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By David Skolnick
A city council employee is accusing DeMaine Kitchen, the mayor’s chief of staff/secretary and an independent mayoral candidate, of sexually harassing her on and off since January 2011 — a claim he strongly denies.
One of three Cleveland attorneys representing Lyndsey Hughes, the city’s downtown director of events, special projects and marketing, sent letters to city council members contending her client “has experienced sexual harassment, including unwelcomed sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal and physical harassment of a sexual nature during her tenure” from Kitchen, a city councilman who joined Mayor Charles Sammarone’s administration in August 2011.
Kitchen, who took a leave of absence from his job Friday to concentrate on his mayoral bid, said the alle- gations are “untrue and unsupported. I’ve never harassed her in any way.”
Kitchen said the timing of the allegations is questionable with the election five weeks away, calling them “politically motivated” because Hughes supports Democrat John McNally IV for mayor.
McNally said Hughes volunteered for his campaign.
Included in the letter to members of council, received by them Friday, was a Sept. 19 letter from Barbara A. Belovich and Andrew Margolius, two of Hughes’ attorneys, to city Law Director Anthony Farris with graphic details of the alleged sexual harassment. Belovich sent the letter to council urging them to investigate her claims of sexual harassment.
The city is following its sexual harassment policy, adopted in 1999 by council, and is in the final stages of appointing an investigator to review this matter, Farris said.
While the policy permits the city to hire someone in-house to handle the investigation, Farris said it would be best to hire a non-city employee in this case.
“It’s important to let the sexual harassment policy be our guide,” he said. “These are never pleasant, but we need to follow our policy exactly. That’s the best vehicle to find justice.”
“I’m confident a fair and impartial investigation would clear me of any wrongdoing,” Kitchen said.
Hughes declined to discuss the matter with The Vindicator on Tuesday and referred comment to her attorneys.
Emily Gilbert, another Hughes attorney, said she and the two other lawyers have represented her since the summer and that the city employee had other legal counsel before that.
Hughes complained in “an informal manner” in January 2011 to Sammarone, then city council president, about Kitchen, Gilbert said.
In the letter to Farris, Hughes’ other attorneys wrote that when she went to Sammarone about Kitchen’s alleged behavior, Sammarone responded: “What do you expect? You are a pretty, young girl.”
The letter said “rather than conduct an investigation,” Sammarone had a meeting with Jamael Tito Brown, then council pro tem and now council president, and Hughes, with the latter describing the harassment. About 10 minutes into the meeting, Kitchen arrived, and in response to Hughes’ asking why he was there, Sammarone said, “Because this ... needs to stop,” and told Kitchen not to talk or message her again, according to the letter.
Kitchen acknowledged that meeting occurred because “she felt uncomfortable and brought it to” Sammarone and Brown. There was no sexual harassment, “it was a complete misunderstanding and she left the meeting acknowledging that misunderstanding,” Kitchen said.
Brown declined to discuss the details of that meeting with The Vindicator.
Sammarone declined to discuss the specifics, saying the city is investigating it, and “the truth will surface.”
“We’re committed to investigating this,” Farris said. “Everyone’s complaint is treated seriously and investigated thoroughly.”
The harassment stopped for a while after the January 2011 meeting, Gilbert said, but then started again.
“There was another meeting and it stopped again, but then it started again,” Gilbert said. “She determined she would not get a resolution unless she went forward with a formal sexual harassment complaint to the city and to protect herself from these cycles of harassment.”
In the letter to Farris, two of her attorneys wrote that “in June 2013, Kitchen began another torrent of harassment toward Ms. Hughes. And this time it was most egregious.”
Shortly after that, she was suspended for five days without pay for not telling council that there wasn’t enough city money for a July jazz festival.
Instead of going to council with the problem, she turned to Gatta Productions for funding. Hughes acknowledges her boyfriend, Dominic Gatta, runs that company.
In the letter to Farris, her attorneys wrote that issue was referred to the police department, which found “no impropriety on Ms. Hughes’ part” after an investigation.
Hughes said there was no conflict of interest, and that Gatta didn’t receive any money from the city.
In the letter, her attorneys wrote that Kitchen was present at a July 24 council executive session that led to her suspension, and that the suspension and police investigation were in “retaliation” to her complaints about Kitchen.
“She simply wants to be free to do her job without being sexually harassed and face retaliation for complaining about it,” Gilbert added.
But Kitchen said he was not at that meeting. Councilmen Mike Ray, D-4th, and John R. Swierz, D-7th, said to the best of their recollection, Kitchen didn’t attend that meeting.
“That’s not true, and these allegations are not true,” Kitchen said.