It's the scandal that rocked Richmond City Hall, setting an unharmonious tenor for City Council as it kicked off 2011.
Nearly a year after a council aide allegedly made an unwanted sexual advance toward another aide last April, the incident has blown up into a lawsuit with claims of sexual battery, whisperings of harassment allegations against a councilman and alleged abuse of power by the council's president.
The case has all the makings of a political drama: an older man, a younger woman and coverup charges against Council President Kathy Graziano, who is accused of having tried to persuade the alleged victim to bring a complaint against Councilman Bruce Tyler, rather than the aide, who is Graziano's longtime employee. Councilor Marty Jewell, who aired the matter at the council's first meeting of the year, is accused of political opportunism as he sought to undermine Graziano.
As the case devolved into legal and political bickering, the intrigue quickly seemed to overshadow the two people at the heart of the scandal: the alleged victim, Jennifer Walle, and the man accused of harassing her, David Hathcock.
The headlines set this case apart from others, but workplace harassment is nothing unusual; 40 percent to 70 percent of women indicate they've been sexually harassed at work, according to various academic and government statistics. Considering that 72 million women hold jobs in this country, the 11,717 sexual harassment complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2010 represent only a tiny fraction of reality. Walle filed a complaint with the EEOC, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice that investigates complaints of workplace civil-rights violations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Anita Willoughby, a former Richmond City Sheriff's Office employee, was also in the headlines two years ago, but not because she didn't first try to keep her head down and stay quiet about her alleged harassment. She agonized over whether to tell someone at work about her problems with her supervisor, whom she said physically and verbally harassed her for months.
"All I would have had to do was endure what he wanted," says Willoughby, whose description of the process of making her complaint sounds more harrowing than enduring the alleged assault, which she said involved a forcible kiss. "It's devastating, it's belittling, it's very humiliating."
In the end, Willoughby decided to speak with her human-resources director, not planning to file an official complaint but simply to relieve the burden of silence. During their conversation, she didn't share the name of the alleged harasser. But the HR director thought the charge too serious not to investigate and took the complaint to Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody — not knowing that he was the alleged harasser.
Before she knew it, Willoughby was making headlines. Woody, who said the accusations were fabricated, was quickly cleared by a city investigation, led by Prince William County's Commonwealth's Attorney, into the assault complaint. On Nov. 24, 2009, Woody fired Willoughby.
"It threw my whole life in disarray," says Willoughby, who stands by her allegations even as her EEOC complaint remains under review — more than a year after she filed it. She has not filed suit against the city for her firing.
She's watched the recent City Hall headlines with interest, seeing a variety of parallels in what has happened to Jennifer Walle.
"It's going to be tough for her," Willoughby says. "It's just known that the victim is going to get the hammer, that your life is going to get exposed."
Whether headlines result or not, any case of sexual harassment is tough for the victim. Most cases are handled internally by company or municipal human-resources departments, says Philip Deming, a member of the Employee Health, Safety and Security Panel with the Washington-based Society for Human Resource Manangement. Although there are no doubt thousands of cases each year, he says, "the only statistics that are of significant value are the complaints filed with the EEOC."
But to illustrate the pervasiveness of such complaints, says Deming, who was the chief administrative officer of a health care company with 35,000 employees before going into private consulting, "in the company I was with, we would have weekly claims of sexual harassment."
Many sexual-harassment complaints are determined to be unfounded, although there often is an underlying problem of disrespect between the employees involved, Deming says. But no matter what the outcome is, the very act of filing a complaint with company management can be a traumatic experience for female and male victims, who often must overcome a complex range of emotions and fears, he says.
Monali Sheth, a staff attorney with Equal Rights Advocates, a national advocacy organization, says confusion often reigns among workplace sexual harassment and assault victims.
"A lot of the callers that we get, they're unaware of their rights," says Sheth, whose organization is part of a landmark class-action sexual-discrimination case against Wal-Mart. "Sex harassment can sometimes be a mushy thing. They're not sure that [their experience] constitutes assault or harassment, or they're worried about retaliation [by their employer]."
In cases where there isn't a crime committed, the process can be long, as is illustrated by Willoughby's case. But it's important to follow procedures, Sheth says.
"The way to look at the process for filing a complaint is [that] you have three tracks, and they build on each other," Sheth says. "You have the internal process. You're documenting [harassment], and you're letting HR know or management know. Then you have the administrative track ... where you need to file a charge with the EEOC or the state. And then you have litigation."
Walle says she first discussed the matter with Graziano, then filed an EEOC complaint, followed by a lawsuit.
But litigation is a last resort, says Sheth, who agrees with Deming that companies typically try to handle claims of harassment properly and with good intentions.
"The employer has an interest to handle and remedy this before it goes to litigation," she says, since going to court can be expensive. But she cautions that some employers "have a greater incentive to protect the manager than the victim."
Attorney Bill Shields represents Will-oughby and has extensive experience with harassment suits. He holds a dim view of in-house investigations by companies of anything more serious than simple verbal harassment. "As soon as these things happen, the HR department goes out and investigates, but almost always, it's to prove that the company is not liable."
Still, even if their EEOC cases are dismissed (more than half end with a determination of insufficient evidence), women are not left without recourse. The EEOC provides a "right to sue" letter to the complainant as part of its findings. These letters allow victims to move to the federal courts for redress, the EEOC's Ryan says, "regardless of how we feel about the merits of their charges."
But in Virginia, where the U.S. District Court often uses summary judgment, alleged victims often fare just as badly in court as they did with the EEOC. "Unless you have a strong case, they're going to throw you out," Shields says.
And even if a victim wins in court, he or she is unlikely to see much financial benefit, he adds. "Under Title VII, there are caps on recovery of damages," Shields says. "[Even] if you have a good, strong case, you tend to settle it. But you tend to settle it for moderate money, five figures, not six. It is pretty disappointing."
Sometimes, he says, the best option is pragmatism: "If she doesn't have a good, solid claim, she should find another job and just move on — and I'm sorry."