Report: Georgia Veterans Service commissioner harassed, demeaned employees

Mike Roby, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Veterans Service, addresses Soldiers, Airmen, retirees and veterans during Retiree Appreciation Day May 11, 2021, at Clay National Guard Center in Marietta, Georgia. He abruptly retired just as an investigation was completed into allegations he sexually harassed an employee and made demeaning, racist remarks to others. Because he retired, he faces no discipiline. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. Rydell Tomas)
Caption
Mike Roby, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Veterans Service, addresses Soldiers, Airmen, retirees and veterans during Retiree Appreciation Day May 11, 2021, at Clay National Guard Center in Marietta, Georgia. He abruptly retired just as an investigation was completed into allegations he sexually harassed an employee and made demeaning, racist remarks to others. Because he retired, he faces no discipiline. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. Rydell Tomas)

Credit: Georgia National Guard

Veterans Service Commissioner Mike Roby sexually harassed his secretary, touching her and forcing her into uncomfortable hugs, while applying “pet names” to her and other female employees, an investigation by the State Inspector General’s office found.

The investigation, completed in September, also found a general pattern of harassing behavior by Roby toward women and minorities, including using racist nicknames for Black and Latino workers and a toxic workplace culture one employee described as “a thickness on the floor.”

Roby, who retired just as the investigation was completed, told investigators he is “a hugger” and defended his behavior as innocent. But several high-level officials in the department said they had warned him many times over his years in office that his unwanted behavior would land him in trouble.

A detailed report of the investigation obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution condemned the former commissioner in stark language.

“Roby’s conduct was derogatory, demeaning, and intended to insult, embarrass, belittle, or humiliate (the secretary) because of her sex,” the report concludes, adding that he “knew or should have known that his conduct ... was unwanted and offensive.”

The AJC does not reveal the names of victims of sexual harassment without their permission.

The investigation was required by reforms enacted by Gov. Brian Kemp during his first week in office to crack down on sexual harassment in state government.

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“From the outset of his administration, Gov. Kemp prioritized making sure that state government is a safe, welcoming place for employees,” said Katie Byrd, Kemp’s press secretary. “The State Veterans Service Board worked closely with both the OIG and the Attorney General’s office to review the findings and move the agency forward so it can continue to reach and serve our state’s heroes.”

Kemp’s reforms were prompted by an AJC investigation that reviewed hundreds of complaints in state agencies. The investigation found widely varied approaches to complaints left many victims at risk.

Veterans Service Board Chairwoman Patricia Ross is set to replace Roby next month as head of the department, which helps veterans access government programs and benefits. Ross said Roby’s behavior was “very disturbing and unknown to the board,” but she said the investigation shows the process works.

Roby’s personal secretary, who had been hired earlier this year after Roby’s prior secretary retired, filed the complaint in August, prompting the department’s board to place him on administrative leave.

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According to the report, Roby called the secretary by pet names, sometimes adding his last name to her name as though they were married. Shortly thereafter, Roby began hugging the secretary and demanding hugs in return. She described the hugs as unwanted and “creepy.”

The secretary said she “felt like she did not have an option to say no because he was her supervisor,” the report states.

Roby told the secretary that she might be called on to stay late and work alone with him. The report states the secretary was “confused by the statement” because “the workload is light and ... Roby does not seem busy.”

The Inspector General’s investigation found that Roby’s inappropriate behavior was an open secret and that several employees had warned him to stop.

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According to the report, Roby used racist language when referring to some employees. One former employee whose family was from Cuba said Roby called him “any name that was stereotypically Hispanic,” including Jose, “Rico Suave, and “Latin Lover” and told others in front of him that he had hired him from the parking lot of a Home Depot. Multiple witnesses said Roby referred to a group of Black, female employees as the “Kunta Kinte Mafia.”

Inspector General Scott McAfee said the report’s findings speak for themselves and declined to comment on the record about Roby’s behavior. Deborah Wallace, McAfee’s predecessor and a retired lieutenant commander in the Navy, reviewed the report for the AJC and said Roby showed “utter disregard” for the state’s sexual harassment policy.

“As a 20-year military veteran and former IG, I’m appalled at Commissioner Roby’s abhorrent behavior,” she said. “The culture should not be tolerated and additional leadership posts within the agency need to be examined for lasting change to occur in the best interest of the state.”

In an email to the Inspector General’s office, Roby said he was “sorry that it came to this” and he “never meant for any thing (sic) like this to ever happened (sic).”

It is not the only time the Department of Veterans Service has run afoul of the state’s sexual harassment policy. In 2019, the Inspector General’s office investigated a report that the agency’s spokesman masturbated into a bathroom sink in a state office building. The sexual harassment report was filed by a male employee who was in the bathroom at the time. Although the report found the complaint was “more likely than not” to be true, Roby kept the spokesman on, allowing him to retire a few months later.

Roby, 68, worked for Veterans Service for 27 years and was appointed commissioner in 2015. Prior to working for the state, he served 22 years in the Army, rising the rank of sergeant major. Earlier this year, he was inducted into the Georgia Military Veterans Hall of Fame.

Although the investigation sustained the allegations against him, Roby will suffer no further consequences because he retired before he could be disciplined.

“Our hands were tied as far as taking any sort of action,” Ross said.

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