A Fulton County administrator has filed a complaint accusing District Attorney Paul Howard of inappropriate comments and unwelcome physical contact in the workplace — sexual harassment she says began in January and continued through early September. She also says she was demoted in retaliation for pushing back.
Howard’s attorney says the claims from former human resources director Tisa Grimes, who lodged a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission but has not filed a lawsuit, are without merit.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution generally does not report on sexual harassment allegations unless the EEOC, which vets such claims, approves court action. In this case, Grimes made the allegations public in recent letters to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and members of the Atlanta City Council. Grimes’ lawyer, Mario Williams, said sending the letters to the city’s top officeholders was meant to thwart any efforts to dismiss Grimes.
“Ms. Grimes is an effective worker and mother who cannot afford to lose her job,” he said.
Neither Bottoms nor council members have oversight of the DA’s office.
During an interview with the AJC in her lawyer’s office, Grimes alleged Howard embraced her in a way that made her feel uncomfortable following a discussion about work matters. She claims Howard continued to make her feel uncomfortable over a period of months, including during a staff retreat, with suggestive comments and unwanted physical contact.
She says she has audio recordings proving Howard “subjected her to severe, unwelcome sexual harassment” and “a hostile work environment.” Her attorney would not allow the AJC to listen to the tapes.
Howard’s attorney, Anita Wallace Thomas, said Grimes’ allegations “arose after she was notified that she was being demoted.”
Howard said Grimes’ transfer to Project Level Up, which works with juvenile offenders, was not a demotion.
“The position to which this employee was transferred provides for the exact same compensation and benefits as the previous position that this employee held,” he said in a statement. “Project Level Up is a new and critical program developed by this office, and the position this employee was transferred to directly matches the employee’s skill set.”
Howard, said Wallace Thomas, is fully cooperating with the investigation into Grimes’ accusations.
“As a result of the pending investigation, Mr. Howard cannot further address the allegations,” she said. “However, he denies all of the claims and is prepared to mount a vigorous defense.”
Howard issued a statement: “This is an employment matter, and I will continue to remain open and transparent with respect to any investigation.”
Attorney Eleanor Attwood, who specializes in sexual harassment cases, said Grimes appears to have a credible claim, “one the court would sincerely consider.”
But she warned of a legal threshold “higher than most people think.”
Vague stories alleging harassment will not pass muster, Attwood said.
“You have to be as detailed and precise as possible,” she said.
During the interview with the AJC and in her complaint, Grimes claimed Howard propositioned her, grabbed her buttocks and seemed to be ever present.
“It seemed like every time I went to the restroom he would appear,” she said. In March, Grimes and Howard attended a supervisor’s retreat in Lithonia.
Grimes, 45, claims Howard, 68, asked for her room number. Grimes said she knocked on the room door she thought was assigned to Howard’s chief of staff. It turned out to be Howard’s room. She said he answered the door, wearing an “Oxford white long shirt” with no pants. She couldn’t tell whether he was wearing underwear.
“He started to motion me to come into his room,” she said during the interview with the AJC. “I turned around, back to him, and dialed (chief of staff) Lynne Nelson’s phone.”
Nelson, it turns out, was staying across the hall. Grimes said she told Nelson about that encounter but not about the previous alleged incidents.
Nelson did not respond to a request for comment.
Grimes said she was punished after rejecting the advances, first by being stripped of some of her duties, then by being moved into a different position.
In September, Howard sent a letter reassigning Grimes to become the administrator for Project Level Up. In late November, Grimes said, she was told her she would no longer have direct communication with Howard and would be transferred to another building.
“In my mind I felt it was retaliation for my rejection of his sexual harassment,” said Grimes, who said investigators from Fulton’s Office of Diversity and Civil Rights Compliance interviewed her recently about the matter. “I really feel like it was a setup for failure.”
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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC