Mayor says county not liable in allegations that magistrate coerced teen

Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham said it doesn’t appear the county has any liability in the federal lawsuit filed by a woman who said magistrate Dustin Hatcher coerced her daughter into his office and took digital images of her in lingerie.

While the suit filed Dec. 15 claimed that Dustin Hatcher was acting in the course and scope of his employment with the county when he allegedly took photos of the 16-year-old, Cunningham said that if the allegations were true, Dustin Hatcher was not acting within the scope of his authority.

Cunningham said, "From what I’ve read, certainly acts like that are outside the scope of his employment, and, of course, we have policies about sexual harassment," he said. "I don’t think there any liabilities on the county’s part because acts like that, if true, are outside the scope of his employment."

Cunningham took issue with the lawsuit being filed so soon after the alleged incident. "This lawsuit was filed before the (Tennessee Bureau of Investigation) had completed any investigation," he said. "When I was practicing, I didn’t file lawsuits before an investigation was either done by me or by one of the other government agencies."

Cunningham said he had spoken with the mother of the alleged teen victim in the case as late as the Wednesday before the lawsuit was filed on Friday, Dec. 15, and she gave no hint a lawsuit was eminent.

"Interestingly, I’ve talked to girl’s mother on about three or four occasions, and she indicated to me that she was only interested in Dustin Hatcher not being in the magistrate’s position," he said. "She indicated she was not interested in money but rather that he not fill that position or be in that position." Cunningham said that the mother never said anything about having an attorney or he would have spoken to the attorney.

Blount County Commission Chairman Bob Ramsey said he not think the county had any liability in the alleged offense. "I’m sure we’ve taken adequate precautions security-wise. I still don’t know exactly what happened. I assume this is just a personal failure and adequate guidelines for security and the pursuit of his obligations are in place by the county," Ramsey said. "We’ve taken adequate measures to instruct and guide the activities in that office, and I assume that any failure is a personal one, and it shouldn’t reflect on the county."

Commissioner David Graham said he was concerned about nepotism in county government and the constitutional offices such as the circuit court clerk’s office. "I’m glad Mayor Cunningham is putting together a policy all offices under him follow," Graham said.

"As far as I’m concerned, county government operates as a corporation with the voters being the shareholders. Why we’re having to discuss nepotism is a no-brainer. We should have a policy that at least mirrors the corporate policies at Denso and Alcoa, Inc. and possibly even Maryville, which I understand is even stricter."

Mayor Cunningham said each elected office implements their own policies. "I’ve implemented a nepotism policy for all my departments. There’s one in effect," he said. "I can’t force (constitutional office holders) to adopt one."

Tom Hatcher said on Monday, Dec. 18 that his office’s manual adopted the same standards as previously used by the county, it didn’t mention nepotism and he didn’t recall any measures against nepotism. The circuit court clerk said that his son has always reported to other individuals. Most recently he reported to Hatcher’s chief deputy clerk.

Hatcher said that while magistrates are paid a $1 a year from the commission, who approve the magistrates hiring based upon TCA 40-1-111. Hatcher said he was always told his office scheduled the magistrates. The magistrates work as deputy clerks with additional responsibilities. Deputy clerks earn between $18,000 and $32,000 annually, depending on years of service, Hatcher said.

"We’re here 365 days a year, 24 hours a day and weekends they’re on call," Hatcher said. "They’re here for law enforcement when they need a warrant and also for the general public who are victims of crimes."

A check of Dustin Hatcher’s personnel file showed that just because he was the Circuit Court clerk’s son didn’t give him a pass from criticism. He was hired June 30, 2000 in the Blount County Juvenile Court Clerk’s office. Two evaluations from 2004 and 2005 showed he received mostly 3s and 4s on scale of 1 to 5 regarding criteria such as job knowledge, quality of work, organizational skills, communications skills, dependability, appearance, attitude and attendance.

In his 2004 evaluation, the juvenile court administrator said that while Dustin Hatcher needed to take more pride in his work and improve as a self-starter, he was dependable, had a good attitude and was cooperative. In his 2005 evaluation, a juvenile court office administrator said that while Dustin Hatcher often procrastinated, did no more than specifically asked and didn’t utilize his full potential, he was creative, rarely got his "feathers" ruffled, didn’t avoid problems and disagreed agreeably.

The file also showed he received a certificate when he completed in-service training in 2003. In addition, Pope’s Greenhouse owner Marianne Spence wrote a letter on Sept. 22, thanking Dustin Hatcher for his assistance in dealing with a disgruntled former employee.

The recent allegations first came to light on Dec. 2, in a press release from Tom Hatcher that said his son Dustin Hatcher had resigned in light the TBI investigation that started on Dec. 1. The federal suit attorney Gregory P. Issacs filed Dec. 15, in U.S. District Court in Knoxville gave the first glimpses of the allegations.

The girl and her mother, plaintiffs was listed as Jane or Janet Doe and the defendants were former Blount County magistrate/judicial-juvenile commissioner Dustin Hatcher, Blount County government, Blount County Circuit Court Clerk Tom Hatcher and any other unnamed employees in their official or individual capacities. The suit did not specify when or why the teen had previously been before Dustin Hatcher and what if anything he had done regarding any case involving the teen.

The suit said that on or about Dec. 1, Dustin Hatcher called the girl and ordered her to come to his office. While the suit didn’t state what time this allegedly happened, the suit said that once the girl arrived, Dustin Hatcher placed a sign on the outside of his office door indicating he wasn’t to be disturbed. At this point Dustin Hatcher then allegedly offered the teen perfume and lingerie.

The suit alleged Dustin Hatcher then used his authority to "coerce" the teen into trying on the lingerie. The teen initially refused, before Dustin Hatcher coerced her with statements related to his authority as a county magistrate/judicial and juvenile commissioner. Dustin Hatcher "exhorted compliance with his demands by making the statements ‘you owe me’ and ‘you can trust me.’"

The suit said Dustin Hatcher then took digital photographs of the teen’s bare breasts as he forced her to remove the lingerie. He then showed the photographs to other employees of Blount County.

The suit also stated that Thomas Hatcher was negligent in hiring Dustin Hatcher for the position of magistrate as he was Thomas Hatcher’s son and "did not have proper qualifications and proper experience." The suit also said Thomas Hatcher failed to properly supervise Dustin Hatcher in his treatment of females and/or female minors.

The suit asks for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. It also asks for reasonable attorney’s fees.
Dustin Hatcher could not be reached for comment regarding the suit or the TBI investigation. When contacted on Saturday, Dec.16, his father said he could not comment regarding the investigation and had not seen the lawsuit. Dustin Hatcher had retained Maryville attorney Joe Costner as his legal council.

Sheriff James Berrong said Saturday, Dec.16, confirmed that the teen girl’s mother came to the Blount County Justice Center early on Friday, Dec. 1. It didn’t take long for the sheriff to decide the alleged incident needed to be investigated by another agency.

"It was brief. She came in real early. The office hadn’t opened up," Berrong said.

The woman entered the justice center and spoke with officers at the metal detector. They introduced her to deputy Randy Chambers who then brought her to Chief Deputy Ron Dunn. Berrong estimated that from the time the mother entered the building to when a decision was made to contact the district attorney and the TBI took about 30 minutes.

"That’s guess," he said of the timeframe. "We don’t want any appearance of a conflict of interest. That’s basically what we do on cases we think we have an appearance of a conflict."

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