By David Skolnick
DeMaine Kitchen, former chief of staff/secretary to the mayor, admitted to an investigator that he made inappropriate and flirtatious remarks to Lyndsey Hughes, a city council employee, according to an investigation.
Kitchen, who lost last month’s mayoral election, said the comments weren’t “threatening or serious,” according to a 67-page report conducted by Steve Sample, a retired Summit County sheriff’s deputy hired by the city to investigate the allegations.
Sample made few conclusions in the report, released Friday by the city, but wrote that “the investigation did reveal that DeMaine Kitchen did sexually harass Lyndsey Hughes” both verbally and through text messages.
The report doesn’t address claims by Hughes’ lawyers that Kitchen physically harassed their client.
The report included text messages from Kitchen to Hughes, the city’s downtown director of events, special projects and marketing. The messages were retrieved from Hughes’ cellphone with a technology laboratory confirming they came from Kitchen.
Kitchen told Sample that he sent the text messages.
They include: “I get that and it’s cool. I just don’t want u to treat me like a stalker or something :-). It’s urs if u ever want it tho,” and “Ur my girl and I’ve been attracted” to you.
Kitchen, who resigned Monday from his city administration job, has not returned several telephone messages this week from The Vindicator to comment on the report and investigation.
“The investigation clearly comes out in favor of Lyndsey,” said Andrew Margolius, one of Hughes’ attorneys. “Lyndsey was harassed, and no one should have to go through that. All Lyndsey wanted to do was her job. The bottom line for Kitchen is he should have been a little more honest. People saw through his” claims that the complaint was politically motivated.
Kitchen had contended Hughes’ complaint was because she supported Democrat John McNally IV, who was elected mayor last month. Hughes’ attorneys have disputed that.
Hughes’ lawyers already have filed a charge with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission seeking a “right-to-sue” letter that would permit them to take the city to federal court on the harassment complaint.
“At this point, the city can’t deny that she was harassed” for a few years, Margolius said. “We fully expect the EEOC to have the same reaction.”
Hughes could file a lawsuit in state court at any time, or after receiving the letter from the EEOC, pursue the matter in federal court, Margolius said.
When asked if Hughes would accept a settlement from the city rather than go to court, Margolius said, “It’s possible, but we’ll keep our foot on the gas peddle” for now and move ahead with the EEOC charge.
Kitchen told Sample that he never created “a hostile work environment,” and his conversations with Hughes were “two-sided” with both saying “things that were inappropriate or at least playfully inappropriate.”
He also contends Hughes never told him to stop making comments. She says she repeatedly told him to stop.
Hughes’ attorneys say Kitchen’s harassment of their client started around January 2011, but in her statement to Sample, Hughes said it began in late 2009.
Hughes told Sample that in 2010 Kitchen “became more aggressive toward her” and rubbed his genitals up her arm and smoothed his pants so she could see the outline of his penis.
Hughes said in January 2011 she asked Mayor Charles Sammarone, city council president at the time, to help stop the harassment.
Hughes said Sammarone told her she was a pretty, young girl and Kitchen was a young guy, so what did she expect.
Sammarone said he doesn’t remember saying that, but he probably did, according to the report.
Sammarone met with Hughes, Kitchen and Jamael Tito Brown, then the 3rd Ward councilman and now council president, telling Kitchen that he needed to leave Hughes alone. Hughes said that worked for a while, but the harassment resumed in mid-2011.
Hughes told Sample that she thought about filing a sexual harassment complaint against Kitchen around the time of the January 2011 meeting.
She also asked for and received a copy of the city’s sexual harassment policy around that time from Anthony Farris, then the deputy law director and now the city’s law director. But she didn’t file a formal complaint at the time.
Kitchen told Sample that Hughes misinterpreted a comment he made, but believed the matter was resolved after the January 2011 meeting.
Hughes “complained to the mayor and that investigation didn’t go any further,” said Barbara Belovich, another attorney for Hughes.
“They can’t simply whitewash a harassment complaint,” Margolius added. “It festered and created this situation.” Sammarone should have “nipped sexual harassment in the bud and not swept it under the rug.”
Sammarone disagreed, pointing to the report that states: “There was no documentation pertaining to the meeting, due to ... Hughes not wanting to make a formal complaint and everyone left that meeting thinking that it was going to stop.”
Sample also wrote that when the complaint was given to Farris a few months ago, the city followed its sexual harassment policy.
“Read the report. The key is she said she didn’t want to make an issue of it,” Sammarone said. “A formal complaint wouldn’t have been to me or Tito. It would be to a department head or the law department. We were not her boss. She needed to go to the law department and make a formal complaint.”
City council can hire or fire Hughes, who is an at-will employee for the legislative body. But the council president doesn’t have a vote in that decision.
When asked if he was surprised by Kitchen’s behavior, Sammarone said, “After the [January 2011] meeting, that it happened again, yeah, that surprises me. I thought everything was clear after that meeting [nearly] three years ago.”
Hughes said Kitchen started sexually harassing her again in June 2011, but he didn’t do so in 2012. She said the harassment resumed this past spring through July. It was then that she had an attorney contact Farris about the inappropriate behavior.
Sample started the investigation Oct. 7. It was slowed as he waited for the lab results on Hughes’ phone, Farris said.