State’s weak response to sexual harassment makes reporting risky

Some perceive state government as a good old boys club, protecting its own
A former Gainesville Times reporter, Harris Blackwood had little in his background suggesting expertise in highway safety before Gov. Nathan Deal put him in charge of that division of his office. Known as an office cutup, he’s seen here claiming a “sweep” for Republicans at a 2010 election night event. BRANT SANDERLIN / AJC

A former Gainesville Times reporter, Harris Blackwood had little in his background suggesting expertise in highway safety before Gov. Nathan Deal put him in charge of that division of his office. Known as an office cutup, he’s seen here claiming a “sweep” for Republicans at a 2010 election night event. BRANT SANDERLIN / AJC

Emboldened by #MeToo, a half dozen state emergency management employees came forward about a supervisor putting his hands on women who didn’t want to be touched, making locker-room jokes they didn’t want to hear. His punishment: A talking-to. No written reprimand. No disciplinary action.

“It sent the message that that kind of behavior was tolerated,” an ex-GEMA employee told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

An intern complained about sexual innuendo by the director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. He faced no punishment; she got moved to another office.

Meanwhile, a cashier working in the business office of a state mental hospital was recommended for termination over lewd comments and rubbing a co-worker’s hand. The same thing happened to a veteran food safety inspector accused of calling a trainee “cute” and “sexy.”

If such consequences for sexual harassment seem all over the place, it's because they are, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found. So it goes in a state government with no uniform system for investigating complaints, with no centralized authority offering guidance on sanctions, where every department sets its own policies and enforces them "to fit its culture and other business needs," as an attorney for the state's main human resources office explained last month.

The lack of consistency means employees who speak out have no idea what to expect from their respective personnel departments — support, indifference or indignation, the AJC found. Experts told the newspaper policies aren’t effective unless violators are held accountable. If abusers face no consequences, word spreads. Victims fear they risk too much by reporting. Harassers go on harassing, depleting office morale, derailing departmental efficiency and shattering careers.

“Women are taught not to come forward and make problems. That’s just a societal thing,” Atlanta employment attorney Amanda Farahany said. “Then they come forward, and the feedback usually is against the woman first. The first thing is proving you’re not a liar.”

National data suggest that three out of every four sexual harassment victims never report it, and of those who do report, three-quarters face some kind of retaliation. The newspaper’s review — now totaling 204 cases in 18 of Georgia’s executive agencies — shows state employees may have good reason to be wary.

Scrutiny can be turned back on an accuser. Investigators may dig deep, or they may just scratch the surface and declare the matter a wash. Even if an employee’s complaint is substantiated, the harasser may get only a tap on the wrist, requiring no more of him than to watch a training video.

Or if an offender does face punishment, interoffice gossip can turn co-workers icy toward the person who raised a fuss, sullying a victim’s remaining tenure in the job.

“It was just subtle things — nothing all at once,” one harassment victim, a former Department of Agriculture employee, told the AJC. “I didn’t feel supported.”

The tone at the top

The message to employees can be particularly deflating when they speak out about high-ranking officials, and little or nothing happens.

“We know that sexual harassment is at least as much about power as it is about anything else,” said Rebecca Gill, a political science professor and director of the Women’s Research Institute of Nevada at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “We have this issue that, as you get higher up in the hierarchy, we become more and more interested in preserving the reputation and career of the aggressor instead of seeing the result of the behavior as damaging the reputation of the victim.”

Such was the case when complaints arose about Harris Blackwood, appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal to head his Office of Highway Safety after serving as a spokesman for Deal’s gubernatorial campaign.

According to investigative documents, a female intern reported in early 2014 that Blackwood approached her and launched uninvited into a wild tale about an illicit Facebook message he received from the wife of a colleague. In a staff meeting the same day to prepare for a predicted snowstorm, Blackwood said, “Don’t forget what your mom said: ‘Don’t play with yourself or you will go blind.’”

The behavior continued a few days later when Blackwood’s female deputy director promised to call him after work with any updates about an impending snow storm. In earshot of Public Safety Commissioner Col. Mark McDonough and a male staffer, Harris asked if she was going to “talk to me soft and low.”

Another female office worker reported that, during a hallway conversation, Blackwood stared so intently at her chest that she felt compelled to cover herself with her arm.

The complaints reached Chris Riley, Deal’s chief of staff. When a human resources investigator in the governor’s office looked into the allegations, some male colleagues described Blackwood as amusing — something of an office cutup.

“Like John Candy,” McDonough told the investigator. “I laugh when I see him coming.”

Though the investigation substantiated multiple complaints, the governor's office meted out no punishment, other than requiring Blackwood to take training courses on office professionalism. He kept his $120,000-per-year job.

