AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

High-profile ruling may have led to break in Atlanta Civil Service Board hearings

Just prior to the Atlanta Civil Service Board being suspended from hearing cases by Mayor Kasim Reed's administration, the board ruled against the city in a controversial and high-profile case of Oscar Dawson, a 15-year Public Works' employee arrested and fired for allegedly stealing copper wire and selling it for scrap.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Sunday that the board had not heard any employee appeals over the past seven months -- from November 2015 to June -- in apparent violation of a city law that requires employees to receive hearings within 60 days.

Gwen Gillespie represented Dawson at his Civil Service Board appeal, then won another appeal four days later for a firefighter who was suspended for allegedly using profane language on the job. Gillespie said she thinks those two cases are the reason the board was suspended from hearing cases.

"They were angry that I won both of those cases," Gillespie said.

The city denies the connection and has said the hearings were suspended because of administrative concerns related to board member terms. But Human Resources Commissioner Yvonne Yancy was unable to explain why it took the city so long to appoint and reappoint board members, which is a routine function of the mayor's office. The newspaper also reported that it was common for board members to serve on expired terms, and that appears to have only become an issue after the Dawson ruling.

Dawson was one of three employees arrested and fired in March 2015 after being accused to stealing copper and selling it to a scrap yard. The arrests were widely reported by various media, which were alerted prior and published video and photographs of the employees being led away in handcuffs.

But when Dawson received a Civil Service Board hearing Oct. 30, the board ruled that there was not enough evidence against him to uphold the termination. And 15 months after his arrest, Dawson still has not been charged with a crime by the Fulton County Solicitor's Office.

"In conclusion, no one saw Mr. Dawson stealing wire, and the tipster did not identify him as one of the alleged violators," the board's ruling says. "Dawson admitted to selling copper wire to M&M Waste, which he said came from his side job.

"The wire Mr. Dawson sold to M&M Waste did not have any markings on it that identified it as city of Atlanta property. Finally, the city did not present any evidence or witnesses to support the four accusations against Mr. Dawson."

But that's not the end of Dawson's story.

Under city law, terminated employees who win their appeals are supposed to be immediately reinstated to their jobs. That didn't happen with Dawson.

Two months after the board's ruling, Dawson still hadn't been reinstated. The city only gave his job back after attorney Keshia Sneed filed suit against the city in Fulton County Superior Court.

Dawson then was reinstated with more than $27,000 in back pay. The city also paid Sneed's fees.

"Within two days of filing I was told (by the city) to withdraw it and send them my attorney's fees," Steed said.

Read what the city has to say about the review board here.

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About the Author

Dan Klepal is a reporter on the AJC’s investigative team, focusing mainly on local and state governments. Klepal previously covered Atlanta City Hall and Cobb County, where he wrote extensively about the public investment in SunTrust Park. Prior to coming to Atlanta, Klepal covered city governments in Cincinnati and Louisville, Kentucky.