When Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh disagreed with the finding of a county Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) investigator in December that one of her supervisors had sexually harassed two secretaries, she sought a second opinion.
Attorney Jonathan Downes investigated and agreed with Walsh.
“The comments referenced in the EEO report regarding dating and related topics which may be personal do not constitute sexual harassment or create a hostile work environment,” Downes, a Columbus attorney who specializes in employment law, said in a recent report.
Walsh, whose office has been under the microscope since four current and former employees filed complaints with the county EEO office last July, said she was pleased with Downes’ findings.
“His conclusions were what I felt all along,” Walsh said in a recent interview.
But Brian Spitz, the attorney representing three of the employees who lodged complaints against Walsh, said he thinks Downes’ opinion holds little weight, especially because Downes didn’t talk to the employees who made the complaints.
Downes requested interviews from the employees who filed complaints, but they declined to speak to him.
“What happened here is a documented series of wrongful conduct,” said Spitz, whose practice is in Beachwood. “When you go shopping for an opinion, you will likely eventually find someone who gives you the opinion you want.”
The dueling reports are among the latest developments in the continued turmoil in Walsh’s office. The office also has been contending with the terminations and resignations of several high-ranking employees in the past two years.
Assistant Prosecutor Teri Burnside, who handled many high-profile criminal cases, resigned Monday, giving her notice in a two-line letter that reads: "Dear Prosecutor Walsh, I resign. Here is my two week notice." The cases Burnside helped with include Eric Hendon, who was sentenced to life in prison for a 2013 triple-murder in Barberton, and Stanley Ford, who is accused of setting fires that claimed the lives of nine of his Akron neighbors. Both were capital cases.
"I'm happy to have served the citizens of Summit County," Burnside said in a Facebook message, declining further comment.
Four current and former employees filed complaints against Walsh’s office with the county EEO office in late July that alleged discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation.
Secretaries Jennifer Cline and Chelsea Fernandez resigned, blaming a hostile work environment. Chief Investigator Ben Bergeron was fired after Walsh alleged he had an inappropriate relationship with Fernandez and lied about it. Bergeron and Fernandez have repeatedly denied the allegations. Secretary Yolanda Richardson continues to work for Walsh.
Tenille Kaus, the county’s EEO compliance officer, released a report in December that found Lisa Holdt, the chief administrator for Walsh’s office whose job includes supervising secretaries, sexually harassed Cline and Fernandez by asking inappropriate questions about their personal lives. Kaus said the prosecutor’s office “knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take actions to correct it.”
Kaus said Holdt repeatedly asked Cline about her dating life and questioned Fernandez about her alleged romantic relationship with Bergeron.
Summit County Law Director Deborah Matz said it was up to Walsh how to respond to Kaus' findings.
Summit County’s sexual harassment policy states that when it is determined harassment has occurred, “disciplinary action, up to and including termination, shall be taken.”
Richardson, who has been a secretary with Walsh’s office for more than 20 years, withdrew her complaint in early January at the same time she was promoted and given a $2,413 annual raise.
Walsh said Richardson was among several secretaries given raises and/or promotions based on their years of experience. She said supervisors talked to Richardson and addressed her concerns.
“She’s in a much happier place now,” Walsh said of Richardson, who declined to comment via email.
Kaus recently concluded her investigation of Bergeron’s complaint. She found there was insufficient evidence that Bergeron was the victim of sexual harassment or retaliation. Kaus concluded that a statement by Holdt referring to Bergeron as a “predator” was offensive but wasn’t “severe and pervasive enough to rise to the level of sexual harassment.”
Kaus’ report on Bergeron’s complaint concluded her investigations of the prosecutor's office.
The Lorain County Sheriff’s Office and the state auditor’s office, however, are still investigating allegations of illegal campaign activities Bergeron made on a recorded conversation in July between him and former Chief Assistant Prosecutor Margaret Scott that he gave Kaus. Walsh requested a consultation from an outside agency.
Walsh said she decided to hire Downes to review Haus’ conclusions in the Cline and Fernandez complaints because he is an expert in EEO matters.
Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro contracted with Downes in January to provide advice and representation in labor and employment law matters. Walsh’s office doesn’t have independent contract authority.
Downes’ firm will earn $250 per hour for attorneys and $125 per hour for paralegals up to a maximum of $4,900, according to the agreement.
Walsh said her office provided Downes with the documents that were given to Kaus. Downes talked to Walsh, Holdt and Chief Counsel Brad Gessner.
Downes concluded that Walsh and other supervisors in her office acted appropriately when they questioned Fernandez about concerns that she was having an inappropriate relationship with Bergeron. Such a relationship would be a violation of Walsh's anti-fraternization policy.
“Supervising and holding employees accountable for their conduct which causes disruption in the work place does not constitute sexual harassment,” Downes said.
Downes similarly found no fault in Holdt’s questions to Cline about dating. He said courts have concluded that such comments don’t create a hostile environment.
Downes faulted Kaus for failing to interview Walsh.
In response to Spitz’s contention that Walsh had “shopped” for a favorable opinion, Walsh said she hired Downes because she had never met or worked with him.
“That made me confident I would get an independent report,” she said.
Downes provided training on harassment for supervisors in Walsh’s office Wednesday. He also may represent Walsh’s office if the employees who filed complaints sue.
Asked about the differing opinions reached by Kaus and Downes, Matz, the county law director, said, “It is the executive’s policy that we do not comment publicly on matters that may be involved in litigation.”
Though Walsh opted against suspending or terminating Holdt, a “coaching memorandum” was placed in Holdt’s personnel file.
Gessner, Walsh’s chief counsel, said in the memo that Holdt’s intent may have been to help the employees but her actions were perceived as harassment. He said mandatory training would be provided to Holdt and other supervisors.
Walsh recently promoted secretary Ann Stout to supervise the 12 criminal courtroom secretaries, reducing the number of secretaries Holdt directly oversees by about half. Stout reports to Holdt, who has other duties besides supervising.
“That seems to be working out very well,” Walsh said. “It took a load off Lisa.”
Holdt declined comment for this story.
One of the recommendations in Kaus’ EEO reports was that the prosecutor’s office have a designated person to handle human-resource issues. Assistant prosecutors in the civil division were handling issues as they arose.
Walsh tapped Marrett Hannah, an assistant prosecutor in the civil division, in January to serve as the human resource director as part of her duties. Employees have been told they can go to their supervisor or to Hannah if they have a human resource problem.
Walsh said she is confident her office will prevail if the former employees take their dispute to court.
Spitz said the employees aren't satisfied with the steps Walsh has taken and are evaluating their legal options.
“They would like justice,” Spitz said. “They would like somebody to stand up and say, ‘This is wrong,’ and hold the people who engaged in this conduct — and allowed this conduct — accountable. In the end, that’s the job of the prosecutor’s office.”
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.