In March, custodian Mary Davis was chatting with a friend while on the job at the Georgia World Congress Center cleaning up before a car show when she said a maintenance man emerged from the men’s room with his pants open, waving his penis at the women.
Both women filed written sexual harassment complaints to superiors against the man, a 20-year employee named Kennie Jackson. Now, an attorney representing Davis, 62, is seeking $500,000 from the state to compensate for the alleged sexual harassment she endured.
Eight months ago, she might have settled for an apology and the feeling that her complaint was taken seriously.
“Nobody did nothing except take that statement,” she said, referring to a one-page complaint she said she had to hound officials at the World Congress Center to allow her to make. “What gives him the right to expose himself to me?”
Jackson denied the accusation, telling a superior that he had been fastening his pants as he was leaving the restroom and the women “must have seen his finger.” That was enough.
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Four months later, the World Congress Center closed the case without interviewing Davis, calling the accusation “inconclusive.”
Jackson repeated his denial to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a brief phone call before hanging up abruptly.
The Georgia World Congress Center incident is typical of many investigations reviewed by the AJC, which has collected more than 200 sexual harassment complaints filed by state workers over the past five years.
Often, investigations go no deeper than taking statements from the accuser and the accused. Absent a confession, human resources officials judge the complaint to be unsubstantiated — essentially a default judgment in favor of the accused harasser.
One of the main findings of the AJC’s investigation is that sexual harassment investigations in state government are haphazard affairs, at best.
While the AJC has found hundreds of complaints, state officials have no idea how many more may be out there or how they are handled. No single office or official acts keeps a global eye on the problem because every department and agency handles their own investigations internally.
The top two candidates in Georgia’s still-unsettled gubernatorial election have pledged to overhaul how the state handles sexual harassment claims.
GOP candidate Brian Kemp, who has claimed victory over Democratic rival Stacy Abrams, has pledged to issue an executive order designating the office of the state inspector general a clearing house for sexual harassment claims and create a “central review committee” to adjudicate claims.
Abrams, who has yet to concede the race, said she would make handling of sexual harassment claims “a more coordinated effort.” That could mean a central body for investigations, but also more centralized leadership and training to make the state’s approach more uniform, she said.
Two witnesses, only one interviewed
In the World Congress Center complaint, two women claimed they witnessed the act together. Davis said she and custodial worker Margaret Williams were working together in Building C, gathering trash and doing other housekeeping chores when Jackson approached them in front of a women’s bathroom. Davis believed Jackson and Williams knew each other, but she didn’t know Jackson.
After a speaking to the woman, Davis said Jackson crossed the corridor and entered the men’s bathroom on the other side. When he reemerged, Davis said Jackson had opened his pants.
In a handwritten statement filed the day after the alleged incident, Margaret Williams, the other custodial worker who was talking with Davis, claimed she saw the maintenance man “pull his private part out. And Mary said did you see that, and I said yes.”
“He was just killing himself laughing and carrying on,” Davis said in a recent interview with the AJC. “I told him I didn’t find anything funny because he totally disrespected me.”
Davis, who works for a private custodial contractor, said she took her concerns to Aundre Goode, facility manager for the World Congress Center, but she said weeks passed without any action. After three weeks of asking, Davis was allowed to dictate a statement to a World Congress Center employee. She was never interviewed or asked any questions. No one followed up as part of any investigation.
Investigative notes obtained by the AJC suggest World Congress Center human resources staff may have already reached a conclusion about the claim before Davis was allowed to give a statement.
Jackson was interviewed on April 4 — two weeks after the incident. A single page of handwritten notes from the interview indicate that Jackson admitted exiting the restroom with his pants unzipped, but denied exposing himself and that he approached the women the following day “to address their concern.”
“Jackson was advised to adjust any behaviors that would be deemed inappropriate or offensive to others,” the investigator wrote.
Williams was interviewed two days later. The interview notes amount to less than 100 words and fill less than a page. The notes indicate the investigator pressed Williams on whether she was “100 percent sure what she saw” and noted she had recent cataract surgery. Williams apparently told the investigator that it “looked like his penis” but it could have been a finger.
Williams, who is still employed at the World Congress Center, did not return calls seeking comment.
Davis gave her statement April 10, but was never interviewed. Davis told the AJC the person taking her statement asked her no questions, but she said she is positive about what she saw.
To avoid financial liability in sexual harassment cases, employers are required to show they have done all they can to prevent harassment and provide employees with a chance to address harassment when it occurs. In legal circles, this is known as a Faragher-Ellerth defense after two Supreme Court decisions issued 20 years ago.
Eleanor Attwood, a Decatur attorney not associated with the case, said if Davis’ account of the investigation is correct, the World Congress Center may have a problem asserting that defense.
“They have to conduct a prompt, thorough and impartial investigation,” Attwood said. “In this circumstance, where you have third-party witness and you don’t even interview her, that Faragher-Ellerth defense would fall flat.”
Davis has moved on to her next job working in a downtown hotel. She said she would never take another assignment at the World Congress Center. As a housekeeper, Davis said she often works alone in secluded areas or during the overnight hours. She needs to feel protected from that kind of harassment, she said.
“They don’t care what happens there,” she said. “You have to care about your employees.”