Before the governor appointed him director of his Office of Highway Safety, Harris Blackwood served as a spokesman for Nathan Deal’s gubernatorial campaign. Deal has stuck with him despite allegations of inappropriate behavior by several women in 2014. The two are shown here in 2010 at the offices of WSB-TV, following an on-air interview. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

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As for the woman who lodged the initial complaint, she got moved to the governor’s main office for the remainder of her internship. The AJC is not naming her, nor other victims in this story without their consent.

The governor still has confidence in Blackwood's ability to manage the office through the end of Deal's term in Januarythe chief of staff said. "I think he wants to bring it in and land the plane," Riley said.

Blackwood declined an interview request, responding in an email, “I learned a lesson and have continued to move ahead to do the work of this office.”

Navigating the boys’ club

Such outcomes have added to perceptions that a boys club of older, entrenched, mostly white males reigns supreme in Georgia government.

Several former Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency employees told the AJC that was their takeaway after they spoke out last year about Bill O’Brien, a senior manager and a former DeKalb County police chief.

O’Brien seemed to be chummy with Deputy Director Harlan Proveaux. The final investigative summary noted that this so intimidated workers around O’Brien, they tolerated his off-color behavior at first.

Then an employee mentioned to her supervisor what was happening, and it was reported up the chain. Six workers later told internal investigators that O’Brien rubbed women’s shoulders from behind and made suggestive remarks, such as, “Damn, would you look at that,” when eyeing a co-worker.

One GEMA employee said she didn’t want to offend O’Brien, so she would move away when she saw his hands coming toward her.

Then there was the time, during an early morning emergency activation, when a radiological emergency preparedness planner, Reagan Bush, and a male co-worker walked in the front door of the state operations center together. “If you all keep coming in together,” O’Brien allegedly told them, loud enough for others to hear, “people are going to start talking.”

“I didn’t know the guy,” Bush, who no longer works for the state, told the AJC. “I’m not a person who’s easy to offend, but it was just a stranger making a rude comment.”

Former DeKalb County Police Chief Bill O’Brien, shown here addressing the DeKalb commission in 2011, went on to work for the state’s Homeland Security Division, where he faced allegations last year of lewd comments and unwanted touching of co-workers. An investigation determined his behavior wasn’t sexual harassment, just misconduct. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

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O’Brien did not return messages from the AJC. In a recorded interview with investigators, he either denied the allegations or said he couldn’t recall the incidents.

“If I’ve made anybody feel uncomfortable, I am certainly embarrassed and appalled by it,” O’Brien told them. “Nobody’s ever given any indication, ‘Hey, don’t touch me,’ or any other like that.”

The investigators decided what he did wasn’t sexual harassment, just misconduct. GEMA Chief of Staff Catherine Howden said in an email that O’Brien was “verbally counseled regarding appropriate workplace behavior.”

Bush said the department should have taken some form of corrective action, such as leave without pay. “To have knowledge that someone had been harassing female co-workers and then to see them back at work could be very jarring,” she said.

Other times, it’s the hammer

The state’s various sexual harassment policies don’t specify how punishments are to be determined. But federal civil service laws have 12 guidelines for keeping sanctions consistent.

Among the considerations: The seriousness of the offense and whether it was intentional. The employee’s job rank, so as to set an example. Consistency with penalties imposed on others for similar offenses.

In Georgia, though, the punishment seems to depend on job title, the agency involved, and who investigates. Despite what federal guidelines say, one harasser may get a talking to, while another accused of similar behavior gets walking papers.

Dallas Adkins, a longtime finance office worker at West Central Georgia Regional Hospital in Columbus, lost his job in 2015 after an investigation found he rubbed a woman’s hands, commenting on how smooth they were, and regularly made sexually degrading comments. His co-workers said he even had a catchphrase for women: “Is there any room for me in your jeans?”

Adkins told the AJC he believes his former supervisor was behind the effort to run him out of his job, convincing the women who worked with him to blow incidents out of proportion. Asked about the jeans comments, he laughed. The women may have taken it wrong, he said, but he honestly liked the jeans and wanted to know if they might fit him.

“When they’ve got it out for you, they look for anything,” Adkins said.

Facing termination, Adkins handed in his retirement notice. “I just told them, I don’t need this,” he said. “Just to hell with y’all.”

In another case, the Department of Agriculture fired two veteran food safety inspectors accused of harassing a trainee. Weeks earlier, their supervisor had allowed them each to sit down with the woman accusing them and hash it all out privately.

“I wanna squash this,” Bernard Griffin, who heads the Atlanta region of the Food Safety Division, said during one of the recorded meetings. “And if we can work it out here, at this level, without having to get (my superiors) involved, I’ll try to do that.”

