Lawrenceville captain exposed sex harassment, now says she faces retaliation

Capt. Tawnya Gilovanni, the first woman to be named captain in the Lawrenceville Police Department, came forward with claims of sexual harassment within the agency last year, prompting an internal investigation and leading to the departures of the police chief and the captain over criminal investigations. The AJC does not typically identify victims of sexual harassment, but through her attorney, Gilovanni agreed to be named in this story. (Handout)

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Capt. Tawnya Gilovanni, the first woman to be named captain in the Lawrenceville Police Department, came forward with claims of sexual harassment within the agency last year, prompting an internal investigation and leading to the departures of the police chief and the captain over criminal investigations. The AJC does not typically identify victims of sexual harassment, but through her attorney, Gilovanni agreed to be named in this story. (Handout)

Female officer is barred from speaking out, while acting chief held a press conference about earlier misconduct

Updated March 18, 2022: An earlier version of this story published on February 25 incorrectly said Facebook posts that had been favorable to the victim of sexual harassment at the Lawrenceville Police Department had been deleted from the police agency’s official Facebook page. While some links to the Facebook posts are no longer accessible through Google, the posts are available on the department’s Facebook page. The story has been updated to reflect the accurate information.

When the Lawrenceville Police Department’s only female captain came forward to expose a culture hostile to women and to report that men in the command staff were sexually harassing her, she feared retaliation and the derailment of her career.

Capt. Tawnya Gilovanni lodged her complaint with City Manager Chuck Warbington last fall, which led to an outside investigation resulting in former Chief Tim Wallis stepping down this month and a male captain retiring suddenly in December.

Now, Gilovanni’s fears have come true, according to her federal complaint.

She has accused the man the city inserted last month as acting chief, Maj. Myron Walker, of retaliating against her and diminishing her role in the agency, according to an amended discrimination complaint filed Wednesday with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“I believe that it is Chief Walker’s goal to force me to resign my employment or to terminate me for pretextual reasons,” Gilovanni said in the written complaint.

Her attorney, Ed Buckley, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday that the ongoing retaliation has made it difficult for her to carry out her job commanding the uniform and patrol division as well as its special operations unit.

“She’s being marginalized, cut out of the loop,” Buckley said.

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Attorney Ed Buckley is speaking on behalf of his client, Lawrenceville police Capt. Tawnya Gilovanni, because of a gag order imposed upon her by the city manager. Gilovanni has faced retaliation after coming forward with claims of sexual harassment within the police department, her attorney said. (Asia Simone Burns / Asia.Burns@ajc.com)

Credit: Asia Simone Burns / Asia.Burns@ajc.com

Attorney Ed Buckley is speaking on behalf of his client, Lawrenceville police Capt. Tawnya Gilovanni, because of a gag order imposed upon her by the city manager. Gilovanni has faced retaliation after coming forward with claims of sexual harassment within the police department, her attorney said. (Asia Simone Burns / Asia.Burns@ajc.com)

Credit: Asia Simone Burns / Asia.Burns@ajc.com

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Attorney Ed Buckley is speaking on behalf of his client, Lawrenceville police Capt. Tawnya Gilovanni, because of a gag order imposed upon her by the city manager. Gilovanni has faced retaliation after coming forward with claims of sexual harassment within the police department, her attorney said. (Asia Simone Burns / Asia.Burns@ajc.com)

Credit: Asia Simone Burns / Asia.Burns@ajc.com

Credit: Asia Simone Burns / Asia.Burns@ajc.com

Gilovanni’s concerns don’t stop with Acting Chief Walker and include the actions of those higher up in City Hall.

On Friday, Walker referred all questions to the city manager.

Warbington declined an interview request Friday, but released a written statement saying the city hasn’t been officially notified of a complaint.

“If the City receives notification of a complaint from the EEOC, the City will provide an appropriate response to the EEOC,” the statement said.

According to Buckley, his client believes that the city manager is “treating her as if she were the perpetrator in all of this.”

