Lawrenceville official suspended after another sexual harassment investigation

Lawrenceville Natural Gas Department Director Todd Hardigree, as seen in a tweet from 2018.

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Lawrenceville Natural Gas Department Director Todd Hardigree, as seen in a tweet from 2018.

Lewd comments made by gas department chief latest revelation to hit city hall, investigation found.

As a sexual harassment scandal was straining the upper ranks of Lawrenceville’s police department earlier this year, a separate investigation involving another city agency was probing a pattern of lewd behavior by its leadership.

The investigation into the harassment at the Lawrenceville Natural Gas Department uncovered a pattern of conduct laced with sexual and homophobic comments, according to an internal investigation report obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The department’s director, Todd Hardigree, admitted to making jokes centering around sexuality and regularly calling male employees who worked for him “gay,” according to the report.

Witnesses said the director would regularly make jokes centered around sex, and several noted that an anti-gay slur was used liberally by him and other men working in department, according to the report prepared by Elarbee Thompson, an outside law firm the city hired to review the matter. Investigators spoke to witnesses in the agency who said Hardigree would make jokes of a sexual nature about food.

Hardigree would make suggestive comments to female employees while offering them peanuts or beef jerky, the Feb. 17 report alleged.

City Manager Chuck Warbington suspended Hardigree for seven days, according to a Feb. 23 memo the AJC acquired under the Georgia Open Records Act. The memo cited a pattern of inappropriate conduct and mentioned policy violations pertaining the use of “discriminatory conduct or language” as well as “gross misconduct.”

In addition to the suspension, Hardigree was disciplined in March with a performance review plan that calls for a host of actions and training he must undergo. That plan cited five policy areas of concern, including unlawful harassment and conduct that reflects unfavorably on the city.

This wasn’t the first time his words had gotten him in trouble. In 2019, according to city records, he had received verbal counseling for inappropriate comments made in the presence of employees.

Hardigree declined to be interviewed for this story and referred an AJC reporter to Warbington and the communications department. Warbington and city officials would not grant an interview to discuss the investigation. They said in a written statement that the only reason they made the investigation public was because the AJC filed a records request.

“As with the Police Department review, the personnel matter with Lawrenceville’s Natural Gas Department only becomes a matter of public record to comply with the Georgia Open Records Act,” they said.

The investigation into Hardigree’s actions began on Jan. 20, less than one month after a lawyer with Elarbee Thompson completed the firm’s review of the culture of sexual harassment and hostility within the police department. Together, the two reports raise the specter of a broader culture of questionable conduct and judgment by some of the most senior leaders in the city of Lawrenceville.

That earlier investigation determined both the then-acting chief and a male captain had sexually harassed the department’s only female captain. The findings pushed both men out of the department: Capt. Ryan Morgan resigned in December before he could be interviewed by an investigator, and Chief Timothy Wallis was forced to resign for speaking to the press about the investigation.

Wallis has since filed a lawsuit accusing the city of violating his First Amendment rights, and the victim of the sexual harassment, Capt. Tawyna Gilovanni, has filed a federal charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming that she has faced retaliation after reporting the problems.

The gas department provides natural gas service for the residents of Lawrenceville and parts of Gwinnett, Rockdale and Walton counties, according to the city’s website. It has 43 employees, three of whom are women, according to the investigative report. The 4-page document describes an environment where the director routinely “cuts up” with male employees, and throws around remarks in the office related to sexuality.

The comments made within the department would range from calling someone’s jacket or car “feminine” to calling employees “gay.” After one male employee got a pedicure, Hardigree referred to him with an anti-gay slur, one witness alleged.

When Hardigree was asked by the investigator about the comment, he “could not recall” making the statement, the report said. One witness told the investigator that Hardigree told one woman that she “would make a good lesbian.” He said he did not recall making the comment.

He said the comments related to food were not intended to be suggestive or sexual.

“Hardigree said that if anything was construed as a being a sexual nature, it was unintended, although he acknowledged that he could understand why someone might perceive a comment that way in light of their work environment,” the report said.

He told an investigator that the gas department is “relaxed, and like a family,” the report said. He claimed there is a lot of “joking around,” and he does it to “lighten the mood.”

In a rebuttal letter, Hardigree asked for a lighter suspension, noting that the report did not say directly that he was committing sexual harassment or creating a hostile work environment. He noted that he had made efforts since the middle of last year to “clean up the environment around the office.”

“This is due to another employee and her leaving,” he wrote.

Lorene Schaefer, an attorney who conducts sexual harassment investigations for corporations and government agencies, reviewed the Lawrenceville report for the AJC and questioned its format, remarking that it gives only a vague picture into the allegations.

She said the report is written more like an executive summary than a traditional investigative report and leaves out detailed information such as who lodged the complaint with the city and what the specific accusations were.

“When a report is done, one of the jobs of the investigator is to make a factual finding about the allegations,” she said. “Here, it’s difficult to know what the allegations were because it’s not clear from the report because it’s not stated.”

Though Schaefer said it’s not clear if there was a hostile work environment created that violates state or federal law, she said the conduct outlined by the report is offensive and inappropriate.

“The question I would have for Lawrenceville as a state entity using the city’s tax dollars out there, is do they want to maintain a work environment that has a standard of complying with the law, or do they want to aspire to a work environment that’s a productive use of tax dollars?” Schaefer said.

--Staff Writer Johnny Edwards contributed to this report.


Our reporting: After breaking numerous stories about a sexual harassment investigation inside of Lawrenceville’s police agency, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution began looking into reports of similar investigations happening in other city departments. Reporters filed requests under the Georgia Open Records Act to obtain the investigative report related to a sexual harassment probe in the natural gas department. The AJC contacted Gas Department Director Todd Hardigree, who declined to comment. If you have tips about sexual harassment in Lawrenceville city government or other public agencies, contact reporter Asia Burns at Asia.Burns@ajc.com or 404-526-2003.