By CONNER EVANS and JOHN CHAMBLISS
A physical altercation broke out after dinner in a hotel lobby between Hall County Tax Commissioner Darla Eden and a subordinate.
As the argument escalated, Eden took Property Tax Supervisor Nicole Griffin’s cellphone, pulled her hair, berated and publicly humiliated the woman at the 2021 annual tax commissioner’s conference in May at the Hyatt Place in Athens, according to an outside investigation into her actions that concluded she broke Hall County’s code of conduct.
“Griffin began to cry, and Eden called her a ‘crybaby,’ mimicking her crying (mocking her) with her balled up fists rubbing her eyes,” the investigation states.
She accused Griffin, 33, of excess drinking and bad behavior, but according to the investigation, it was Eden, 53, who made a scene. Earlier at the conference, Eden ate a cookie out of the mouth of a male tax commissioner from another Georgia county during a vendor hospitality event and did alcohol-fueled cartwheels on the dance floor as the event ended.
Eden’s actions at the conference were described in a 39-page report by an outside company hired in May by the county to investigate accusations of bullying, retaliation and age discrimination filed by her subordinates against her. The report also noted Eden attempted to interfere with the investigation, pressuring a subordinate not to talk.
The report by PointerWise LLC, of Atlanta, which was hired by Hall County, portrays a toxic work environment under Eden, who was first elected in 2012 and most recently won election unopposed in 2020. Teresa Stivarius, a lawyer who wrote the report for PointerWise, upheld complaints of bullying, retaliation for reporting concerns to the county’s human resources department and age discrimination.
In an interview with The Times on Tuesday, Oct. 5, Eden denied many of the allegations in the report, calling it a “hatchet job” and “beyond the scope of the County’s constitutional authority to encroach into my office.” She said many of the problems described in the report stem from payroll issues and underfunding from the county.
“The Stivarius report is hopelessly one-sided against me,” Eden said. “I was not given an opportunity to provide reasonable input or due process.” Stivarius interviewed Eden along with several of her subordinates.
Eden went on to say that Hall County, through Stivarius, provided a platform for “a small group of disgruntled employees to take pot shots at my office.”
An outside agency was hired to investigate since Eden is an elected official, LisaRae Jones, the county’s HR Director wrote in an email Wednesday, Oct. 6.
“In cases where an employee alleges misconduct against a constitutional officer, elected official, or manager/supervisor, the County has an obligation to have those allegations investigated,” Jones wrote. “In this case, the County had an independent third-party investigation conducted.”
In the time since the report was completed, the county has not taken any action against the tax commissioner’s office, Eden said. Because the tax commissioner is an elected official and constitutional officer, neither the county nor the Board of Commissioners have any administrative authority over Eden or her office. A constitutional officer’s staff members are county employees answerable to the county HR department and county personnel policies. The board does approve the office’s annual budget but has no other administrative authority.
Chairman Richard Higgins told The Times in a phone interview Wednesday, Oct. 6, that an independent investigation was preferable to an internal investigation for misconduct allegations because she is a constitutional officer.
“That separates us from any kind of prejudice,” Higgins said.
The report, released in July to county officials and obtained by The Times Oct. 5 through an open records request, is the culmination of a two-month investigation. The investigation cost the county about $24,000. In addition to complaints by Griffin, Tax-Tag Clerk Norine Cantor, Tax-Tag Clerk Reggie Oglesby and Tag Division Supervisor Pamela Clark filed complaints. The report also details an allegation raised by Eden and other employees, accusing Griffin of bullying. That allegation was unfounded, according to the investigation.
“While Griffin may well be impolite and inconsiderate in her management communications, the totality of evidence falls short of establishing that she has engaged in ‘bullying’ under that definition.”
The Times could not reach Griffin for comment regarding the investigation.
Eden said the report was read to her shortly after it was completed in July but no other action has been taken as a result of its findings.
Altercation in Athens
The report first details the allegations of bullying and retaliation for reporting concerns to HR after the incident in Athens.
Leading up to the confrontation, both Eden and Griffin had been drinking, Stivarius wrote, though it is unclear if they were intoxicated. Eden had told Griffin she should not go out again, attempting to implement a curfew, even though this rule did not seem to apply to other subordinates at the conference, Stivarius wrote.