And now Warbington, an old high school football teammate of Walker, is effectively muzzling her by placing a gag order on her and other employees to prohibit them from speaking publicly about the scandal.

Meanwhile, she has been pilloried on social media for exposing the city’s problems. Gilovanni filed her original EEOC complaint on Feb. 1. and attached the city’s 33-page report detailing the culture of sexism she and others endured.

“After the investigation, I’ve continued to experience retaliation,” Gilovanni said in her complaint. “My responsibilities have continued to be removed, my authority is diminished, and my position in the chain of command is being ignored.”

Gilovanni’s complaint accuses Walker of intentionally leaving her achievements out of her 2021 performance evaluation.

Buckley says he is speaking on Gilovanni’s behalf because she fears the city will fire her if she talks publicly to defend herself and set the record straight about the harassment.

“It’s been very difficult for her to deal with,” Buckley said.

Women who come forward to report harassment commonly face fallout, and more than half of all EEOC claims are for retaliation, said Lorene Schaefer, an attorney who conducts sexual harassment investigations for corporations and government agencies, who reviewed the Lawrenceville case for the AJC.

Schaefer questioned why city manager Warbington named his old high school teammate the acting chief, since Walker himself faced discipline in the scandal for failing to adequately address Gilovanni’s concerns when they were brought forward. The investigative report from the law firm the city hired describes Walker openly discussing the investigation, while it was still ongoing, with the two accused harassers. He also disparaged Gilovanni for making the complaint, the report said.

“It’s not surprising to me at all that he’s drawn a retaliation claim,” Schaefer, of Win-Win HR, said.

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The gag order that Warbington has put on Gilovanni and other city employees violates their free speech rights, legal experts told the AJC.

Under precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court, governments can’t ban their employees from speaking publicly about these types of matters that are of public concern.

For example, women in Lawrenceville who rely on police services may be concerned about a department where male officers act inappropriately or don’t take women seriously, said Clare Norins, director of the University of Georgia School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic.

“It’s a community concern, not just an employee concern,” she said.

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Former Lawrenceville Police Chief Tim Wallis told the Gilovanni she looked like she worked at Hooters when she wore a pink t-shirt on a day the air conditioning went out at headquarters.

Credit: Credit: City of Lawrenceville

Former Lawrenceville Police Chief Tim Wallis told the Gilovanni she looked like she worked at Hooters when she wore a pink t-shirt on a day the air conditioning went out at headquarters.

Credit: Credit: City of Lawrenceville

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Former Lawrenceville Police Chief Tim Wallis told the Gilovanni she looked like she worked at Hooters when she wore a pink t-shirt on a day the air conditioning went out at headquarters.

Credit: Credit: City of Lawrenceville

Credit: Credit: City of Lawrenceville

A victim muzzled

Gilovanni faced attacks on social media after Fox 5 Atlanta identified her as the person who complained. The AJC has not previously identified her because it does not publish sexual harassment victims’ names without their consent, but through her attorney she agreed to be named in this story.

She has been with the department for 16 years. Three years ago, she was promoted and became the first female police captain in the city’s history. But it didn’t take long for her to run into what she described as a “good ol’ boy” network that devalued women.

Chief Wallis told Gilovanni she looked like she worked at Hooters when she wore a t-shirt on a day the air conditioning went out at headquarters. Capt. Ryan Morgan, who retired in December, allegedly asked her to text him nude photos and referred to Gilovanni as “hooker,” according to the investigative report. Both men have denied harassing anyone.

Gilovanni, however, has taken a lot of heat publicly for exposing the harassment.

“She has bad vibes,” one Facebook commenter wrote. “She is a troublemaker and her promotion was probably one to keeping her satisfied, so to speak. Well it’s time that these types be dealt with accordingly.”

“So she flaunted herself because she was hot,” another person wrote, “yet complains that women aren’t respected?”

The AJC sought comment from Gilovanni earlier this month, but she said she wasn’t at liberty to speak about the investigation. “I’ve been advised to direct any inquiries for this information to our City Manager and City Clerk,” she said in a Feb. 2 email.

