Should City Council members under investigation be allowed to participate in closed-door briefings from the investigators?
Council President Kathy Graziano recently did just that. Her senior aide, David Hathcock, is accused of groping and making unwanted sexual advances toward another aide. And that aide, Jennifer Walle, says Graziano told her to “get over it or quit.”
While the city wraps up its investigation into the charges — which includes looking into Graziano's handling of the situation — Graziano's participation on a City Council committee has some people questioning whether the process has been tainted.
Last week council received a report at a closed-door meeting of its Organizational Development Standing Committee. Graziano, acting chair of the committee, was a participant in the session.
Graziano and Hathcock also face a civil battery suit filed by Walle, public liaison to Councilman Bruce Tyler. Walle says that Hathcock groped her and made sexual advances toward her at City Hall on April 21.
As potential conflicts of interests go, the Walle investigation has other tentacles. According to Walle, Graziano insisted that she file a complaint with the Human Resources Department against Tyler, who may or may not have made inappropriate remarks around Walle. (Walle says the comments were “innocent.”) Nevertheless, Tyler also was present during the closed-door investigation briefing.
Rip Verkerke, a professor of employment law at the University of Virginia, says that while not technically improper, it smells funny. For a witness or possible subject of a formal investigation to receive a briefing on that investigation creates an air of impropriety, he says.
“This is precisely the situation where recusal makes sense,” Verkerke says. “You don't give a briefing to someone who might be an object of the investigation. Information learned during that briefing could very well taint the investigation.”
Hayden Fisher, Walle's lawyer, says it's clearly inappropriate. “Ms. Graziano should not be involved in this process other than agreeing to make the apology we requested,” Fisher says via e-mail. In an interview last week with Style Weekly Editor Jason Roop on WRVA-AM 1140, Walle offered to drop her $550,000 lawsuit against Graziano, Hathcock and the city if she received an apology and assurances that the city would handle such situations differently in the future.
Daisy Weaver, City Council's chief of staff, says no protocol dictates that the council president or any council member recuse themselves from duties while being investigated by the city. “I believe this is the first time we've run across this situation,” she says.
If Graziano has entertained recusing herself from any of her council duties, she's not saying so publicly. In a statement, Graziano says: “Because this was and is a personnel issue now in litigation, the city and myself have been unable to comment. I look forward to the opportunity to respond to the charges in an appropriate setting.”
The response from Mayor Dwight Jones' office is similar. Asked whether it was appropriate for Graziano to be briefed on the status of the investigation, Jones spokeswoman Tammy Hawley declines to comment, citing the administration's policy of not discussing personnel matters.