Dallas County employee accuses health director of sexual harassment

Two days after the Dallas County commissioners abruptly fired the county health director, much more detailed accounts of the allegations against Zach Thompson are surfacing.

An unnamed county employee made allegations of sexual abuse, harassment, intimidation, and retaliation by Thompson. County leaders say he failed to deny the allegations or cooperate with the investigation.

The law firm representing the employee said, “our client has alleged a pattern and practice of sexual abuse, harassment, intimidation, and retaliation by Mr. Thompson. After receipt of the allegations, Dallas County officials failed to take adequate steps to rectify the situation.”

While it sounds like the groundwork for a lawsuit against the county, neither the attorneys for the accuser nor the county commissioners have said anything on record about a possible civil complaint.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins says the complaint was first filed with human resources in early December. The judge says he and the HR director “received a letter via email” on December 22 from the law firm representing the complainant.

Jenkins says the entire commissioner's court was briefed in executive session on January 2 on the allegations. He says Thompson was asked on two occasions to cooperate with their investigation but declined. The judge says he told Johnson by phone on January 3 that he would receive a letter of termination.                     

Thompson’s attorney, Anthony Lyons, says he never received a phone call or a text about cooperating with any investigation and denies that he was notified of his pending termination this week. His attorney says he never received official notification until he received it by certified mail on Friday.

“That insertion by the county administrator that he contacted him and the impression that he discussed giving him the opportunity to deny the allegations is just absolutely untrue,” Lyons said. “It didn't happen.”

Lyons also says the county had already made the decision to fire Thompson days before January 3, which is when Jenkins says Thompson was notified by phone of his immediate termination. Lyons points to a tweet on the DCHHS twitter page that states Thompson was no longer with Dallas County as of December 29.

“Either it's unauthorized by the county officials. But if it's authorized, then the decision to terminate him was made before they considered the matter during closed session on the second,” Lyons said. “So for them to release a statement to give the impression that they made all these efforts to contact Mr. Thompson is a complete fabrication and totally untrue.”

Dallas attorney Pete Schulte is not involved in the case but says a county department head, like the health director, can be fired for any reason.

"He's not an elected official, he's a department head,” Schulte said. “But he doesn't have any rights for grievances for being terminated, doesn't have any right to contest that he's terminated. He serves at the will of the commissioner's court."

Thompson has been with the health department since 1996 and head of it since 2003. He made national headlines during the 2012 West Nile outbreak and in 2014 during the Dallas Ebola scare.

The DA's office says there are no criminal complaints against Thompson. His salary was in the range of $200,000 a year.

But despite his termination, Schulte says it is not likely Thompson will lose his county retirement.

“He will not lose his retirement because he's vested. He's been paying into the retirement plan with the county of Dallas,” Schulte said. “Right now, he's not been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor. That's a crime of moral turpitude."

The law firm representing the unnamed employee added “The termination of Mr. Thompson this week is a step forward for our client and a sign as to the serious nature and validity of her claim. She is eager to work in an environment without the constant mental anguish and fear of when the next instance of harassment or retaliation might occur.”

Thompson has been on comp-time since last month and had planned to be on it until his retirement began at the end of the month.