Lawsuit: Lawrenceville city manager muzzled police chief, forced him out

Former Lawrenceville Police Chief Tim Wallis

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Former Lawrenceville Police Chief Tim Wallis

Suit is latest twist in sex harassment scandal that upended Lawrenceville PD

The former Lawrenceville police chief who retired in February amid a sexual harassment scandal is now accusing the city’s manager of violating the U.S. Constitution by muzzling him, his wife and other employees in an effort to suppress the truth of his own failures, a new lawsuit alleges.

Former Chief Tim Wallis alleges in his lawsuit that City Manager Chuck Warbington forced him out just days after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke the story about a sexual harassment investigation of the city’s police force.

Wallis’ wife, Avie Terris, who is also a plaintiff, was quoted in that Jan. 26 AJC story defending her husband, who Warbington had suspended for 10 days after the city’s internal investigation determined he had sexually harassed a female captain in the agency. Wallis told the AJC he had not harassed anyone.

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The lawsuit alleges that Warbington emailed Wallis the morning after the story published and told him the comments were a violation of the city manager’s order not to speak “directly or indirectly” to the media. Warbington’s email said that “included comments reportedly from your wife,” according to the suit.

Several days later, Warbington summoned Wallis to his office and told him he had disobeyed his instructions and that he could retire immediately or be fired, the lawsuit alleges.

Warbington wanted “only his version of the story disseminated, no matter what the truth really was,” the lawsuit alleges. “Instead of allowing the truth to be revealed, he chose rather to offer up Chief Wallis as a sacrificial lamb, thereby deflecting attention from his own failures as a leader.”

Warbington did not respond to an AJC interview request sent Friday morning and his office did not directly address the AJC’s questions about the lawsuit. The city said via email it had no comment on the pending litigation.

Wallis’ 29-page federal lawsuit filed against Warbington and the city of Lawrenceville is the latest twist stemming from a sexual harassment investigation that started last fall when the police department’s only woman in its command staff, Capt. Tawnya Gilovanni, came forward and described a toxic culture for women inside the agency.

The internal investigation by an outside law firm produced a report in late December that had several findings, including the conclusion that Chief Wallis and a male captain, Ryan Morgan, had sexually harassed Gilovanni. Morgan has also denied he harassed anyone.

“I have a spotless 31-year career in law enforcement,” Wallis said at the time.

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In his lawsuit, Wallis said he enforced professionalism in the department and tried to stress to his command staff that they were held to a higher standard as leaders. One such example, he contended in the lawsuit, was referring to Gilovanni as a “Hooter’s girl” when she wore a pink T-shirt, instead of her uniform shirt, on a day when the air conditioning went out at the department.

“Chief Wallis meant to express that her unprofessional attire that day did not help the image that she was trying to convey as a Command Staff officer,” the lawsuit said. “While Chief Wallis knows the comment was poorly advised, he felt at the time that it was good natured, in keeping with what he felt was the tone of the conversation, and consistent with comments that they would both make to one another.”

Wallis joined the Lawrenceville Police Department in 1996 after five years at the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office. He worked his way up the ranks, becoming captain in 2011 and was named chief in 2018.

He said in his lawsuit that he inherited a police department that under a previous administration had a “good ol’ boy,” misogynistic attitude that did not value diversity and was insensitive to women. He said he tried to change those things by promoting a woman and person of color to leadership positions.

“While there is obviously still work to be done, Chief Wallis’s efforts were highly effective in changing the environment of the department and the general conception of what was considered acceptable conduct,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit said Wallis has been “wrongfully labeled” as a sexist and sexual harasser and, due to Warbington’s directive, he was not allowed to publicly defend himself.

It alleges that Warbington was trying to “control the narrative” of the sexual harassment investigation to insulate himself from allegations of wrongdoing on his own part. The former chief said that’s made especially clear by who Warbington “protected” in the wake of the investigation.

Wallis said his face-to-face meeting with Warbington happened less than a week after the scandal became public. He said he was not told what the matter of the meeting would be and when he asked if he should bring his attorney, Warbington told him that would not be necessary.

Then, behind closed doors, Warbington presented Wallis with the options of retiring or being fired “on the spot,” the lawsuit alleges.

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“Chief Wallis pleaded for time to consult with his family, and Defendant Warbington begrudgingly allowed Chief Wallis just ten minutes to make a phone call to his wife and arrive at a decision,” the lawsuit said.

On Feb. 1, the city announced that Wallis would retire from the police department.

“Chief Wallis and I mutually agreed that it was best for him, the City, and the Police Department that he step down as Chief and retire from the City on Feb. 15, 2022,” Warbington said in a press release.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit said, Warbington allowed Morgan to resign “with honor and even a retirement celebration just twelve days before the investigation results were made public.” When Morgan announced his retirement in December shortly before he was due to be interviewed as a part of the investigation, Warbington and Lawrenceville Mayor David Still each wrote him glowing reference letters.

Both the mayor and Warbington told the AJC in late January that when they wrote the letters they did not know the extent of what the city’s investigation had found.

Wallis’s lawsuit said it plans to explore more deeply Warbington’s actions toward Morgan.

“What remains to be uncovered is why exactly City Manager Warbington took these actions to protect Captain Morgan ... and himself, and he instead casted the blame on Chief Wallis, which this lawsuit will endeavor to expose,” the document said.


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.