Friday, August 5, 2016 by Austin Monitor

Embattled manager quits housing department

By Jo Clifton and Cate Malek

Facing allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation, Steve Ritchie, the embattled chief of construction and development for the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development department, submitted his resignation on Thursday.

In July, department Director Betsy Spencer was forced into retirement after a Human Resources Department investigation found that Ritchie had violated the city of Austin employee conduct policy and she had failed to discipline him. The allegations included sexual harassment and retaliation.

Spencer attempted to block the impact of the finding. In the process, she lied to her boss, Assistant City Manager Bert Lumbreras, and then acted to cover up her actions, according to an investigative report released by the city last week.

According to reports relayed to the Austin Monitor, Ritchie began clearing out his office on Wednesday, and his co-workers were told of his resignation on Thursday.

Ritchie’s departure set in motion a chain of organizational changes for the department, including the assignment of Rosie Truelove, director of the Capital Contracting Office at the city, as interim director, and the return of Rebecca Giello as assistant director from her temporary assignment in the city Intergovernmental Relations Office.

Almost from the beginning of his tenure with the city in 2011, there were allegations concerning Ritchie, but his attorney, Gary Bledsoe, maintained the position that his client had done nothing wrong.

Bledsoe emailed the following statement to the Monitor on Thursday night: “What has occurred regarding him has been absolutely outrageous. The lynching he has experienced is beyond any concept of common decency and for the record we can say that he has never been found to have engaged in sexual harassment. Remember that the complaint that has generated the attention was filed by a 3rd party.”

Bledsoe also provided a four-page memo that Ritchie sent to Connie Cornell, an attorney who has been investigating specific allegations against Ritchie, among others. Sources indicate that Cornell has turned over her findings to the city, but it has yet to release a report on the matter. City Manager Marc Ott told the Monitor on Tuesday that the report would be coming out “soon,” but he gave no specific date.

In his letter to Cornell, Ritchie, who has been described as a large white man who frequently wears cowboy boots, said, “I have been stereotyped for a long time. Executives in HRD staff have said I was not a ‘good fit’ for the city. I am an excellent diversity trainer because I understand what it feels like to be judged by what I look like and not who I am as a person.”

Ritchie outlined numerous complaints against him, several of them anonymous, starting in 2011. His co-workers complained about his behavior toward them as well as retaliation for earlier complaints filed. Several of those co-workers have moved on to other employment, including one that Ritchie called a “known lesbian.”

One woman agreed to speak with the Monitor on the condition that we not use her real name. We are calling her Jenna Jones (we have changed her name to protect her identity).

Jones was one of the recipients of the harassment detailed in the complaints. She told the Monitor that, among other things, Ritchie sat in her lap two times and that one of those times he was “grinding” on her. She said there were several witnesses to this behavior and the witnesses did not think it was appropriate or funny.

Ritchie touched people inappropriately from almost the day he was hired, Jones said. She remembers a woman telling her at the beginning of Ritchie’s tenure at the NHCD that he had bear-hugged her and touched her breasts.

As for Jones, she said she was used to working “in a man’s world” but that Ritchie didn’t read body language well. When he did things like rub her shoulders, he didn’t notice that she was highly uncomfortable. She worked with Ritchie for four years, and she said the harassment “piled on and piled on” over time. She finally left the department for other reasons but said, “It was unbearable there.”

Jones didn’t file a complaint, because she didn’t trust the human resources representative at the department, she said. During her exit interview, she told the representative, “People know why I’m leaving.” She knows that someone at the department filed a complaint on her behalf, and she is concerned that that person’s career at the department suffered as a result.

“Steve was this Teflon guy,” Jones said, explaining that he didn’t seem to suffer any consequences for his inappropriate behavior. She is “thrilled that people are finally paying attention to what’s happening at neighborhood housing.”

Ritchie wrote in his statement to Cornell that in July 2015, a group of women sent a letter to the city manager “demanding action against me for allegations of sexual harassment.” Nevertheless, he insisted that there was no “substantiated policy violation for sexual harassment,” even though the HR investigator’s finding of such behavior remained in his file.

Photo by WhisperToMeOwn work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5598076

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department: This city department provides housing and community development services for Austinites. To that end, they administer programs, provide grant services, and work with non-profit and agencies to provide housing for eligible residents. The department also provides small business development services.

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