For more than a decade, Zach Thompson was the face of public health for Dallas County.
He deftly led the health department through crisis after crisis: the West Nile virus and Ebola, to name a couple.
“He put it on the map,” said former County Commissioner Maurine Dickey, a Republican. “I would imagine that we have one of the best health departments in the whole country because of him.”
Dickey has known Thompson for 30 years -- back to his days heading the West Dallas community Centers, a drug education and prevention program. She said Thompson ran a “tight ship” at the health department.
Former County Judge Jim Foster offered high praise, too.
“Every major metropolitan health department official across the state of Texas bar none highly regarded and respected him,” said Foster, a Democrat.
So it came as a great shock to both when word leaked out Thursday that County Administrator Darryl Martin had fired him a day earlier. Thompson was fired after a female employee came forward last week alleging he sexually harassed her. Sources said the woman claimed to have DNA evidence.
County Judge Clay Jenkins issued a statement Friday afternoon confirming that Thompson had been fired over an allegation of sexual harassment.
His statement said the human resources director received a complaint against Thompson in early December. Human Resources Director Urmit Graham spoke with the woman and referred the matter to Martin.
On Dec. 22, Jenkins received a letter from the woman's attorney, Jenkins' statement said. He said it was the first time he became aware of the complaint or the allegations against Thompson.
The matter was put on the Commissioners Court agenda for Tuesday to be discussed in executive session. After the meeting, he said he met with Martin, Graham and county attorneys.
“We discussed the concern that there did not appear to be cooperation from Mr. Thompson in that he reportedly would not discuss the allegations made against him when asked by Court Administration,” Jenkins said.
Later that day, Martin sent Thompson a text and asked him to “categorically deny” the allegation in the complaint, the statement said.
“Mr. Thompson again declined to do so,” the statement said. “The following day, Mr. Martin spoke with Mr. Thompson via telephone and informed Mr. Thompson that he would be receiving a termination letter.”
The statement said the woman's allegation was a “serious, clear and unambiguous violation of county policy.”
Anthony Lyons, an attorney representing Thompson, provided a different account to WFAA. He said Thompson found out he had been fired from the media. He said no one from the county contacted Thompson about the allegations.
“He was not given an opportunity to respond to the allegations,” Lyons said. “It's a weird and bizarre set of events.”
He says Thompson notified the county nine months ago via email that he was retiring at the end of January.
“It's shocking and very embarrassing for him,” Lyons said.
He said Thompson hadn't been at work since December because he was burning his comp time prior to retiring.
The Spencer Scott Law Firm, which is representing the woman, issued a statement Friday afternoon, saying that their client “has alleged a pattern and practice of sexual abuse, harassment, intimidation and retaliation by Mr. Thompson.”
The statement alleges county officials “failed to take adequate steps to rectify the situation and protect the victim.”
“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,” the law firm statement said. “To protect her privacy and that of her family and colleagues, my client will remain unnamed….”
Dickey said she finds the allegations against Thompson hard to believe.
“The Zach that I've known for over 30 years was always about business,” Dickey said. “He had a good work ethic. He was a leader. And he wasn't a fool. I can't imagine him doing something like that.”
Foster said he's disappointed, but not surprised by the way the county treated Thompson.
“That's to some extent is typical of the way Dallas County operates,” he said.
Dickey suspects there are political machinations behind the abrupt firing and she said it could reduce the amount of his pension.
“That's just not the way you treat people and especially people that have served the county so admirably,” she said. “It's truly a tragedy for this man's fine career and for such a sour note for him to have to go out on.”
The Spencer Scott Law Firm that is representing the woman, released a statement Friday afternoon. The statement alleges Thompson had a "pattern and practice of sexual abuse, harassment, intimidation, and retaliation by Mr. Thompson."
The Spencer Scott Law Firm is representing a Dallas County employee alleging sexual harassment by Zachary Thompson. 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 and protect the victim.
We look forward to working with Dallas County officials to ensure safety, closure, and justice for this employee and to ensure additional employees do not fall victim to the same harassment our client experienced.
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.
To protect her privacy and that of her family and colleagues, my client will remain unnamed and will not participate in press interviews. At this time and in the interest of a swift resolution, we will not share additional details regarding the situation and ask members of the public and media to respect this decision.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins released the following statement.