On Friday, Warbington reinforced his position in his statement to the AJC.

“I have requested all media inquiries received by city employees related to the police investigation be directed to me,” he said.

Gilovanni’s attorney said that Maj. Walker had pressured her to sign a memo just before the sexual harassment investigation report became public in late January. The memo written by Walker undercuts some of the claims in the report that blamed him for not doing more to stop the harassment. The memo said he didn’t know about some of the specific allegations that Gilovanni had told investigators about.

Buckley said his client signed the memo “under duress,” and that Gilovanni had reported other instances of inappropriate behavior to Walker.

Because of the gag order, Gilovanni has been unable to address the criticism and set the record straight, Buckley said.

“It’s been difficult for her to watch them make comments to the media while she’s not able to speak to anything that’s happened,” he said.

In an earlier interview, the city manager told the AJC he would not lift the gag order, despite the online vitriol Gilovanni faced.

“These are all personnel issues,” Warbington said.

A few days later, he allowed the acting chief to hold a press conference after learning the AJC was preparing to publish an article that would include Maj. Walker’s own history of sexual transgressions on the job.

Three years before Lawrenceville hired him to be second in command, Walker, who was married, was demoted at the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office over a long-term affair with a subordinate at that agency. Walker had sex with the woman in a county sheriff’s vehicle and inside county offices, according to an internal investigation.

Both Warbington and Walker earlier this month asked the AJC not to publish this information. On Feb. 10, Walker called a press conference at headquarters to publicly acknowledge the affair before the AJC published its report. He said he was there to “move us forward” and to try to bring an end to the news stories about the agency’s struggles.

“We need our community with us, but in order for us to heal, we’ve got to stop having the (news) reports,” he said.

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When Lawrenceville Acting Police Chief Myron Walker held a press conference at headquarters on Feb. 10, Mayor David Still (center) and City Manager Chuck Warbington stood at his side. Meanwhile, a captain who came forward with sexual harassment allegations fears being fired if she speaks publicly. (Curt Yeomans / Gwinnett Daily Post)

Credit: Curt Yeomans

When Lawrenceville Acting Police Chief Myron Walker held a press conference at headquarters on Feb. 10, Mayor David Still (center) and City Manager Chuck Warbington stood at his side. Meanwhile, a captain who came forward with sexual harassment allegations fears being fired if she speaks publicly. (Curt Yeomans / Gwinnett Daily Post)

Credit: Curt Yeomans

Combined ShapeCaption
When Lawrenceville Acting Police Chief Myron Walker held a press conference at headquarters on Feb. 10, Mayor David Still (center) and City Manager Chuck Warbington stood at his side. Meanwhile, a captain who came forward with sexual harassment allegations fears being fired if she speaks publicly. (Curt Yeomans / Gwinnett Daily Post)

Credit: Curt Yeomans

Credit: Curt Yeomans

Allowing Walker to speak out, while barring the victim from talking, makes the city’s gag order indefensible, said Kira Fonteneau, an employment attorney who leads the Alabama practice group for the law firm Barrett & Farahany.

The press conference by Walker, who was flanked by Warbington and Mayor David Still, was another First Amendment violation by the city, known as viewpoint discrimination, said Norins, the UGA law professor.

“There is a deep hypocrisy there,” she said. “He’s allowed to defend himself, but other people in the department aren’t allowed to talk about the culture and the problems.”


Our Reporting

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution started reporting in early January on sexual harassment allegations at the Lawrenceville Police Department. The AJC’s reporters requested records from the city, which initially denied the existence of an internal investigation report that was completed on Dec. 28. The AJC broke the story of the sexual harassment scandal on Jan. 26 and followed up with a report that showed how the city manager and mayor wrote reference letters for a police captain while he was under investigation for harassment. Anyone with information about harassment in Lawrenceville or any other metro Atlanta-area police department or city government can contact AJC reporters Asia Simone Burns (Asia.Burns@ajc.com or (404) 873-9022 or Johnny Edwards (johnny.edwards@ajc.com) or 404-526-7209.