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Retired Hall fire official still drawing pay following sexual harassment complaint
Assistant chief Heflin left Hall Fire Services after investigation into complaints about behavior
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BY NICK WATSON and NICK BOWMAN

Since Dec. 15, Hall County has paid an assistant fire chief to not show up for work after he was accused of sexual harassment.

Skip Heflin, an assistant chief of operations for Hall County Fire Services who was responsible for training and professional development, retired from the county Dec. 15 after a meeting with county human resources. 

02042018 SKIP HEFLIN
Former Hall County Fire Services assistant chief Skip Heflin

Though Heflin stopped showing up for work then, the 28-year employee will be paid through Feb. 17 — his effective retirement date given on a handwritten resignation letter.

That will amount to more than $14,000 paid to him for nine weeks not worked. His annual salary is $87,853.

This arrangement stems from a sexual harassment investigation into Heflin’s behavior while he was in a leadership position at Fire Services and specific complaints involving a female employee. The investigation included interviews with 12 current and former employees of the department. 

The woman involved died in November.

Documents related to the investigation were obtained by The Times through a series of open records requests filed with the county. 

A phone number listed for Heflin had been disconnected, and he could not be reached for comment by The Times.

The allegations are based on incidents at various points in Heflin’s tenure with the department, ranging from inappropriate language and behavior targeted at individual employees to erratic and inappropriate behavior in front of more than one employee at a time.

Several employees interviewed as part of the investigation gave various accounts of the same incident between Heflin and the woman, and all of the accounts are based on employees’ conversations with her.

While in a breakroom of the Fire Services training center, Heflin allegedly pressed the woman against a countertop sink with his body, according to interview summaries written by a former human resources employee. In some accounts, he held her there for a few moments while reaching for something behind her. In others, he made lewd movements while holding her against the countertop.

Other employees interviewed by human resources told other stories about inappropriate comments made to the woman by Heflin, including asking her about sex toys and asking whether she wanted to look at a pornographic magazine he kept in his desk.

Based on the testimony of those interviewed, she was terrified of Heflin — losing her breath, sweating and becoming pale when he was near. She asked not to be left alone with him, and on several occasions petitioned co-workers to remain in the room when he was nearby.

“I think he very clearly denied it. But at that point, disturbing information has been brought to our attention at that point. I mean, we’re not even questioning that,” Hall County Administrator Jock Connell said in an interview with The Times. “And it’s disturbing information that we can’t prove because we can’t say this stuff is factual.”

Connell, along with Hall spokeswoman Katie Crumley and Human Resources Director Bill Moats, addressed the arrangement with Heflin and the accusations against him in a Jan. 16 interview with The Times at the Hall County Government Center. No one from Fire Services was present, and county administration later declined to provide reporters any time with interim Fire Chief Mark Arnold or other leaders in the department.

Requests for information made to numerous firefighters, including some mentioned in the report, were unsuccessful or forwarded back to the administration of Fire Services.

After the initial interview, Crumley replied to The Times in an email to say county administrators “do not see any additional need for additional staff to meet for further discussion on the topic.” 

Two days after the woman died, a Fire Services employee voiced concerns to Arnold, according to the investigation summary.

“We’re sitting in a situation right here where you allow this if it’s true and he continues in the workplace, we’ve got a problem,” Connell said. “But on the same token, if we turn around and we terminate somebody and they claim something wasn’t true, and there’s not people there to refute it or corroborate it, then we’ve got legal liability issues on the other side, too. We’re kind of hung in the middle. We don’t win either way.”

The Jackson County coroner’s office reported the woman died of natural causes. Her father told The Times she died of cardiac arrest.

Connell said the county was put in a difficult position because of the woman’s death, leaving the primary witness and alleged victim unable to testify to what happened. 

Crumley and Moats said Heflin is not considered actively working for the department.

“We don’t know whether it’s true, but it could be true,” Connell said of the sexual harassment claims. “Knowing that, I think that we had no other choice but to make sure that if there is any chance that was true that that did not continue in the workforce.”

