South Fulton facing federal lawsuit for corruption, intimidation
Allegations against a former police officer are just the latest problems facing this new metro Atlanta city.
SOUTH FULTON, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges some of the city of South Fulton’s top leaders engaged in coverups and misconduct regarding a former top police lieutenant, after an Atlanta News First investigation.
The lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, is centered around allegations that Shannon McKesey, a former South Fulton police officer, pocketed money and mishandled evidence during her time on the force. Now, some of the city’s top leaders are being accused of enabling that alleged misconduct while retaliating against those who called it out.
Whistleblowers believe the case exposes multiple shortcomings of one of metro Atlanta’s newer municipalities.
Civil rights attorney Arnold Lizana represents Joseph King and Tanesha Graham, and has filed discrimination charges on behalf of King, a former detective, and Graham, the city’s former human resources director. Both claim retaliation after raising concerns over Lt. McKesey.
“It takes a lot of courage to be the person to blow the whistle on wrongdoing in a police department,” Lizana said.
In October 2021, King filed a grievance against Lt. McKesey. King - previously named South Fulton’s detective of year and recognized as officer of the year across Fulton County, and a decorated law enforcer who faced the most dangerous criminals - wrote he feared Lt. McKesey.
He cited her “lawless ways” led to his “mental breakdowns.”
King’s statement claimed “procedure violations on how she handles property and evidence,” and caused the “integrity of the cases to be compromised.” He added, officers are afraid because “when it doesn’t go her way, she pulls her gold card, letting you know she has known the chief since she was 18.”
Graham didn’t want her face shown, telling Atlanta News First Investigates, “You don’t know how deep this goes; none of us do. I don’t know who I’ve upset, so the fear is constant.”
While trying to investigate the claims of misconduct and possible criminal wrongdoing, Graham alleges, “the chief of police and members of the city were pressing the city manager to terminate me because I was allegedly meddling in police business.”
According to an internal memo written by city manager Tammi Saddler Jones and obtained by Atlanta News First Investigates, a councilmember stated Graham was “meddling,” “needs to leave the city,” and that “they’re sick of her.”
Read the full letter at the bottom of this story.
Saddler wrote, in the memo, the statements made against Graham were “inappropriate and misplaced.”
“I spent my entire career working in HR to protect employees from this type of retaliation and ultimately, I was unable to protect myself,” Graham, a 20-year human resources specialist, said.
An outside agency, the City of Smyrna Police Department, was tasked with investigating complaints about Lt. McKesey. It completed its report on July 5, 2022, and documented at least 18 South Fulton law enforcement officials accusing Lt. McKesey of hostility, lying, mishandling evidence, or other misconduct.
The document includes reports from officers who allege Lt. McKesey requested them to buy her alcohol on the job, and officers alleging they saw her drinking on duty. They claim the lieutenant called colleagues racial and derogatory slurs, as well as discrepancies when she would seize money and property.
While the investigation was ongoing, officers who had spoken out against Lt. McKesey said they experienced retaliation. King reported he was subsequently accused of having a fake Covid vaccination card.
Atlanta News First investigates requested an interview with Police Chief Keith Meadows multiple times through email and phone. He never replied, but Atlanta News First Investigates met up with him outside the city’s Coffee with a Cop event.
- ATLANTA NEWS FIRST INVESTIGATES: Did you have a blind spot for McKesey?
- MEADOWS: A blind spot?
- ATLANTA NEWS FIRST INVESTIGATES: She’s a family friend, close with your wife. Do you think you had a blind spot when it came to hiring her?
- MEADOWS: Well, McKesey was actually, she worked for me in the city of Atlanta. She worked for me in College Park. And she’s worked for me here. So she’s been in law enforcement for quite some time.
Meadows said he wants the agency to move forward from this.
- ATLANTA NEWS FIRST INVESTIGATES: But if South Fulton’s own officers, at least 12 of them, are saying they can’t trust you, how do you expect the community to trust you?
- MEADOWS: Well, we’ve gotten great support. And this event is evidence of that. You know, none of those police officers brought those allegations to my attention, it came out in the investigation.
Meadows denies knowing about complaints that McKesey leveraged their friendship as a fear tactic. But the Symrna investigative report outlines otherwise. An officer told investigators when he complained to his superiors, including the chief, “nothing was done.”
“I do know that there was an allegation made to the HR department,” the officer said. “The HR department never briefed me until November this past year; I’m sorry until July of this past year. So, when they came to my attention then I responded to it.”
Graham, who was then the city’s HR director, in an internal memo alleged the chief’s response included “bullying tactics repeatedly in emails and in conversations” as well as asking for a list of the employees.
“Well, the city hired an attorney to investigate that matter and that attorney came back with an investigation that actually said those allegations were not true,” the chief responded.
Hoffer & Webb, the law firm hired by the city, found the harassment claims to be without merit. However, Graham said the law firm and its investigator did not collect documents or schedule follow-up conversations.
“I was forced out of the job that I loved simply for telling the truth when I investigated allegations laws had been broken and policies had been violated,” Graham said. Atlanta News First Investigates reached out to McKesey for comment. She referred all questions to her attorney, but did not provide the attorney’s name or contact information.
McKesey resigned from the department last year in lieu of termination. She is under an ongoing criminal investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
When Smyrna investigators questioned McKesey, she claimed “she did know why these comments were made.” She said she believes the complaints could stem from her documenting problems with other officers. McKesey denied allegations and said she did not recall having others purchase alcohol on duty, or mishandling money or property. She told investigators she mostly follows the chain of command and did not go directly to Meadows.
Investigators noted during their case they polygraphed multiple officers but “all people in the polygraph were determined to be truthful except Lt. McKesey.”
Several residents who attended a fall 2022 city council meeting expressed their frustrations.
“Start all over again,” one resident said, “a new city, a new council, a new mayor because you all aren’t doing a good job with the city of South Fulton.”
Another resident echoed, “The [police] department needs to be cleaned out, starting with the chief,” while yet another claimed, “if you don’t want any action, that’s because you’re complicit in it.”
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