A state employee who witnesses any incident of sexual harassment is required to report what he sees or hears immediately.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made sexual harassment illegal in the workplace and today, in theory at least, federal laws regarding sexual harassment protect virtually all private and public employees in the U.S.
The Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism (DCRT), for example, has a complaint procedure clearly defined in writing which says, “Any employee experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment by anyone in the Office of the Lieutenant Governor and DCRT, including any manager, supervisor, administrator, co-worker, vendor, client or visitor shall immediately report the inappropriate conduct.”
The departmental regulation further says that under most circumstances, complaints should be made to the employee’s supervisor but “if the complaint involves the employee’s supervisor or someone within the direct line of supervision, or if the employee for any reason, is uncomfortable in reporting to his/her supervisor, he/she may contact any other supervisor” or contact the agency’s human resources director.
But if an employee who witnesses sexual misconduct and dutifully reports it he may find himself with a target on his back and he may well end up as the one who finds himself the subject of investigation, punishment and possibly even termination.
Take the case of Dean Vicknair, a former information technology employee of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections (State Police), who was responsible in part for the five-day suspension of his supervisor for sexual harassment of a female co-worker in 2005 but who ended up paying for his actions with his career.
One would think DPS would be the last place where sexual harassment would be tolerated.
Even though DPS has an online State Sex Offender and Child Predator Registry site, it appears to have learned nothing from the 2004 incident involving Jeya Selvaratnam, then a supervisor but since promoted to Director of Information Technology and Communications.
In February of 2012, the State Probation and Parole Office, part of the Department of Corrections (DOC), settled a federal sexual harassment lawsuit involving a supervisor and a female employee of the Probation and Parole district office in Thibodaux in which the female victim was awarded $50,000 and the agency was ordered to initiate a sexual harassment training policy for its employees.
DOC spokesperson Pam Laborde said after the suit was settled that agency officials were “very quick and very swift to act” once the woman’s claims were reported to them. “If the (Probation and Parole) director didn’t know about the incident, how can you take action?” she asked. “We do have good policies in place. We’ll just brush them up where we need to.”
Despite her claim that the agency director was unaware of the supervisor’s actions, the Justice Department said at least four other department employees, including a part-time internal affairs investigator, knew about her harassment, which progressed from inappropriate comments to sexual assault, but said nothing.
Perhaps that was because, even though that case involved a different agency, the DOC employees were aware of Vicknair’s experience at DPS which culminated in his forced retirement nearly six years after first reporting the incident by his supervisor.
In the end, an unblemished career spanning nearly 21 years meant nothing as he was forced out—while Selvaratnam was promoted.
In a seven-page letter of suspension to Selvaratnam dated April 26, 2005, State Police Col. Henry Whitehorn cited “overwhelming” evidence that Selvaratnam pursued the female subordinate over a six-year period, dating back to Nov. 16, 1998 and in December of 2002, while standing outside the State Police building with Vicknair, the female employee walked past and Selvaratnam told Vicknair he wanted to have sex with her (in the interest of decency, we paraphrased the exact quote provided in Whitehorn’s letter). Whitehorn is currently a U.S. marshal in Shreveport.
Soon after that conversation, Vicknair left DPS for the Department of Transportation and Development “because of problems he had with you,” Whitehorn wrote in his letter to Selvaratnam.
Vicknair did not report the conversation to the woman until more than a year later, in January of 2004, at which time the woman lodged a complaint against Selvaratnam, Whitehorn said. The following day, the woman attempted call out to Selvaratnam in a hallway and he turned and berated her verbally, reminding her, “You are my subordinate.”
Whitehorn also noted that until she filed her complaint against him, Selvaratnam repeatedly called the woman into his office for lengthy conversations and outside for frequent smoke breaks—all of which Whitehorn said forced other employees to take up the slack for the work the woman was unable to perform because she felt she had to acquiesce to Selvaratnam’s demands.
Both Selvaratnam and the female employee were married.
“Mr. Selvaratnam, the evidence is overwhelming that you did, over the course of several years, commencing on or about Nov. 16, 1998, repeatedly and for extended periods of time, keep (the woman) away from her duties as an IT Technical Support Specialist. Your behavior created a hostile work environment for (her) by increasingly interfering with her duties. You took (her) away from her duties to such a great extent that other employees had to perform (her) work for her. Your behavior created a gender-based hostile work environment for (her) and was particularly egregious in view of the fact that you were (her) second tier supervisor at the time. Your behavior was in violation of the Department’s Discrimination and Harassment Complaint Procedure…
“…Behavior which is offensive, inappropriate or in any way creates an unpleasant working environment for your co-workers will not be tolerated. Nor will any form of reprisal for retaliation against (the woman) or anyone involved in the investigative process be tolerated.
“Pursuant to Civil Service Commission Rules…you are hereby suspended for five eight-hour days without pay and allowances. Your suspension will begin at 8 a.m. on Monday May 9, 2005, and end at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, May 13, 2005.”
The female employee won a federal lawsuit against DPS, the details of which were ordered confidential by the court and she also received assurances that she would no longer be under the supervision of Selvaratnam. When he was subsequently promoted, he was once again supervising her and she filed a second suit in state court for breach of contract.
Vicknair, meanwhile, was called back to DPS following Hurricane Katrina to assist in Lotus Notes administration (email administration and trouble shooting) because of a lack of skilled employees in that section. He was assured that there was “no way in hell” Selvaratnam would ever be director of the section.
But Selvaratnam was indeed promoted to director at the insistence of State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson, Vicknair says, and the woman subsequently transferred to another section.
Vicknair said soon after his promotion Selvaratnam called him into his office and said he had read Vicknair’s transcript and that he “knew who his friends were and who his enemies were,” according to a federal lawsuit filed by Vicknair.
As pressure mounted on Vicknair, he filed grievances against Selvaratnam. When the DPS Grievance Committee investigated his complaints, Vicknair said, the committee interviewed Selvaratnam but none of Vicknair’s witnesses who he said could back up his allegations were called to testify.
Edmonson, who was best man at Selvaratnam’s wedding, was a member of the grievance committee that declined to interview any of Vicknair’s witnesses.
It should be noted here that LouisianaVoice recently received a comment on its June 28 post about the consolidation of 20 Executive Department IT operations from Selvaratnam’s state email address which said, “I don’t see the problem here. Why does everyone hate Governor Jindal? Is this a racial issue?”
When we pointed out that normally a state employee who uses his state email account to respond to political blogs would be reprimanded, Selvaratnam quickly fired off another email—again, from his state email address—denying that he was the author of the original comment. “I did not write to you,” he wrote. “I am not sure how you received this e-mail or who did it or their motive. I would appreciate it if you would remove this from your blog.”
Vicknair, who attempted to comply with requirements to report sexual harassment, only to subsequently find himself the subject of an investigation that left him jobless and which nearly cost him his home, was left disillusioned and more than a little jaded by his experience.
In a letter to DPS Internal Affairs, Vicknair said, “You stated that I failed to cooperate with the investigation” and was accused of inappropriate conduct. “Please explain to me how an attempt to protect a career of 20 years and (to) expose the internal corrupt actions of the current DPS administration warrants a charge of conduct unbecoming.
“My recent experiences have proven that integrity is not a foundation for the internal grievance process and is merely an established ‘feel good policy’ for the perception of adhering to state and federal requirements.
“I should never have been suspended and forced into early retirement after 20 years of impeccable, dedicated state service, but I went down swinging,” he said. “I continue to fight the good fight against corruption in an effort to prevent another person from facing a similar travesty.”
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