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Troup fire chief, other leaders in department disciplined after external investigation

Following an external investigation, Troup County Fire Chief John Ekaitis has been suspended for two weeks and two other leaders in the TCFD have been disciplined as well following an external investigation of the department.

County Manager Eric Mosley said that Ekaitis unpaid suspension will start Monday, May 3 and will last until May 17. Without referring to a specific incident, Mosley said Ekaitis is suspended because he “either condoned or looked the other way while others did things that should’ve been addressed.”

“The issues have opened my eyes and other eyes to areas for personal growth and improvement as well as opportunities to make the Troup County Fire Department better in many aspects of our operation,” Ekaitis said in a written statement to the LDN. “The department has come a very long way in the past year in training, response to emergency incidents, accountability and staffing. With growth in a department, you face issues and there are issues that we faced and we will face. Change and accountability is not easy for anyone, but we will continue to learn from mistakes past, present and future. To the members of the department, the administration, the Board of Commissioners and the citizens of Troup County, I take full responsibility for my shortcomings.”

Mosley said the outside investigation was led by Frances Clay, a human resources attorney out of Macon. He said it found that leadership was being inconsistent in how they reacted and addressed the employees.

Kevin Norred, deputy chief of operations, has been demoted and will now serve as the fire marshal, where he will work from the Troup County Government Center, per Mosley. Captain Rusty Brown, the training officer, has also been suspended, though he will remain the training officer, Mosley said.

As part of structural changes at the fire department, Michael Strickland, the county’s EMA director, has been promoted to deputy chief of administration, training and emergency management.

Mosley said Strickland was a strong candidate for the fire chief position when Ekaitis was hired.

“I believe he has the aspirations to be a chief one day and probably will be at some point,” Mosley said of Strickland’s promotion. “We wanted to take advantage of his experience and resources.”

The LaGrange Daily News filed an open records request Wednesday but had not received the files from the investigation as of Friday.

However, outside of the request to the county, the LDN was sent a letter written by an employee with the fire department, who filed a 10-page complaint to the county in March.

The complaint alleges that Ekaitis twice made inappropriate comments about females.

The first alleged complaint occurred at a Marathon convenience store in LaGrange, where he allegedly called an employee a derogatory term.

“I was working, it was late at night because I was working second shift,” said Layla Quintero, the accuser from the Marathon store. “

He was playing a bunch of lotteries. And he kept making these like flirty comments at me, and my co-worker, which we’re used to, so we just kind of ignored it. And then he proceeded to try to get my attention, and I was doing stuff and he called me a [derogatory term].”

Ekaitis said the employee misidentified him, as she reported the person who made the comment had white hair and a beard. Mosley said he reviewed the tape from the incident, but no audio was available, making it impossible to know what was said. Mosley said Ekaitis was written up because he admitted to calling the employee such as honey, baby or sweetie, and made her uncomfortable.

The second instance allegedly occurred in November 2020 during a meeting among several fire departments. According to the complaint, when asked what he wanted for Christmas, Ekaitis allegedly pointed at a female in attendance and said he wanted her under his Christmas tree with nothing but a bow on.

Mosley said he investigated this complaint, but none of the other fire chiefs in Troup County corroborated the story, and the person spoken about never came forward to file a complaint. Therefore, he dropped the investigation.

In the complaint, Norred is accused of numerous complaints of bullying and mistreatment of personnel. Mosley noted one of the issues discovered during the outside investigation was the use of abusive language within the department.

The complaint also references an alleged incident where Brown told an injured fire recruit that they would have to repeat the school if he sought treatment at the doctor.

“I want people to know that Troup County takes all accusations seriously, and we deal with them seriously,” Mosley said.