He summarized Heflin’s marching orders this way: “If we need your services, if we need to call upon you; if we need counsel or advice from you on any of your area of expertise, then we’ll call you.”

But otherwise, Heflin was not to return to work with the county. Connell and Moats said they couldn’t take action against Heflin without opening the county to an employment lawsuit.

“Anything in there related to (the accuser) is all hearsay,” Moats said.

The woman’s issues with Heflin stretch back at least to 2016, when she approached human resources to voice complaints about his behavior. But back then, she had not discussed any sexual harassment, according to Moats and notes he took during their discussion, though she did tell Moats that Heflin’s presence made her feel ill.

The woman involved felt Heflin was giving her a heavier workload without the time needed to complete it, blocking her from attending live firefighting and forcing her to work additional hours without pay, according to the investigation and her personnel file.

“What (she) said to me the day she came to me, she was obviously upset about something,” Moats said. “I said to her that day, ‘If there’s something I need to know because there’s something that’s going on — I can’t do anything unless you tell me.’ She said, ‘I won’t do it. I can’t talk about it yet.’”

According on the investigation files, the woman also talked with former fire chief Jeff Hood, who left the department in October.

If there were issues after that, they were not recorded in the files provided to The Times; the HR investigation was not launched until after her death.

The report from the investigation includes a one-page executive summary produced by Fire Services summarizing the incident in the breakroom, as told to an employee by the woman involved. There were no formal findings or recommendations produced from the investigation. 

Instead, human resources had a face-to-face meeting with Heflin, according to Moats. There is no record of this meeting in the report of its investigation or in Heflin’s personnel file, also obtained through an open records request.

“We sat down with Skip (and) addressed some of the issues in there,” Moats said. “He chose to retire, and there was really nothing else to do at that point. So it was never formalized.”

Connell said he did not participate in the meeting.

The sources interviewed by human resources in December said the woman described receiving “subtle sexual innuendos” from Heflin that escalated over time. In one instance, Heflin apparently invited the woman to look at a pornographic magazine.

In a Nov. 28 interview, a Fire Services employee close to the woman said that when she asked whether Heflin had spare batteries in his desk, Heflin asked what kind of batteries powered her sex toy. This source told human resources he had a fine relationship with Heflin, though he said the assistant chief had a temper.

In a separate interview Nov. 28, another male source had a first-hand encounter with inappropriate behavior from Heflin toward the woman. The source worked one office down from hers.

According to one employee, the woman had her office door shut while getting ready for a graduation ceremony. Heflin knocked, asking her whether she needed help getting dressed. She said no, and Heflin asked again. Hearing this, the male employee walked from his office into the hallway, where he said Heflin looked surprised to see him.

Beyond individual complaints involving Heflin’s conduct with the woman, Fire Services employees also spoke about a culture of intimidation around Heflin and other leadership, saying complaints about conduct and treatment attracted retaliation from the assistant chief.

Employees interviewed by human resources also describe Heflin as a hard worker who expected much from his subordinates. His own personnel file shows a career filled with stellar evaluations from his superiors and achievements in the department.

But employees interviewed in 2017 described erratic behavior on his part.

Other employees interviewed, including some close to the female employee, said Heflin exhibited strange behavior, including walking around the training center in his underwear, chewing on the arm of a chair in front of people and exposing himself to other employees. 

The 12 people interviewed by human resources all gave accounts involving this female employee, but the narratives also involve allegations involving other employees and other unprofessional behavior exhibited by Heflin. 

Based on the investigation materials obtained by The Times, the other allegations that did not directly involve the female employee, including allegations of retaliation against employees, were not followed up on after the initial investigation.

However, faced with evidence from 12 employees interviewed after the woman’s death, county administration decided to approach Heflin about the accusations.

“The behavior couldn’t go on,” Moats said. “Skip chose to retire. The behavior is gone.”

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