Annie Cosby Jan. 13, 2015, 11:18am


A Panola County man is suing over claims he was unlawfully forced to quit his job in the Panola County Sheriff's Office.

John Vernon Hearnsberger filed a lawsuit Oct. 20 in the Marshall Division of the Eastern District of Texas against Panola County, Panola County Judge Leeann Jones, Panola County Sheriff Kevin Lake, Jack Ellect, David Jeter and Ronald Clinton.

According to the complaint, Hearnsberger was hired to work in the Panola County Sherrif's Department's narcotics interdiction program in 2004, by Ellect, the sheriff at the time. Hearnsberger says he started a business called Complete Right of Way Services in July 2011, that was slow getting started and required him to personally borrow $55,000. According to the lawsuit, in February 2012, Hearnsberger sold 75 percent of the company to Larry Fields of Carthage, but in October 2012 they had a business dispute over company funds Hearnsberger paid himself to reimburse himself for funds he invested in the start-up of the company. The lawsuit states Hearnsberger and Fields resolved the dispute without any lawsuits, with Hearnsberger paying $28,660 and selling Fields his 25 percent interest in the company. However, the plaintiff says, despite the dispute being a civil matter, the Panola County Sherrif's Office became involved.

Hearnsberger says that in October 2012, the department brought in Texas Ranger investigator officer Todd Martin to assist in an investigation of Hearnsberger's alleged theft from Fields. The complaint states Martin asked Hearnsberger for a written statement but when he declined, Chief Deputy Jeter and Captain Clinton threatened to fire him while Martin threatened to get a warrant and arrest him. Hearnsberger says the sheriff's office also threatened to fire him if he hired a lawyer to represent him, and Ellect authorized these actions.

According to the lawsuit, on Oct. 19, 2012, Hearnsberger signed the Sheriff's Department's voluntary statement of accused, though none of the facts therein constituted criminal conduct, and later that day Jeter and Clinton told him he either had to quit or would be fired. Hearnsberger says he chose to quit, and he was indicted for stealing from Fields on Feb. 13, 2013.

The lawsuit states Hearnsberger retained an attorney, but on Nov. 25, 2013, at a preliminary hearing, the charges were dismissed. Hearnsberger says Martin also testified at that hearing that had Ellect, Jeter or Clinton informed him that Hearnsberger and Fields had settled the matter out of court, he would have withdrawn from the investigation.

Hearnsberger seeks damages for lost income, attorney fees, damage to his reputation and punitive damages. Has has yet to retain an attorney.

Marshall Division of the Eastern District of Texas case number: 2:14-CV-00982-JRG

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