted by higher-ups after she made complaints about a commander to the patrol's Atlanta-based leadership. She says in her lawsuit that patrol officials began "building a file" on her during the last two years of her employment.
"It was obvious they wanted to get rid of me," said Bennett, who with accrued vacation and sick days lacked about two years in putting in 34 years and qualifying for full retirement benefits. Today, she would be eligible for 66 percent of her salary, while 34 years' service would bring her to 77 percent.
"If they had just let me alone I would have been retired by next year," Bennett said. "I never thought they would be after me again, after what I've been through."
According to court documents, Bennett's termination letter listed the following infractions:
- Two charges of unprofessional behavior related to two separate traffic stops involving private citizens in March and April of 2006.
- Displaying decorative liquor bottles in her office in violation of state patrol policy.
- Using profanity in public while representing the department in uniform.
- Verbally disparaging a subordinate trooper in the presence of violators while at a road safety check.
- Hugging subordinate employees while in uniform.
- Posting or tolerating the posting of an inappropriate cartoon.
In a two-hour interview Thursday, Bennett made a point-by-point refutation of the charges. She said the traffic stops were not conducted unprofessionally, and the liquor bottles -- ceramic likenesses of American Indians and other figures -- had been in her office for more than four years without a complaint.
Bennett, who admits to using salty language at times, claims the only profanity that was reported was her comment to a North Georgia police chief in 2004 that she was "tired of being the bitch from hell."
She acknowledges saying that a trooper was lazy and that his girlfriend had a drinking problem, but said it was a warranted comment on his job performance.
Bennett also acknowledges hugging employees but said only one trooper ever complained about touching him, and she apologized and never touched him again. She said she was not at the post when the inappropriate cartoon was posted.
Bennett said male troopers have been suspended, not fired, for the same types of infractions. She said one sergeant who was arrested on burglary charges was allowed to resign.
"Some of these other men have done a hundred times worse and they got a slap on the hand," she said.
The firing was upheld after a administrative judge heard evidence in February 2007. Bennett filed suit in the Atlanta division of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia later that year.
Depositions are scheduled to begin next month. Judge Julie Carnes is presiding over the case.
"I want to be reinstated," Bennett said. "I want it go to a federal jury and I want to tell that jury how my life has been and how they treated women."
The post Bennett once commanded is now headed by another woman. But Bennett claims that the state patrol remains a largely unfriendly place for female troopers.
"Nothing a woman ever does is good enough," she said. "I could have hung the moon and put the stars in place and parted the water, and it's not good enough."
She believes there is a double standard in the state patrol culture that holds female troopers to the higher standard.
"It's tough, it's really tough," she said. "They write you up more than men, they scrutinize you more than men. It's institutionalized sexism."
Bennett said back when she was a 32-year-old housewife, she spent two years haranguing patrol officials and the governor's office for a job as a trooper. She said it wasn't until a captain she knew within the department "let it slip on purpose that the American Civil Liberties Union was looking into my plight" that she got a interview.
"There was the threat back then that I was going to file a suit with the American Civil Liberties Union," she said. "Within 10 days I was hired."
Bennett remembers the day she was notified to report for trooper school: Aug. 15, 1978.
"I was excited, excited," she said. "I knew I was in great shape. I felt like God chose me for this job, and he knew I'd have to be tougher than a pine knot.
"I knew I had a calling, and I was good at what I did. If I hadn't I wouldn't have lasted 28 years and five months."
Age discrimination, Bennett said, eventually became another problem. When she was fired at age 62, she was the oldest trooper working the roads in the state, which at one time had a mandatory trooper retirement age of 55 that was later overturned.
"I was called granny," said Bennett, who has no grandchildren. "I was called ancient, old gray-headed woman. I was probably in better shape than 90 percent of the people out there."
The state, through its court filings, maintains that age had nothing to do with her firing.
Bennett, a well-known woman in local law enforcement circles, remains president of Gainesville's Fraternal Order of Police Post 41. She continues to hold her state peace officer certification pending the outcome of her lawsuit.
Many of her friends in law enforcement assumed she had retired. "(The patrol) didn't want to tell that they fired me for such stupid things," she said.
She casts herself as a trailblazer even now, as she fights to get her old job back for a few more years.
"I fight for every woman out here, every sister, every daughter, every mother, not to have to go through what I've been through," she said.
"I want to get my 34 years in. I want to go in with my head up and get my credibility back, not go out under a cloud of suspicion. Because I've done nothing wrong."