Former EMS director apologizes for racial slurs

Apr. 01, 2014 @ 08:25 AM

A former Caldwell County Emergency Management Services director apologized in court Monday to a former employee for nearly five years of racial slurs he made at work.

Tommy Courtner's apology to Gail Colbert came in a hearing in Wilkes Superior Court where attorneys for Colbert and Courtner, who currently is chief of the Hudson Fire Department, said they had reached a settlement in the lawsuit filed by Colbert in January 2013 that alleged severe emotional distress as a result of Courtner's actions. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

"Gail, we worked together for a long time," Courtner said, reading a six-sentence apology. "I regret that our relationship deteriorated. I am certainly sorry for all the things I said or did that caused you embarrassment, harm or offense. It was never my intentions for this to happen. I understand that racial remarks are not appropriate for a workplace. I apologize for the pain it caused you, and hope that you can forgive me."

In a phone interview Monday afternoon, Courtner said that the terms of the settlement prohibit him from commenting on the case. In the initial response his attorneys filed to the lawsuit, Courtner denied intending to harass or intimidate Colbert.

Courtner said Caldwell County's insurance will pay for the settlement and the legal fees.

The suit alleged that Courtner made disparaging and racist remarks to Colbert from the time he became her supervisor in 2006 until he resigned as EMS director on Jan 26, 2011.

Many of the allegations were corroborated by witnesses in affidavits. One employee, Ricky Brown, stated, "I would hear Tommy from time to time making comments to Gail about monkeys and bananas, and he would turn out the ligh in her office and yell (for) Gail to smile 'so I can see where you're at.'"

Another employee, Kenneth Teague, said in an affidavit that Courtner referred to black people by the common racial epithet that starts with N and had referred to Colbert as "monkey." Another, Heather Greene, said Courtner would call her "spook."

One employee, Syretha Richards, wrote, "If Gail was ever eating a banana in her office, he would always laugh and make monkey comments. At one time he took a picture of her eating a banana and he printed it and hung it up and laughed about it." The employee also wrote, "I read an e-mail that was sent to Gail from Tommy that talked about a stimulus package of fried chicken and watermelon."

In 2012 Courtner ran for a seat on the Caldwell County Board of Commissioners. Terrifed that he might once again be placed in a position of authority over her, Colbert circulated a letter detailing her allegations of abuse, the suit said, and Courtner responded by filing a complaint with the State Board of Elections. The state board's investigation against Colbert was terminated, according to the suit, after the board received sworn statements from a number of individuals attesting to Courtner's remarks being similar or identical to those included in the letter.

Colbert, who now lives in Wilkes County and still works for Caldwell County, declined to comment on the case.

Colbert's attorney, Dudley Witt, spoke briefly about the case afterward.

"Ms. Colbert's thankful that there's been an apology," Witt said. "She's accepted it, and she's hopeful to move on from this very unfortunate portion of her life."

Attorneys have 15 days to file for a dismissal of the civil suit.