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NewsChannel 5 Investigates: UCDD

Lawsuit Claims UCDD Officials Hacked Personal Messages

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Ashley Pealer Ashley Pealer

By Phil Williams
Chief Investigative Reporter

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. --  A federal lawsuit accuses top officials of the Upper Cumberland Development District of illegally hacking into the personal messages of an employee after she refused to go along with the wrongdoing.

The complaint, filed Wednesday on behalf of former UCDD employee Ashley Pealer, alleges that UCDD officials violated the federal Stored Communications Act, the federal Wiretap Act, as well as her rights under the Fourth Amendment.

It names interim director Randy Williams personally, as well as current UCDD chairman Mike Gannon.
Read the lawsuit

"This is the first of the lawsuits that we will file," attorney Gary Blackburn told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

As we recently reported, Pealer and her mother Kathy were fired by Randy Williams in June, less than two weeks after he took over the agency.

Afterwards, Ashley said that she began hearing from inside agency offices that some of her private messages were being passed around.

"On my smartphone, I had my private Hotmail and my private Facebook account -- I've been told that both have been printed off," she said.

She added that she had found evidence of a strange posting that someone made to her personal Facebook page from the agency cell phone she'd been required to turn in.

It was "from my phone," she said, "to appear as if I was the one who had posted it."

In the lawsuit, lawyer Gary Blackburn alleges that "some 300 pages of private text messages ... were accessed by the Defendants and printed.  After the text messages were printed, they were published to various persons."

"The complaint alleges that the purpose of this was to harass and intimidate Ms. Pealer and that they violated the law in so doing," Blackburn added.

Specifically, Blackburn's lawsuit says Pealer's private communications were targeted because of her refusal to "remain silent about the illegal behavior of [former UCDD boss] Wendy Askins." 

It was a suggestion that had Mike Gannon, the Cannon County executive, stumbling during a recent special session to discuss the firings.

"I had no idea who contacted Channel 5 until a couple of weeks ago -- uh, it was after the terminations," Gannon said in response to questions about whether people were being fired because they were suspected of helping to expose Askins.

"I didn't know personally -- still didn't know for sure until about a week ago," Gannon added.

Then, just moments later, he claimed to have forgotten about the entire conversation.

"I still don't know who your sources are," Gannon told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

"You said you'd figured it out in the last week," we noted.

"I misquoted if I said that," he claimed.

By comparison, the lawsuit says that when Askins was forced to resign over improprieties in her office, she was allowed to take her cell phone with her -- even though she now finds herself at the center of a criminal investigation.

Meanwhile, Putnam County Executive Kim Blaylock questioned Gannon's refusal last week to allow a vote on her motion calling on the Pealers to be rehired.

Blaylock made the motion during a special meeting that she and seven other board members had forced to address the firings. But Gannon -- with backing from the agency's lawyers -- ruled her motion out of order because the agenda only said that were going to "discuss" the matter.

However, Blaylock pulled past meeting agendas and found that they too were similarly worded, but no one had ever advised the board that they could not vote.

"I'm just frustrated that when it gets to something that maybe some of them don't want to discuss, the lawyers say, no, you can't vote on it," she said.

Following that meeting, Blaylock got the signatures to ask for another special meeting on July 19th to vote on those firings and whether Randy Williams should be removed as interim director.

On Wednesday, Gannon scheduled that issue for discussion at a July 31 meeting, placing it on the agenda after the selection of a new executive director.

"By the time, it gets to what we want to talk about, I don't know whether they are going to let us talk about it or not," she said.

E-mail: pwilliams@newschannel5.com

More stories, documents:
NewsChannel 5 Investigates: UCDD

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