By ALAN JOHNSON
Gutierrez’s nameplate has been removed from his office and his state cell phone shut off.
COLUMBUS — The senior attorney appointed to investigate allegations of sexual harassment against one of Attorney General Marc Dann’s administrators said he will “follow the evidence wherever it leads.”
“I’ve been around a long time,” said Ben Espy, a former state senator. “I’ve practiced law for 30 years. I’m not afraid of being fired. I have no problems being impartial and rendering a fair decision.”
Dann picked Espy and Julie Pfeiffer, a veteran attorney in Dann’s employment law section, to investigate sexual harassment complaints filed by two female employees against their supervisor, Anthony Gutierrez, 50, of Liberty.
Dann, who is likely to be a witness in the probe, removed himself from the case.
The 45-year-old attorney general spoke publicly about the allegations for the first time Thursday before a hearing on payday lending.
“It is tragic that these kinds of allegations have been made in my office. If it’s true, I want to make sure the appropriate discipline has been taken as it relates to everybody involved,” Dann said.
He expressed confidence in Espy as the leader of the investigation, calling him “someone of unquestioned integrity.”
“He’s well-known in this community and throughout the state, and I don’t think he’s going to sacrifice that for me or for anybody else,” Dann said.
Dann has rebuffed calls for an outside investigation into the charges against Gutierrez, a longtime friend who shared a Dublin condominium with Dann where some of the incidents are alleged to have occurred.
Vanessa Stout and Cindy Stankoski, both 26, said that over a period of months, Gutierrez, director of general services, plied them with drinks, made unwelcome sexual advances in person and over the phone, and touched them inappropriately.
The women said the incidents occurred at bars, the attorney general’s offices and at a Dublin condo where Dann used to live with Gutierrez and Leo Jennings III, his communication chief. The three are longtime friends.
Thursday, Espy and Pfeiffer had letters hand-delivered to both women, informing them that they will be interviewed and assuring them that their allegations will be investigated in a “thorough manner.”
Espy and Pfeiffer replace Angela Smedlund, the office’s equal employment officer who took complaints from the two employees March 31.
Within 48 hours, she approached both Stout and Stankoski, who said Smedlund sought to resolve their complaints informally and quietly.
Both women also filed complaints Tuesday with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Cleveland.
On Thursday, the state office Gutierrez occupied since he was hired by Dann for the $87,500-a-year position last year was emptied. His nameplate was removed and his state BlackBerry cell phone was shut off, sources said.
Dann, a Democrat from Liberty and former state senator elected in 2006, placed Gutierrez on paid administrative leave Tuesday, pending the outcome of the investigation.
Jennings said the attorney general’s office cannot turn to an outside, independent investigator because officials feel they can’t deviate from the agency’s policy for sexual-harassment investigations.
“We have confidence in the policy and procedures as they’ve been established in the office,” he said. “All the public records generated in the investigation will be released at the end of the investigation, so there will be public accountability at the end of the line.”
If the employees disagree with the findings or recommendations of the internal probe, they can appeal to the office’s human resources director, who then can appoint an independent investigator from either inside or outside the department, Jennings said.
XDispatch Public Affairs Editor Darrel Rowland and reporter James Nash contributed to this story.