City Council’s sexual harassment saga took a dramatic turn yesterday when the city submitted its first official response to claims made by Jennifer Walle, the former aide to City Councilman Bruce Tyler, to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In a “position statement” submitted to the commission -- Walle filed a complaint against the city, City Council President Kathy Graziano and her aide David Hathcock, whom Walle alleges sexually harassed her in April 2010 -- lawyers hired by the city write that the charges are “wholly untrue and with no factual support.”
In a 22-page position statement defending the city, the lawyers dismiss claims that Walle was forced to work in a “sexually hostile work environment” and suffered retaliation for making the allegations. After interviews with city officials, council members and staff -- Walle declined to participate -- the outside attorneys conclude that the city took appropriate action. Moreover, their defense hinges on the fact that Walle allegedly refused to file a formal complaint against Hathcock and therefore the city couldn’t formally launch an internal investigation into the claims.
The city’s outside counsel hired to look into the matter -- Wilcox & Savage lawyers Samuel J. Webster and Bryan C.R. Skeen -- sum up Walle’s claim against Hathcock: “Ms. Walle never made a formal written complaint to the City detailing her allegations against Hathcock, and she told varying and inconsistent versions of her allegations to various City employees during her employment.”
First, a recap: Walle alleges that David Hathcock, aide to City Council President Kathy Graziano, inappropriately touched her and made suggestive remarks to her in April 2010. In an interview with Style Weekly in early February, Walle says that Hathcock pulled her onto his lap and expressed his feelings for her, and attempted to kiss her.
Walle also says that she approached Graziano about the incident and says she was told to either “look for a new job, or I could quit.” And then shortly after the approaching Graziano about Hathcock, her boss, Tyler, enters the picture. The city’s lawyers say that Walle also made claims that Tyler had made inappropriate comments about her dress and appearance -- things like Walle “looked good in heels.” The city’s hired guns say that Walle also asked to be reassigned, that she didn’t feel comfortable working with Tyler. Hayden Fisher, Walle’s attorney, says this isn’t true. (Click here for Fisher's interview with Style Editor Jason Roop on WRVA this morning.)Walle says that Graziano pushed her to file a complaint with the Human Resources Department about Tyler’s comments. The city lawyers say Graziano didn’t do any such thing.
The city’s response to the whole affair is sweeping. There were many meetings, back-and-forth charges about who said what and when. But it offers a clear picture of where the saga is heading. It’s Walle’s word against a multitude of city officials who suggest that Walle changed her story and refused to offer specific details, or file official complaints, making it impossible to respond to the allegations.
The city’s defense relies heavily on the fact that Walle declined to submit a formal, written complaint to human resources. Without it, officials say that they couldn’t conduct an investigation into the claims.
The first meeting took place on July 30, 2010, when Walle met with Graziano at the urging of Jan Girardi, an aide to City Councilman Charles Samuels. Girardi, a friend of Walle’s, also attended the meeting. In their interviews with lawyers, Girardi and Graziano both say that Walle explained that “Mr. Hathcock touched her inappropriately” but didn’t provide any specific details as to what happened. Graziano repeatedly asked for details, according to the attorneys, but Walle refused. The lawyers also write that “Walle did not tell Ms. Graziano or Mrs. Girardi about her May 6 email to Mr. Hathcock or his response.”
Walle’s May 6 email to Hathcock is also critical. In it, she recounts the incident to Hathcock: “While you were in my office, you physically touched me several times in a way that made me very uncomfortable.” She asks Hathcock not to do it again. She sent the email on May 6 at 5:19 p.m. Three minutes later, Hathcock responds: “I had the same thought. You are right.”
Fisher says the city’s letter to the EEOC incorrectly reports that Walle never mentioned the email in meetings with Graziano and other city officials, including former Human Resources Director Tyrone Jackson. “That’s a complete lie,” Fisher says. Walle has maintained that she attempted to show Graziano the email in that July 30, 2010, meeting, and Graziano told her she didn’t want to see it.
This discrepancy is important because the city’s defense revolves around contention that Walle repeatedly declined to offer specific details about what happened. In other words, that she was unwilling to expound, or file a written complaint with the Human resources Department. The lawyers for the city dismiss the contents of the email:
“Although Mr. Hathcock admits that he sent this email, he maintains that his response was simply an acknowledgement that he did something to offend Ms. Walle and an effort to assuage her concerns. Mr. Hathcock insists that Ms. Walle’s version of the events of April 21 is incorrect. He denies ever touching her inappropriately or saying anything inappropriate to her.”
And then Tyler enters the picture. Daisy Weaver, former City Council chief of staff, told the investigators that Walle came into her office after the meeting with Graziano and Girardi, also on July 30. Walle told her about the Hathcock incident, and then also “reported that she had been subjected to a pattern of suggestive and inappropriate comments by her Councilman, Bruce Tyler.” She didn’t provide details, according to the city’s letter to the commission.
Walle has maintained that Tyler’s comments were innocent in nature, but the city’s investigation suggests something worse. There was another meeting Aug. 9, 2010, involving Walle, Graziano, Weaver, an assistant city attorney and Jackson, the former human resources director, who resigned in early March, taking a job in Washington. In that meeting, the city lawyers report, Walle instead focused on the alleged inappropriate comments made by Tyler, and didn’t make any mention of being inappropriately touched by Hathcock. “Ms. Walle’s allegations against Mr. Hathcock were limited to a single instance of inappropriate comments,” the EEOC letter states.
This account conflicts with Walle’s public statements earlier this year, and Fisher says the city is again fabricating. Walle never wanted to pursue complaints against Tyler, he says, and never asked to be reassigned as council aide.In December, Councilman Marty Jewell got wind of the harassment claims and approached Tyler. On Dec. 17, Tyler escorted Walle to Jackson’s office. At that point, Walle made a verbal complaint, according to the city’s EEOC letter. At that point, Walle told Jackson that she had no interested in filing a complaint against Tyler. She did, however, tell Jackson that Hathcock “pulled her onto him and tried to kiss her in her office.” She described the contents of the email, but didn’t provide a copy. The lawyers hired by the city summarize it this way:
“Ms. Walle then told Dr. Jackson that she told Ms. Graziano about her concerns about Mr. Hathcock, but Ms. Graziano said the matter had been addressed and, instead, tried to force her to complain about Mr. Tyler. She told Dr. Jackson that she wanted to pursue her complaints only against Mr. Hathcock.”
Jackson then reminded Walle that she still needed to file a written complaint, and Walle said she would consider doing so, and said she would notify Jackson by the following Monday. Jackson says Walle never followed up, and that “Ms. Walle has never filed a written complaint with Human Resources.”
Walle did, however, go to police, and Hathcock was charged with misdemeanor sexual battery and assault. In May, Hathcock agreed to undergo 100 hours of community service and workplace sensitivity training in exchange for the charges being dropped. A separate civil lawsuit filed by Walle against Hathcock and Graziano is ongoing. Fisher says a trial will likely take place in early 2012.
There is much to dissect in city’s response. Critical, however, is the claim that Walle never filed a written complaint to HR. Fisher says that by then she felt filing such a complaint was pointless.
“You shouldn’t have to file a written complaint,” he says, adding that the city’s sexual harassment policy is “flawed.” The city’s policy involves three steps, the first of which is to “whenever possible, individuals who experience unlawful harassment should make it clear to the offending person that such behavior is unacceptable.”
Being instructed to approach your harasser, Fisher says, is ill-advised. “You never confront the accuser,” he says. “It’s not best practices.”
How the saga plays out from here, however, is an open question.