Kentucky State Reformatory

Kentucky State Reformatory

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The former warden of the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange, who was fired last year amid investigations into allegations of assault and sexual abuse by prison employees, has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the state. 

Aaron Smith, who was fired April 5, was part of a house cleaning following several investigations in which the state concluded the prison had a “toxic culture.”

James Erwin, the commissioner responsible for the state prison system, among others, was fired in March of last year. 

The suit filed against the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet claims Smith took an “open and defiant” stance against cabinet officials who wanted him to agree with Erwin's termination and accuse him of wrongdoing.

In his lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Franklin Circuit Court, Smith claims he was fired because he wouldn’t succumb to pressure from John Tilley, the former secretary of the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, among other officials, to “corroborate wrongdoing on the part of Erwin.”

In fact, Smith told officials he "never witnesses or heard of Erwin doing anything illegal, unethical" or against state policy, according to the lawsuit. 

Smith claims he was called to Tilley's office twice, in February and March 2019, where he was frisked for weapons and read his rights before being interrogated.

After refusing on both occasions to “implicate Erwin" and "retroactively" justify his termination, Smith was retaliated against and fired without cause, the suit claims. 

Erwin has also fired a wrongful termination lawsuit against the justice cabinet, claiming he was fired when he refused to fire two officials at the reformatory, Capt. Michael Williams and Lt. John Grevious.

Erwin argues the justice cabinet’s investigation of Williams and Grevious were far form airtight and moving to dismiss them could come back to haunt the state.

Grevious and Williams, who were eventually fired, are accused of sexual assault and harassment, respectively, as well as ignoring allegations of improper behavior by other employees, among other alleged misconduct.

But Smith said in his lawsuit he explained to justice cabinet officials that the allegations against the two men were “determined to be unsubstantiated, and that therefore their termination would be in violation” of state law.

The lawsuit, filed by attorney Andrew Epstein, is seeking a jury trial and unspecified monetary damages. 

A spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

The issues at the 1,058-bed state reformatory in Oldham County have led to multiple lawsuits and firings. 

Smith led the reformatory for four years before being named director of the department’s Correctional Industries Division in 2018. His termination letter did not give a reason for his firing.

But his suit claims that a human resources officer for the justice cabinet testified in a separate lawsuit that Smith was fired for failing to control the prison and be aware of what was happening.

In his lawsuit, Smith said he told officials he supported Erwin in his belief that a more thorough investigation of Grevious and Williams was necessary and agreed with Erwin’s claims of “fraud, mismanagement, and abuse of power in support of his refusal to fire the men.”

Williams, who was head of internal affairs at the prison, and Grevious, the prison’s Equal Employment Opportunity Coordinator, have hired Louisville defense attorney Thomas Clay to fight to get their jobs back.  

The former officers claim many of the allegations are false and they were fired, in part, because they are black.

But past and former employees have said in interviews and records obtained by WDRB News that the two men regularly prevented complaints about misconduct at the prison from being investigated and retaliated against those who tried to speak up.

WDRB News reviewed complaints and investigations at the prison as far back as 2013, where the same patterns were noted year after year. In several instances, when employees did come forward with complaints and investigations were completed, the allegations were unsubstantiated.

Williams was fired in March 2019 for, among other violations, failing to report or investigate several allegations of sexual harassment or assault by employees, including a claim by a nurse that Grevious had sexually assaulted her in July 2018. Williams told the female employee she could report the allegation to outside law enforcement.

Williams did not tell prison management about the allegation or take any investigative steps, according to a Jan. 2, 2019 “memo of concern” from Jeff Hulker, a state investigator who conducted the internal probe for the cabinet.

In addition, Hulker found that Williams failed to investigate or report an allegation that a prison employee had a sexual relationship with an inmate in 2016. Williams claimed he “forgot” to conduct an investigation, according to documents in the probe.

The state has pledged to “change the culture in which victims feared retaliation for coming forward and incidents went unreported,” Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lisa Lamb Lamb has said. “We appreciate the courage of those who have previously stepped forward, along with those in the media who have helped bring issues to light.”

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Digital Reporter

Jason Riley is a criminal justice reporter for WDRB.com. He joined WDRB News in 2013 after 14 years with The Courier-Journal. He graduated from Western Kentucky University. Jason can be reached at 502-585-0823 and jriley@wdrb.com.