Regarding the unusual behavior the report describes leading up to the altercation, including “erratic” dancing and eating a cookie out of another tax commissioner’s mouth, Eden said she often dances and enjoys her time with her employees at events like this conference.
“I can’t say everybody does cartwheels, but I do,” Eden said. “Everybody knows I love to do cartwheels. … I always end the night with a couple cartwheels.”
She also said that eating a cookie together is an annual tradition between her and another Georgia county tax commissioner.
Before the altercation, Eden waited for Griffin to come down to the lobby to see if she would follow orders, and when Griffin eventually came down she first tried to leave through a back door to avoid Eden, the report states. When unsuccessful, she walked up to Eden and told her she was going out, the report states, which started the public confrontation in the hotel lobby.
During the altercation, Griffin phoned her mother, the report states, and Eden asked who Griffin was calling. Eden then tried to grab Griffin’s phone from her and pulled her hair in the process, Eden said. Once she saw that Griffin was on the phone with her mother, Eden said, she gave Griffin back the phone. Eden said this did not merit being described as a “physical confrontation.”
During the incident, the report states that Eden compounded her bullying behavior by telling Griffin she “could forget about” attending another upcoming tax conference. Eden later forwarded her version of the events to the county’s HR department, explaining her curfew rule by detailing Griffin’s history of “unbecoming conduct.”
Afterward, one witness heard Eden say to Griffin, “Get your ass on the elevator and go to your room,” according to the report. Griffin replied, “That’s it, I’m done. I’m going to HR on Monday.”
Once Eden was on the elevator, the report states, she called Griffin a “f-----g b---h.” Eden initially told the investigator she was not sure if she said the vulgar comment, adding that, “I’m not saying I didn’t say it.” Later, in a meeting with the investigator and HR director, Eden denied making the statement, according to the investigation.
Stivarius, the investigator, determined there was not a published work rule about curfews at work-related conferences, but Eden enforced a curfew rule for Griffin.
“No other employees were subjected to the same or similar conduct, even if Eden talked openly about her views on after hours socializing or asked other employees about their plans (as she alleges).”
Eden told The Times she wanted to keep Griffin safe, because she had a history of staying out late at work conferences. Eden wanted to make sure she knew where Griffin would be, she said.
“We all stay together as a group except (Griffin) wants to go off and go places I do not support her going to,” Eden said. “I would not do anything different on that incident.”
She had been preparing Griffin for a promotion to chief deputy tax commissioner, Eden said, and she considered her restrictions on Griffin’s behavior to be for her benefit.
“I think she desired, inspired to go further, and I will help men or women do their passion,” Eden said. “I thought I was doing the right thing asking her to step up.”
Stivarius wrote that even without Eden’s inconsistent behavior, her actions toward Griffin opened up the county to a sexual harassment claim.
“If a male had conducted himself in the same manner as Eden, a reasonable question of whether sexual harassment had occurred would be obvious,” Stivarius wrote. She continued that Eden’s “emotionally charged confronting behaviors toward Griffin is inappropriate and the reasons offered for such behaviors illogical and unsound.”
“This leaves open the question as to why Griffin’s movements in particular were of such import to Eden,” Stivarius wrote.
Retaliation, discrimination, bullying
Stivarius determined that Eden discourages subordinates from reporting formal complaints to county HR and has retaliated against employees for doing so. The report concludes that she bullied one former employee in particular, Tag Division Supervisor Pamela Clark, 70, and discriminated against her based on her age.
In a phone interview with The Times on Wednesday, Oct. 6, Clark said that everything she said in the report was accurate and that she felt forced out by Eden’s actions toward her.
Eden retaliated against Clark by “stripping her of her duties” on March 25, the report states. Before she was relieved of her duties, Eden attempted to find out from Clark what she and Oglesby, the tax-tag clerk, had discussed when the two met March 19.
“She repeatedly stated to Clark that there had to be more to it than what Clark reported, and that Oglesby had an HR complaint pending that must be handled carefully,” the investigation states.
Eden claimed she relieved Clark of her duties so she could be “built back up” as a manager and that Clark had a more difficult time adjusting to a new online work system than other employees. Clark had more help than anyone else, Eden said, and she did not demote her or decrease her pay after shifting her duties.
Eden claimed she does not discourage employees from going to HR with issues.
“Everyone has an open road to HR,” Eden said.