The woman complained that, during field training, Jeff Minor stared at her in a way that made her uncomfortable and called her “sexy.” On one occasion, while moving a computer cord, he walked behind her and said, “Was that as good for you as it was for me?”

She reported that the other food inspector, Steve Riley, rubbed her under the chin and called her beautiful. While riding in the car with him with her legs crossed, she said he rubbed her lower leg.

“I’m just boiling inside,” the victim recalled. “I just cannot believe this man put his hands on me, is what I’m thinking over and over. Why is he touching me? I don’t know him. We are at work.”

Although both men apologized during the face-to-face meetings, neither overflowed with contrition. “Is she trying to get money or something?” Riley wondered aloud before his accuser entered the room.

Over the weekend, Griffin realized he’d made a mistake. The following week he informed his superiors of the accusations, and the department’s Inspector General’s Office stepped in.

“It is my opinion that no remorse has been shown by either of them,” the Inspector General’s final report said, “and I do not believe they understand the gravity and seriousness of their improper/unlawful conduct.”

Contacted by the AJC, Minor said the trainee misinterpreted his comments. She was new to Atlanta, he said, and he was only trying to encourage her to get out, meet new people and find a boyfriend.

“She screwed up my retirement, basically,” Minor said. “I did get retirement, but I didn’t get full retirement.”

Riley did not respond to phone messages.

The victim, who asked that her name not be used because she now works for another state agency, said the face-to-face meetings were her idea. She said she only wanted the behavior to stop, but when she found out that the two men would lose their jobs, she felt betrayed.

“I just sank, in the pit of my stomach,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Dammit. Now how are things going to be?’”

Two years later, after repeated clashes with a field supervisor, she was fired herself over unauthorized use of leave time and poor work performance. “I just always felt like I was walking on eggshells,” the woman said. “I would mess up on things that I knew I knew how to do because I was nervous.”

Griffin, the supervisor, received a reprimand for his initial handling of her complaints.

No oversight, botched cases

The Minor/Riley case shows yet another hazard of Georgia's scatter-shot system — the propensity for middle managers to muck things upexposing taxpayers to potential litigation.

Any supervisor who hears about harassment should consult with HR, lest they misgauge the seriousness of the allegations, said Elaine Herskowitz, a former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission staff attorney who’s now a private consultant.

“I think it’s very risky for managers to handle situations like that, on their own,” Herskowitz said. “It could be considered legally negligent on the employer’s part to fail to investigate it.”

Sometimes, as in GEMA’s O’Brien case, agencies may hesitate to label lewd behavior as sexual harassment, even though the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s definition includes sexual comments or innuendos that create an offensive environment.

Or investigators may not take all the evidence into account. That’s what apparently happened when the Department of Public Safety in 2014 looked into allegations against an Augusta-area Georgia State Patrol assistant commander, according to Farahany, the employment attorney, who reviewed the investigative records for the AJC. She said the department gave far more credence to the man accused than to multiple women making complaints of sexually harassing or degrading comments.

Donnie Smith was an assistant troop commander for the Department of Public Safety when he was accused of sexually harassing a dispatcher. He said it was harmless banter among friends, but six other women came forward about sexual comments made to or around them. WRDW-TV

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The worst charges against Donnie Smith came from a dispatcher who had been friendly with him for years. She said the relationship changed when she divorced, and Smith started making sexually explicit comments and sending inappropriate texts.

Smith, at the time also a sitting Augusta Commissioner, told investigators it was only harmless, mutual banter.

But six other women came forward about sexual comments made to them or around them, records show.

Investigators concluded Smith violated department policy against harassing behavior but did not find he sexually harassed any of the women who directly accused him. Instead, the department found “Smith failed to confront, stop and correct inappropriate workplace behavior that he observed.”

Minimizing the dispatcher’s complaints, the final report explained that Smith didn’t think he was being offensive “because of the relationship he had with her.” The complaint of another woman was dismissed because she “did not attempt to stop or report his behavior” and “she shared personal information and/or bantered with Smith.”

By then, Smith had already retired, so he faced no discipline. He declined to discuss the matter with the AJC.

Public Safety did take action, though — against his accuser. The dispatcher who filed the original complaint against Smith was suspended for three days when investigators turned up recordings of her having a sexually inappropriate telephone conversation with a male dispatcher. Both of the dispatchers said they did not have an intimate relationship. The female dispatcher also was investigated for accepting a used bed Smith gave her from the post barracks during her divorce.

Farahany said the investigators appear to have looked at each woman’s allegation in isolation, failing to consider their combined weight. The dispatcher’s friendly relationship with Smith, and the fact that she didn’t confront him, played against her.

“They are putting the onus on the women to stop the male behavior,” Farahany said. “It’s one of the problems of having people who are untrained doing these investigations.”