By JOSEPH MARTIN
ONE FEATHER STAFF
A former employee of the tribal prosecutor’s office filed a lawsuit July 31 alleging sexual harassment, hostile work environment, and malicious prosecution after charges against her were dismissed. Lori Taylor, a victim-witness coordinator for the Office of Tribal Prosecutor and an unsuccessful Tribal Council candidate, claims her superiors, former Prosecutor Jason Smith and Lead Prosecutor Justin Eason, created a hostile work environment through singling her out and inappropriate communications and behavior. She says complaints she raised resulted in inaction.
She also alleges that she was falsely charged with disorderly conduct and assault on an officer after events surrounding the impeachment of Principal Chief Patrick Lambert and swearing-in of his successor Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed.
Taylor’s suit was filed against the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Cherokee Indian Police Department, Department of Justice, Acting EBCI Attorney General Michael McConnell, and former EBCI Attorney General Danny E. Davis.
According to her complaint and demand for jury trial, Taylor had been a victim/witness coordinator for the Office of Tribal Prosecutor for almost 20 years when Davis fired her. She alleges that she endured years of hostile working conditions after the hire of Smith, and that Eason had contributed to the hostile environment.
She also alleges that Sgt. Neil Ferguson and Luke Hyde, officers with the Cherokee Police department along with Police Chief Doug Pheasant, conspired to file false charges that ultimately led to her termination.
Taylor’s termination and criminal charges coincide with the impeachment of former Chief Lambert and the swearing-in of Chief Sneed. In what were heated hearings and reaction surrounding Chief Lambert’s removal from office and Chief Sneed’s swearing in, Taylor can be seen asserting herself in a May 25, 2017 video taken by Smoky Mountain News Reporter Holly Kays.
“You let us talk,” Taylor said.
She repeated, “You let us talk. Let us talk.” She is then shown stating in reference to Chief Sneed’s swearing in, “They’re going to (Tribal Operations Program) to do it.”
Taylor left the hearing and went to the Cherokee Justice Center to fill out a timesheet. She attempted to follow Chief Justice Kirk Saunooke into a court room to what she said was to discuss the day’s event. Saunooke was preparing to swear Sneed in as principal chief in one of the tribal court rooms.
It was then that Ferguson accosted Taylor and kept her from entering. Taylor responded that she wanted to observe the swearing-in. Taylor was instructed by Hyde to leave and was escorted from the location. Ferguson charged her with disorderly conduct.
According to Ferguson’s criminal complaint, Taylor made “coarse utterances, as well as addressing offensive language to (Cherokee Indian Police Department) officers and public in the hallway when refused entrance.” Ferguson said there were safety concerns surrounding Chief Sneed’s swearing in. “(It was) relating to a previous disturbance, which Taylor was instrumental in causing at the EBCI Council House just minutes prior.”
Taylor alleges that six weeks after that charge, she was charged with assault on an officer. She said Hyde denied writing the report and suggested mediation to dismiss the charge. She claims that she was never given the opportunity to mediate and that Eason, who was recused from prosecuting Taylor, had thwarted mediation efforts. An external prosecutor dismissed the assault charge.
The criminal charges filed against Taylor led to her suspension by Davis. Taylor was told that no decision on her employment would be made until her charges were resolved. On April 25, a jury found Taylor not guilty of disorderly conduct.
Davis also accused Taylor of not disclosing a DWI conviction prior to her obtaining employment, something she disputes. He also alleged that Taylor had inaccurate time sheet entries based upon surveillance footage, but according to Taylor, neither Davis nor Pheasant maintained a copy of that footage. Taylor was terminated based upon the pending criminal charges and alleged time sheet misrepresentations.
Davis, who left the attorney general post shortly after Chief Lambert’s impeachment, said he can’t comment on pending litigation and wasn’t going to “try this in the newspaper.” He did say in regard to Taylor, “All proper procedures were followed, and the law was followed.”
McConnell said, “It’s our position that we’re not going to comment on pending litigation.” Since McConnell is a defendant, an outside attorney will be representing the Tribe and its department of justice, attorney general, and police department.
Taylor alleges that much of the harassment and hostility from the two prosecutors was sexually related, and that she reported incidents that resulted in no discipline. Among the incidents Taylor said she reported are:
- Bringing in and displaying a photo of a criminal defendant’s genitals;
- Discussing the likelihood of a prison sexual assault for a defendant with a pill bottle in his rectum. Taylor knew the defendant’s family, and Eason allegedly took pleasure in her discomfort;
- Eason allegedly warning a predominantly female staff of the clerk’s office that a new hire liked to smell women’s hair, then he approached staff he referred to as “the pretty ones” attempting to smell their hair.
According to Taylor’s complaint, Eason was never placed on leave or suspended despite tribal policies and procedures requiring such for employees under investigation.
Asheville Attorney James O. Reynolds, who’s representing Taylor said, “I don’t have enough insight to comment on the politics of the Tribe.” However, he said the actions against Taylor suggest political motivation. “She was clearly upset about the impeachment proceedings, but I don’t think she was there to express support for one side or the other.”
Taylor maintains that the criminal charges against her were politically motivated in relation to her candidacy for council. “They wanted to damage my name. I think it was very political.”
Reynolds also questioned the length of time after the incident for the assault charge to be filed. Any time an officer is assaulted, Reynolds said, “The consequences are severe and immediate.”
Taylor alleges that she was denied a fair hearing, that there was an abuse of process, malicious prosecution, civil conspiracy and infliction of emotional distress. She is seeking more than $25,000 for each count in damages, attorney fees and any other relief the court deems proper.
Editor’s note: Attempts to reach Smith for comment by deadline were unsuccessful.