You, Too: The Public Cost of Sexual Harassment

NBC 5 Investigates uncovers hundreds of allegations of sexual harassment, assault and abuse by Chicago-area government employees.

It was late in the evening at a holiday party at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Chicago, in December of 2011. About 300 members of the Chicago Police Department’s Organized Crime Division were there, including Officer Keisha Howard.

“I’m dancing and I’m tired, so I go and take a seat,” Howard told NBC 5. “My supervisor sits next to me, and is like, ‘What are you doing?’”

Howard said she began telling him about an undercover mission she wanted to work on.

What Howard says happened next is spelled out in the complaint she would file, as a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit, several months later.

The supervisor “leaned over to talk to Plaintiff, and quickly, without any warning, put his hand underneath Plaintiff’s dress and inserted his finger into Plaintiff’s vagina,” the suit states.

“I felt – panicked,” Howard said. “It was just like, ‘act like nothing happened – act like nothing happened.’ I think it was a survival technique.”

She said she immediately stood up; found her date, and left the party.

“I felt small,” she said. “And angry. I felt violated. You know, I choose when somebody can touch me. And I didn’t choose that.”

The next day she filed an internal report with CPD and later, a federal lawsuit. In July of 2014 the city paid her a settlement of $85,000, while acknowledging no wrongdoing by the supervisor, the police department, or the city.

“I still feel violated,” Howard said. “The purpose of the lawsuit was never ‘Okay, so you touched me, so I’m gonna get this money.’” She said she just wanted to hold someone accountable. Instead, the city denied any wrongdoing and CPD determined her charges were unfounded. The police supervisor still has his job.

Howard’s story is much more common than many might think.

In a three-month investigation, NBC 5 Investigates, along with Telemundo Chicago and the Better Government Association, tracked down case after case of government employees in the Chicago area accused of sexual misconduct, harassment, abuse, assault, or even rape. We found hundreds of lawsuits, complaints, and internal investigations, filed over the past 10 years in scores of local police departments and city halls, public schools and colleges, park districts and townships, totaling more than 400 cases so far, at a public cost of more than $55 million – so far.

Those numbers will grow, because hundreds of governmental bodies never responded to NBC 5’s initial request for public records. Others refused to release dollar amounts of settlements, separation agreements, or the legal fees required to defend their accused employees. Still others insisted that their cases of alleged harassment did not involve taxpayer money because the settlement costs were partially defrayed through insurance. Still other cases are pending in court.

In nearly every case found by NBC 5 so far, no one admits they did anything wrong. In fact, in a high number of cases, it is the alleged victim – not the alleged harasser – who ends up having to leave their job.

“Taxpayers should be concerned, because it’s wrong. There has to be some kind of public outcry to hold governments accountable,” says Dana Kurtz, a Chicago attorney who has handled scores of public sexual harassment lawsuits, including a recent case against the Country Club Hills Fire Department, where a female firefighter alleged that men on the force routinely watched pornography at the fire house. The firefighter also claimed that she was denied a promotion when she reported the behavior. That case resulted in a judgment against the department for more than $11 million, and, in a statement after the verdict, the town’s assistant fire chief said that department employees were “devastated” by the behavior of the now-former firefighters towards their female colleague.

“There is still this very strong culture of retaliating against victims who complain,” Kurtz said. “And that’s a message that resonates through all employees, through all levels of government, who say, ‘Okay, well I can get away with it.’”

“Or what happens is they let the offenders resign, so there’s nothing in their personnel file, and they get to get jobs somewhere else. Or – they get promoted,” she added.

That is, in fact, the pattern with a significant number of the cases examined so far by NBC 5: The alleged harasser keeps his or her job while the complainant is compelled to leave, or – if the alleged harasser does step down – they may do so with a five- or even six-figure separation agreement.

Our partners at the BGA detail additional cases and findings in this joint investigation. And NBC 5, the BGA and Telemundo will report on other stories as we continue to add up the public price of alleged government sex harassment, throughout the Chicago area, as we continue this investigation over the next several months.

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