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Racial harassment suit filed against Bluff City, alderman

May 26th, 2014 6:59 pm by Nick Shepherd

Racial harassment suit filed against Bluff City, alderman

A $6 million lawsuit has been filed against the city of Bluff City and Alderman Lon Gene Leonard alleging racial harassment and intimidation.

The lawsuit was filed by Carol Keith, a black minister in Bluff City. She is seeking compensatory damages for emotional suffering and loss of enjoyment of life as well as punitive damages, along with attorney's fees and costs.

According to the lawsuit, Keith attended a Bluff City Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting in March 2013 and made a statement that Irene Wells, a black board member who later became mayor, had been locked out of her own office.

When Leonard, who was vice mayor at the time, was asked about the situation by Keith in that BMA meeting, he said Wells was not telling the truth. After the meeting, Leonard confronted Keith and allegedly said to her, "I can't believe you played the race card on me."

Keith holds her worship services in a senior citizens building, and Leonard lives across from the church. The lawsuit alleges that one Sunday in March, Leonard stood in his yard and began yelling as Keith was leaving the morning worship service.

When she stopped to see what he wanted, he again said, "I can't believe you pulled the race card on me," according to the lawsuit.

Wells later announced her candidacy for mayor, running against Leonard. Keith threw her support behind Wells and told Leonard she was supporting Wells for mayor.

Keith claims that after Leonard lost the election to Wells, he began a pattern of harassment and targeting.

The lawsuit alleges that:

  • Leonard began stalking Keith and was seen on several occasions driving by Keith's home.
  • Leonard circled around Keith's vehicle while she was at a city office and glared at her.
  • Leonard followed her to her sister's home and backed his car up and turned around, driving in a slow manner while glaring at her.
  • On July 26, 2013, Keith was stalked by the Leonard, who drove by her twice while she was standing on the front porch of a city alderman's home, where she was having a discussion about her property taxes.
  • On July 28, 2013, Keith observed Leonard wielding a bat-sized stick in his hand in a threatening and intimidating manner. Leonard followed Keith to her car while holding this stick in his hand.
  • According to the lawsuit, Keith reported these incidents to the Bluff City chief of police and was told to contact them with any more problems, but later calls went unanswered.

    When Keith went to the Sullivan County Sheriff's Office to file a complaint, she was advised by Capt. Paul Taylor that the Bluff City Police Department had been told to "stay out of it," according to the lawsuit.

    Shortly after Keith sought help from the police, the senior citizens building where her church holds worship services was vandalized, with the wall in the men's restroom spray painted with graffiti stating "Kill all n—--s. White power."

    The lawsuit further states that around the same time, Keith began encountering problems with her property taxes, receiving in the mail a notice of delinquency from the city of Bluff City. The city clerk allegedly told her not to worry about the notice and that it happened all the time, but a few weeks later the account was turned over to an attorney for collection proceedings. Keith said she was targeted by Leonard.

    The lawsuit states Leonard was carrying out these actions while acting in his official capacity as alderman and vice mayor and, therefore, the city is liable for his actions.

    Lawyers for Keith said the Bluff City has asked for more time to review the case and it is in the very early stages.

    Leonard and City Attorney J. Paul Frye declined to comment for this story.

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