published Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

Sexual harassment complaints against officials often take years to resolve

Fort Oglethorpe City Councilman Charles Sharrock reads documents Tuesday during a council meeting where three women testified that Sharrock had touched them inappropriately. The other council members voted to oust Sharrock.
Fort Oglethorpe City Councilman Charles Sharrock reads documents Tuesday during a council meeting where three women testified that Sharrock had touched them inappropriately. The other council members voted to oust Sharrock.
Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Jill Wynn speaks at a council meeting about what she said was improper behavior by Fort Oglethorpe Councilman Charles Sharrock.
    Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

BY THE NUMBERS

• In 2011 the EEOC received more than 11,000 sexual harassment complaints

• 26 percent of the complaints had merit resolutions favorable to complainants

• Overall, $52 million was spent in the settlements

Source: EEOC

Four years passed from the first time Fort Oglethorpe City Councilman Charles Sharrock was accused of groping a female city employee until the city finally put a stop to the unwanted behavior.

Jill Wynn, a city code enforcer, was the first to complain. She said his hugs and squeezes began shortly after he took office in 2008.

By the time Sharrock was ousted last week, at least two more women had come forward and complained about his physical attentions.

"Friendly," Sharrock called his hugs, squeezes and kisses. Harassment, the women called it.

Wynn complained privately about Sharrock's behavior in 2008. But in recent weeks, she said, it became clear she would have to go public if his behavior was to be stopped. And even though testifying meant risking public humiliation, she was prepared last week when the time came.

"I was mad," she said. "All I wanted was for him to leave me alone."

These women aren't alone. Others claim they had to endure sexual harassment for months, sometimes years, at the hands of local elected or appointed officials before substantive action was taken.

In Murray County, Ga., three women in the magistrate's office alleged in a federal discrimination complaint that over a period of two years their supervisor, Chief Magistrate Bryant Cochran, groped them, made explicit sexual comments and intimidated them to keep them quiet.

The employees waited to file the complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission until someone else came forward with her own complaint. That woman's allegation that Cochran solicited her for sex in exchange for a favorable ruling in her court case led to a federal investigation and, ultimately, his resignation.

Last year, Chattanooga's director of general services, Paul Page, resigned after several female employees and other women filed complaints alleging that he sexually harassed them.

One employee said Page, a city appointee, told her to "get naked in the back," and she was in trouble for "not dressing sexy enough." After the employee filed her complaint, she was fired. Two months later she was rehired, but to a position not commensurate with her former job.

Records from Page's previous jobs with other governments such as Soddy-Daisy, Fort Oglethorpe and Dade County, Ga., showed that he was fired from at least four other government jobs, including one in which sexual harassment figured into his termination.

After Fort Oglethorpe and Chattanooga city officials learned of the first complaints, Sharrock and Page were told to take sexual harassment training and warned not to inappropriately touch employees anymore.

But public officials and attorneys say it can take longer to deal with complaints within government agencies because of sunshine requirements, claims of political bias or simply the fact that authorities have few disciplinary options concerning an elected official.

Victims' complaints often cannot be kept private, exposing them to public humiliation.

"I wish we could have resolved it privately," said Fort Oglethorpe City Manager Ron Goulart, about Sharrock's hearing. "It really makes it difficult" when the complaint involves an elected official, he said.

•••

Officials say an unfounded complaint can ruin an official's reputation if it becomes known. But failure to address a problem can result in harm to more employees or the public.

Cochran, a three-term judge, resigned after Angie Garmley's complaint resulted in a state ethics investigation. He denied that he asked her to have sex in his chambers before he heard her case.

When the FBI began probing the abuse-of-power complaint, Magistrate Court Clerk Virginia Rector and her female staff also spoke up, filing a civil complaint against Cochran.

Their complaint alleges that for about two years, Rector and the other women suffered a range of harassment at Cochran's hands. The suit claims incidents ranging from him staring at their breasts and saying, "Boy, they are getting bigger," to closing the bathroom door to grope them and rub his penis against them from behind.

Cochran also often made sexual comments in the office, the women alleged, and at random times he would kick one of their desks and say "he would like to have a [sex act]." The women said they kept quiet because Cochran intimidated and threatened them.

Cochran's attorney, Phillip Friduss, denied all the allegations, saying those things never happened.

After the complaint became public in September, the women were mocked on a Chatsworth website. Their attorney, McCracken Poston, finally complained to the site and the comments stopped.

Sometimes when accusers step forward, the accused mounts the "slut defense," Poston said, meaning that critics will say the women asked for the harassment or acted in a way that encouraged it.

In Sharrock's hearing, the councilman's attorney accused the women of not speaking up to Sharrock, said Poston, who also represented one of the accusers in that case.

Wynn, for example, was asked how the councilman would know he was being inappropriate if she didn't tell him.

Officials said Sharrock had every chance to change, but didn't. In the future, sexual harassment training could be conducted more frequently, City Manager Goulart said. But employees have to be willing to come forward if there's a problem.

And he worries they may be deterred from doing so by how the Sharrock case played out in a public forum.

•••

Most government agencies have sexual harassment policies that give employees an avenue for protection.

But in today's world where people are quick to sue, the government has to spell out exactly what harassing behavior is wrong, said Murray County Sole Commissioner Greg Hogan. People can misinterpret a friendly "good morning" wave as harassment, he said.

As a result, he is revamping the county's policy to explain exactly what harassment means so it's not open to interpretation. Hogan took office after Commissioner David Ridley resigned amid a sexual harassment lawsuit alleging that he forced an employee to have oral sex and look at pornography.

Stuart James, a Chattanooga attorney who also represents the Murray County employees, said he has found it can be harder to defend sexual harassment victims in government because officials tend to blame any accusations on "politics" and brush it off.

But he has also seen it work in a victim's favor when the county or city will quickly deal with a situation to avoid being sued.

As for Wynn, she is relieved she no longer has to see the councilman at the office. And while she was humiliated at the hearing, she said she has found overwhelming support from the community for speaking out.

On Thursday, a supporter had flowers delivered to her office.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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