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Sexual harassment and retaliation claims haunt Austin’s housing department

Friday, July 29, 2016 by Austin Monitor

By Jo Clifton, Cate Malek and Elizabeth Pagano

City of Austin documents show that employees in the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department have made numerous complaints involving inappropriate behavior, a hostile work environment, sexual harassment and retaliation over the past five years. Many of those complaints revolve around Steve Ritchie, director of construction and development, and former Director Betsy Spencer’s alleged favoritism toward Ritchie.

This news follows Spencer’s unexpected decision to resign last week after she was placed on administrative leave in the spring because of multiple investigations into her department. Ritchie is still in his position.

Before coming to the NHCD, which is responsible for the city’s affordable housing program, Spencer and Ritchie worked together in San Antonio. When Spencer took charge of the department in 2010, she brought Ritchie on as a consultant, and then hired him in 2011. He is now the third-highest paid employee in the department after the director and the assistant director, making $110,000 a year.

But according to documents the Austin Monitor received through a public records request, Ritchie has been the subject of a long string of complaints dating back to 2011. His alleged actions pushed several employees, including one executive employee, to leave the department. The documents also show that Spencer was aware of the complaints but took no action against Ritchie aside from recommending a written reprimand for “excessive horseplay” and requiring sensitivity training on one occasion.

The complaints detail Ritchie’s inappropriate behavior, alleging that while he saw himself as a friendly, outgoing manager, he often made other employees uncomfortable. He was described as generally being “touchy,” hugging other employees, rubbing their shoulders, and, on two occasions, sitting on a female employee’s lap.

One complaint said he “approaches people from behind and grabs them in a bear hug and shakes them in a wrestle like movement.” Another complaint described him pulling back a female employee’s hair and tickling her ear. After one incident in which he came into a meeting and started playing around, touching several people in the process, one employee allegedly said, “He’s crazy. He touched my boob.”

Employees expressed various levels of discomfort with Ritchie’s actions. According to a Human Resources report from 2011, one employee planned to meet with Ritchie to ask him to stop touching her. She reported her concerns to the HR Department, and Ritchie apologized for making her uncomfortable. Other employees didn’t confront Ritchie because they feared retaliation, and a few employees who made complaints said they faced a hostile working environment.

In late March, one executive employee requested an immediate transfer to another city department, alleging that Ritchie had retaliated against her because she had filed a complaint about him with the HR Department. Ritchie filed a complaint against her, the executive said, in retaliation for the complaint she filed against him on behalf of another employee.

In an email to Assistant City Manager Bert Lumbreras, the executive wrote, “Based on past precedent, I do not have confidence that the Director of NHCD (Spencer) can be fair and objective in this matter.

“I strongly assert that the actions by Mr. Ritchie to file allegations against me are in retaliation to a previous investigation in which he was the respondent to a complaint I reported to HRD,” the executive wrote. “I strongly assert the allegations made against me by Mr. Ritchie are to damage my credibility and reputation and are retaliatory in nature.” Her request to be reassigned to another department was granted.

The Monitor contacted both Spencer and Ritchie for comment. Spencer declined, but Ritchie’s attorney, Gary Bledsoe, said all the allegations against his client were false.

Bledsoe said, “For some reason, the city authorities haven’t been wanting to put this in the record but … he was exonerated of sexual harassment. The original allegation of sexual harassment was not founded.” Bledsoe insisted that while his client was guilty of “horseplay,” he was not guilty of sexual harassment. He said that Spencer reprimanded Ritchie for the horseplay but the city did not take the allegations of sexual harassment out of his client’s file.

Bledsoe added, “The first investigation done by the city was not a legitimate investigation, and the second one was that he was engaged in horseplay.” He also denied that Ritchie had filed any complaint in retaliation against anyone. He said, “Because of various circumstances in his department, he went to HR to seek a mediation between him and some other members of the staff.”

Bledsoe said that Ritchie had been very helpful in moving along projects for the African-American community. “Ritchie came on board, and there were all these projects relating to African-Americans that were years and years overdue and being mishandled. He did a tremendous job, and I think he angered some people in what he did.”

However, another woman, who left the department two years earlier than she intended, wrote in a farewell email to City Manager Marc Ott that as a minority, she had experienced “(t)he final straw … when the Construction Manager sent me, according to our HR Manager, an ‘inappropriate email’ and the director did absolutely nothing to remedy.”

She continued, “According to other managers and staff, this manager is allowed to curse at staff, pound his fists, throw things and yell at staff. The level of fear endured by this team is unacceptable. I felt that I was his next target and decided to leave the organization instead,” she wrote in mid-2014.

On Feb. 12, 2015, an investigation report (embedded below) into allegations against Ritchie was released. In the report, HR consultant Leroy Bookman looked into claims that Ritchie “routinely demonstrates inappropriate behavior towards [redacted] by hugging her and sitting in her lap,” that Ritchie had previous complaints against him for “inappropriately touching” two former NHCD employees, and that Ritchie was investigated by the city’s Integrity Unit. The investigation also looked into allegations that Spencer “protects and supports Ritchie no matter what he does.”

The report details the claims and ultimately concludes that Ritchie behaved in a manner that violated the city’s personnel policies regarding discrimination, harassment and sexual harassment, and employee conduct.

However, the 2015 investigation failed to substantiate the allegation that Spencer protected Ritchie “no matter what” and does not find evidence that she protected him “during the investigative process or that she observed or condoned his behaviors as described in this report.”

As for Ritchie’s behavior, the report reads, in part, “Regardless of Mr. Ritchie’s intentions and/or whether or not physical contact was or was not made, his actions were wholly inappropriate.

“The witnesses consistently confirmed their perception that Mr. Ritchie’s behavior towards [redacted] was unwelcomed and offensive. Therefore, Mr. Ritchie’s actions in engaging in unwelcome physical contact in the workplace were neither professional nor respectful, and constitute a violation of the Employee Conduct Policy.”

It continues, “Additionally, the act of jokingly and/or actually sitting on a co-workers lap, coupled with the totality of feedback regarding the pervasiveness of Mr. Ritchie’s unwelcomed physical contact toward employees has reasonably been viewed to create an offensive work environment and as such represents a violation of the City’s Sexual Harassment Policy.”

There are multiple investigations into NHCD currently underway, and the reports on those investigations have yet to be released.

According to the city’s website, NHCD’s mission is “to provide housing, community development and small business development services to benefit eligible residents, so they can have access to livable neighborhoods and increase their opportunities for self-sufficiency.”

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Photo by LukeBam06 (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or FAL], via Wikimedia Commons. The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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