TALLAHASSEE — White Gadsden County officials successfully conspired to remove or demote every black supervisor in county government, multiple lawsuits claim.
What's more, the suits say that an African-American commissioner played a key role in the plot.
The ringleader, according to court filings, was another county commissioner, Douglas Croley, who was depicted as referring to black employees as "the Tribe" and was the only white on the five-member commission leading up to the 2008 election.
The suits say Croley schemed with Commissioner Eugene Lamb, who is black, to defeat another incumbent black commissioner and replace him with a white man, Gene Morgan.
Once they succeeded, the suits allege, the new commission majority of Croley, Lamb and Morgan pressured a black county administrator to resign. They replaced him with a white man and gave him a "hit list" of black supervisors to fire in order to "whiten up" the staff.
The lawsuits are the latest chapters in an uproar that surfaced in August when Gadsden County public works director Robert Presnell filed a complaint alleging that illegal campaign contributions were involved in a scheme to elect Morgan.
Lamb and other commissioners fired Presnell four hours after he made his complaint. Presnell filed a whistle-blower suit against the county. In a settlement last October, the county gave Presnell $22,500 and back pay, and restored his position.
Now attorneys for a handful of former county employees accuse Croley, the other commissioners and County Administrator Johnny Williams of violating the civil rights of more than a dozen black employees who were fired or demoted.
Doug Croley has made it a "personal mission'' to rid the county of as many minority employees as possible, two of the lawsuits contend.
Croley refused to comment on the accusations. He and other Gadsden commissioners contacted by the St. Petersburg Times referred questions to Tallahassee lawyer Brian Duffy, who did not return telephone calls.
"All the allegations are false," Williams said. "That's probably all my attorney will let me say."
Lamb, the black commissioner who allegedly sided with the white commissioners to get rid of black employees, refused to comment.
"I can't talk about it,'' Lamb said.
The NAACP has reported the affair to the FBI, according to Dale Landry, president of the NAACP in Tallahassee and vice president of the group's North Florida charter.
"You won't find one black supervisor left," said Sam Palmer, president of the Gadsden County NAACP. "They called it reorganization. It was reorganized, all right."
NAACP chapters in Gadsden County and neighboring Tallahassee plan a rally in Quincy just before the next County Commission meeting Tuesday.
Palmer said he expects students from Florida State University and Florida A&M to join the protest.
The lawsuits concern the only Florida county in which blacks form a majority of the electorate. About 55 percent of the county's population is black, with minority voters outnumbering white voters 16,525 to 11,436 in 2010.
One lawsuit, against Croley, Williams and the entire commission, was filed last week in state circuit court by Tallahassee lawyer David Frank; two other suits, naming the County Commission, were filed last fall in federal court in Tallahassee by Tallahassee lawyer Marie Mattox.
All make similar allegations, specifically:
In 2008, Croley conspired with Lamb, a black commissioner who has been on the board for seven years, to elect a second white to the commission.
Croley and Lamb recruited two other men to run for the seat of black incumbent Derrick Price.
One of the recruits was Gene Morgan, who is white. The second was Randolph Bush, an African American. Bush's role in the alleged plot: split the black vote.
Bush only got 3 percent of the vote. But that was enough to enable Morgan to win by 64 votes.
Once in control, Croley, Lamb and Morgan replaced County Administrator Marlon Brown, who is black, with a white person. Brown, now a deputy city manager in Sarasota, says he reached a "mutual agreement" to leave after Commissioner Croley expressed concerns about the number of minorities in supervisory positions.
"One commissioner had a concern about the number of minorities in the ranks of the organization," Brown said.
At first, Croley and the others hired former County Administrator Bud Parmer to replace Brown. Parmer, 76, has worked at various administrative jobs for the state and Clearwater and lives in Gadsden County, where he was the county's first administrator.
After agreeing to return to the Gadsden job on an interim basis, Parmer said Croley told him to fire a list of black supervisors. When he balked, Croley said he should call it a "reorganization."
The lawsuit says Parmer realized the list included only the names of African-Americans and retired rather than carry out the purge.
Contacted this week at his home on Lake Tallavana, Parmer, who is white, said: "They are just not up to date in their thinking. I think they wanted to get rid of people under the guise of saying we had to cut back."
Parmer said he does not understand why Lamb went along with the purge.
"It's a strange scenario," Parmer said. "It seems they formed a little group; it was very apparent."
Croley and the others then turned to Williams, the white administrator hired in April 2009. He circulated a memo in May of the same year placing all departments headed by African Americans under white supervisors with less experience, the lawsuits contend.
All three lawsuits accuse county officials of violating state and federal laws that prohibit discrimination and manipulating minority voting. The suits seek unspecified damages and attorneys' fees.
The precursor to all this was the complaint from Presnell, the former county public works director.
Presnell, who is white, gave the sheriff a signed complaint on Sept. 2, 2010. The complaint accused Commissioners Lamb, Croley and Morgan in a scheme to raise more than $2,200 in illegal campaign cash for Bush, the black challenger in the 2008 election.
Presnell said some of the money was delivered by Sterling Watson, a former county commissioner, after Croley's mother delivered it to Watson's home.
Sheriff's Capt. Robert Barkley interviewed Lamb about 45 minutes after receiving the report. Four hours later, Lamb and the other commissioners fired Presnell, saying his work performance had been inferior.
That led to the settlement in October.
Watson refused Thursday to discuss Presnell's allegations.
"Because I have been given immunity," Watson said, "my lawyer says I have to keep my mouth shut."