Monday, October 10, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Report details more accusations at Neighborhood Housing and Community Development

A report on 15 separate allegations involving current and former management-level employees of the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department shows that Betsy Spencer, the department’s former director, made numerous decisions in an apparent attempt to shield one employee, Steve Ritchie, from complaints about his behavior.

The report, written by attorney Connie Cornell and provided to the Austin Monitor through a request for public information, clears NHCD Assistant Director Rebecca Giello and Real Estate Development Manager Gina Copic of sexual harassment allegations filed by Ritchie, who left the department under a cloud in August.

But the report says Lateefah Neal–Franks, the department’s HR coordinator, did not appropriately address Copic’s claims that Spencer had retaliated against her. According to the report, Copic wrote in an email that “Neal–Franks was very aware of my concerns that I was being retaliated against by Betsy Spencer…Ms. Neal-Franks did nothing with this information, outside of discussing it with Ms. Spencer, and instead she filed complaints against me and Rebecca Giello.”

Cornell determined that complaints made by Neal–Franks against Copic and Giello were unsubstantiated. However, after interviewing those involved, including corporate HR representative Leroy Bookman, Cornell concluded that Spencer and Neal-Franks did not handle the retaliation complaint appropriately. Apparently that complaint is still pending.

The Monitor reported in July that employees of the department had made numerous complaints involving inappropriate behavior, sexual harassment, a hostile work environment and retaliation during Spencer’s tenure.

That story detailed numerous complaints about Ritchie’s behavior dating back at least to 2011.

The new report provides support for the notion that Ritchie filed false complaints of sexual harassment against Giello and Copic after he himself had been accused of sexual harassment. Ritchie then accused the two women of retaliation. However, the lawyer concludes, “While it is possible that (Ritchie) retaliated against them, there is insufficient support to make the finding in this context.”

Ritchie accused Giello and Copic of touching his arms, which they both denied. Cornell wrote that Ritchie’s accounts of that behavior were not credible. However, Cornell also said she could not substantiate the women’s complaints that Ritchie was retaliating against them or that he filed the complaints to shield himself from discipline or firing.

Because of her failure to discipline Ritchie for the harassment and a subsequent attempt to cover up that failure, Spencer was placed on administrative leave last summer. She officially retired on Sept. 26. Ritchie left the department in August.

Cornell also investigated an allegation that Spencer inappropriately influenced a workplace assessment conducted for the city by Donna DeBerry of DeBerry & Associates in 2014.

According to the report, DeBerry met with Spencer and Giello to go over her draft report, which contained an executive summary referencing favoritism toward Ritchie “and the corollary fear of retaliation. During that meeting Ms. Spencer provided certain feedback to the report which resulted in the removal of the references to the favoritism and retaliation concerns from the Final Report. Ms. Giello alleges that Ms. Spencer inappropriately interfered with the workplace assessment. … Ms. Giello and Ms. DeBerry viewed Ms. Spencer’s input on the DeBerry draft report as having resulted in the removal of the employee concerns previously identified in the executive summary.”

Cornell wrote, “Ms. DeBerry could come up with no way to rewrite the concerns (about favoritism toward Ritchie) in the executive summary” that would meet Spencer’s directive not to refer to Ritchie “without significantly altering the substance.”

“The involvement of the director and the connection of the concerns to a specific manager were key elements of the reader’s understanding of context,” Cornell wrote. “Without this there was little point in highlighting them in an executive summary. As a result of the changes made, the significance of these concerns was lost.”

After a lengthy discussion about Spencer’s interference with the final report, Cornell concludes that Spencer did interfere with the workplace assessment but that she had insufficient information to determine whether Spencer’s interference was unethical.

Because of the flimsy nature of some of the allegations, which were treated seriously, the report also raises questions about the HR complaint system and how much time and money the city might be spending to deal with what turned out to be false or unsubstantiated claims.

The Monitor sent the report to Gary Bledsoe, an attorney who has represented both Spencer and Ritchie. However, he did not comment by our deadline.

This post has been updated to more accurately reflect the report’s findings about Neal-Franks.

Photo by That Other Problem made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin Human Resources Department: This city department oversees city employees, who number over 12,000 strong.

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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