Clark may have been slower adjusting to new systems, such as DRIVES, an online service for tag renewal and other tax commission duties, according to the report.
But, “the respectful approach would have been to require such learning with training and support, as well as a vision for how this learning would enable Clark’s managerial duties,” the report states.
Eden offered no evidence of any meaningful communication with Clark as to how she would be “built up” and assume a non-existent “managerial” role different from the one she had filled for nearly three decades, the report states.
Stivarius also determined that Eden bullied Clark, as defined in Hall County’s code of conduct, and she discriminated against Clark based on her age.
Stripping Clark of her duties without preceding corrective action, negative performance reviews or fair opportunity to improve with the support of competent HR practices constituted bullying as defined by county code, the report states.
Eden ostracized Clark by not inviting her to the May conference in Athens, despite her attending in many years preceding, the report states. But, Eden said, she can only take a few people to each conference and Clark staying behind in May was not an attempt to ostracize her from the group.
On May 1, Eden texted her then-trusted confidant, Griffin, “(Clark) is going to give up soon I think,” according to the report. Eden said she didn’t remember that and couldn’t find a record of sending that text. After Clark interviewed with Stivarius on May 28, she resigned without notice, and Eden said she did not receive a reason from Clark as to why she resigned.
“She forced me to quit — her actions toward me; the way she treated me,” Clark said. “No one can endure that for a long period of time.”
There were additional accounts of retaliation that Stivarius investigated. Eden texted Griffin after the altercation in the Athens hotel, demanding that Griffin prepare a detailed report about the incident, and that she include information about her “breach of trust in attempting to violate the curfew.” Instead of going to HR, Eden suggested that Griffin go to the Employee Assistance Program. She added that if Griffin reported the incident so a “third party reviewer” would see it, then it would “stay away” from HR “for the time being.”
“Eden’s conduct in characterizing the events of May 12 as Griffin’s responsibility was further retaliation against Griffin for suggesting a report to County HR, and for failing to adhere to the unreasonable ‘curfew,’” according to the investigation.
Eden delivered two written statements to HR describing her interactions with Griffin at the hotel. In one statement, she described Griffin’s “perceived shortcomings and unsavory behaviors.” But the statements left out “substantial and inappropriate behaviors of Eden and were drafted with the intention to cast Griffin as insubordinate and dishonest,” according to the investigation.
The investigation shows that Eden continued her retaliatory behavior against Griffin by
Withdrawing Griffin’s promotion to chief deputy tax commissioner.
Texting her that she had “gone around” her in obtaining permission to work from home during paid administrative leave associated with Griffin’s concerns for her safety from Eden.
Locking Griffin out of her remote access while working from home.
Unfairly blaming Griffin for errors in a property tax digest.
“I find that Eden has a reputation for discouraging, and retaliating against, any employee complaints to County HR,” the report states.
Eden denied these claims as well. Griffin declined the role as chief deputy tax commissioner, Eden said. In June, Eden hired former Gwinnett County Tax Commissioner Richard Steele to fill the open position.
The issue with Griffin’s remote access was an unintentional technological error caused by miscommunication with HR, Eden said.
Interfering with the investigation
The investigation claims Eden attempted to interfere with the investigation by calling Cantor, a tax-tag clerk, the day before Cantor’s scheduled interview with the investigator.
During the call with Cantor, Eden shared her version of the story regarding the hotel altercation with Griffin, questioned Cantor about why she wanted to participate in the investigation and stated, “I wish Nicole (Griffin) would resign. She can’t continue working here,” according to the report.
Cantor told Stivarius that the phone call caused her extreme fear of retaliation if Eden learned of her pending HR complaint against Eden.
“(Eden) chose to flout … instructions and violated her agreement of confidentiality surrounding the investigation when she spoke with Cantor about Cantor’s upcoming interview,” the report states. “This is further evidence of Eden’s general lack of respect for HR process, and was against her own self-interests, as we discussed before the investigation began.”
Cantor told The Times on Tuesday, Oct. 5, that she stood by everything she said as part of the report.
The report concludes this was an attempt to interfere with the investigation, even if it ultimately did not accomplish that goal.
Eden said the conversation between her and Cantor that day was an attempt to recruit Cantor to the Republican Women of Hall group, and they did not discuss the GATO conference altercation or the investigation.
“I don’t know why she (Cantor) would make those claims,” Eden said.