Carter County’s Planning and Zoning Director is seeking $600,000 in damages in a lawsuit against the county government and its chief executive officer. On Friday, the Elizabethton STAR learned Planning Director Chris Schuettler and his wife, Melanie, have filed suit against Carter County and its Mayor, Leon Humphrey.
The suit, which was filed early Friday morning in Carter County Circuit Court, alleges Humphrey attempted to improperly use his authority as mayor to terminate Schuettler’s employment as planning and zoning director. The brief also contends the mayor presented false information to state authorities, resulting in Schuettler’s arrest last summer.
On July 12, 2011, Schuettler was arrested by the Carter County Sheriff’s Office on a charge of theft over $1,000. According to the lawsuit, Schuettler’s arrest was directly related to Humphrey’s actions. The brief further states the mayor “became angered at Mr. Schuettler over Mr. Schuettler’s interpretation of the rules and regulations set forth by the Carter County Zoning Resolution concerning campgrounds…prior to his taking office as County Mayor.”
Schuettler also alleges Humphrey expressed his displeasure regarding the planning director’s discovery that the mayor had used his office to remove funding from the planning office’s annual budget without obtaining the consent of the Carter County Commission. The plaintiffs in the case argue Humphrey’s actions violate the State of Tennessee’s Financial Management Act of 1981.
The Schuettler’s six-page complaint provides their account of how Humphrey used the mayor’s office to try to end Schuettler’s employment with the county. They contend Humphrey lobbied the Tennessee General Assembly for an amendment to the Carter County Private Act of 1972, the legislation establishing the Carter County Planning and Zoning Commission and the Office of County Planning Director.
Schuettler states Humphrey advocated for an amendment to the local act which would give the mayor the sole authority to hire and fire the planning and zoning director. “After this attempt failed, Mr. Humphrey attempted to have the Carter County Board of Commissioners to pass the above said change to the local private act, so that it could be reintroduced to the state (legislature) for passage,” the lawsuit states.
The plaintiffs assert when the mayor’s efforts to obtain the ability to fire the planning director failed, Humphrey provided misleading information about Schuettler’s military leave and mobile phone records to the State Comptroller’s Office and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
A TBI probe by Special Agent Brian Fraley accused Schuettler of submitting timesheets to the county for time when he was reportedly in Wilkesboro and Lenoir, N.C. Fraley’s report stated mobile phone records indicated Schuettler had traveled to North Carolina while reporting on his county timecards that he was working. The TBI investigation eventually led to Schuettler’s arrest.
Earlier this year, the case was brought before the Carter County Grand Jury. Prosecutors were unable to obtain an indictment, however, after the defense provided evidence showing mobile networks are often designed to have customers roam off the nearest phone tower and the one that provides the strongest signal even when it is located in an adjacent state. Schuettler’s defense utilized expert testimony showing that the phone records that placed him in North Carolina were misleading. The Grand Jury heard evidence stating calls made from the eastern portion of Carter County often roam to a switching station located in North Carolina.
The lawsuit further asserts “Mr. Humphrey’s vendetta towards (Schuettler) allowed (the mayor) to disregard proper procedures as set forth in the county’s own rules for complaints or official misconduct.”
The Schuettler’s are seeking a judgment against the county and Mayor Humphrey in the sum of $600,000. The complaint against the defendants states the mayor’s actions slandered and defamed Schuettler “in the eyes of the public for which he serves.”
Schuettler also noted that last year’s criminal charge led to a loss of income as he was overlooked for a promotion in rank by the United States Army Reserve. He added the loss of the military promotion will mean a reduction in his future retirement benefits.
As a co-plaintiff, Mrs. Schuettler asserts Humphrey’s actions have resulted in additional damages, most notably in her marriage. “She alleges that she has lost the care, companionship and society of her husband due to the false allegations. She alleges that the damages are the direct results of Mr. Humphrey’s actions,” the complaint states.
When reached for comment on the lawsuit, Schuettler and Mayor Humphrey declined the opportunity to make a statement. The STAR also made an unsuccessful attempt to reach Carter County Attorney Keith Bowers for remarks on the lawsuit.
The Schuettler’s have not yet hired an attorney to represent them in the lawsuit against the county and Mayor Humphrey.