Note: This story contains a description of an alleged sexual assault.
Last July, a 21-year-old woman working for the summer at the Louisville Metro Housing Authority got on the elevator with a maintenance worker. She agreed to join him for a smoke break in a vacant unit on a floor above the agency’s offices.
She said she did not consent to what happened next.
Within minutes of entering the apartment, the 63-year-old man pulled her into a side room, pushed her on to a bed and raped her, she said.
“It just changed my whole life and it just changed my whole outlook on dealing with almost everybody. It made me not even want to trust anybody,” said the woman, who is not being identified because she is an alleged victim of sexual assault.
Her case is one of 33 formal complaints of sexual harassment or assault lodged by employees of Louisville and Jefferson County public agencies from 2012 to 2017, according to documents obtained by WFPL. Most complaints ranged from inappropriate verbal comments and text messages to unwanted touching.
In 18 of the 26 cases with enough detail to determine the outcome, investigators concluded the behavior was not sexual harassment. Some were disciplined instead for violations like “inappropriate behavior.”
The most high-profile case involved former Metro Council member Dan Johnson of District 21. Johnson was removed from office last year after he was accused three times of sexually harassing acts, including groping and exposing his buttocks to a woman.
The alleged offender was disciplined in less than half of the cases where details on disciplinary action was provided. Discipline included written and verbal reprimands or training to, in rare cases, termination.
(Read KyCIR’s series: Sexual Harassment Allegations in Kentucky Government)
In one 2013 case at the county clerk’s office, an employee was given a reprimand and told to go to training after he reportedly brought nude photographs he took to the office and hugged and kissed coworkers on the cheek. Investigators said that wasn’t enough to be considered sexual harassment.
In another case, a female employee said a coworker at MetroSafe sent her a text with a picture of his genitals. But she didn’t provide the text, investigators said, and the complaint was not substantiated.
The alleged rape is the most serious complaint, and the only case in which documents reflect that the police were called. In seven cases, the documents provided by the public agencies aren’t detailed enough to determine what happened.
A handful of employees resigned, some before charges could be substantiated or discipline administered. William Topping was one of them.
The rape accusation wasn’t the first time Topping, the maintenance worker, was accused of wrongdoing. Years earlier, he was accused of sexual harassment.
Topping could not be reached for comment. According to his personnel file, he joined the Metro Housing Authority in 2003. Like all other employees, Topping received a copy of the department’s sexual harassment policy.
In 2011, documents show, a resident accused Topping of offering her money for sex and entering her apartment while she was in the shower. He denied the accusations.
“The claims made some 7 years ago were never substantiated but we required the LMHA employee to not have any further contact with the resident,” said Tim Barry, the executive director of the Housing Authority, in a written statement.
Louisville Metro Housing Authority recordsTopping received a “letter of concern” and was warned he could be disciplined or fired if he behaved inappropriately again. The next accusation reflected in his personnel file was the alleged rape in 2017.
Records show that Topping took the woman to a vacant unit where the two engaged in sexual acts that he described to investigators as consensual and she alleged were rape.
The woman reported the incident to her Housing Authority supervisors almost immediately, at the urging of her coworkers. A supervisor called law enforcement, and the Housing Authority suspended Topping without pay.
LMPD denied a request to view the police report for the incident, saying it could not be made public since no charges were filed, and a spokesman didn’t respond to questions about the case. But records provided by the Housing Authority and an interview with the woman shed some light.
She had only been in the office for a few weeks, placed there by SummerWorks, a youth job program created by Mayor Greg Fischer in 2011. It was her last year of eligibility, and she said it could have been a foothold for a permanent, full-time job.
Last year, the program had more than 800 participants, all 16 to 21 years old.
The woman said she felt police did not take her seriously; they told her the encounter was consensual, she said. The Louisville Metro Police Department never brought charges. And the alleged victim said she has struggled to get back on her feet in the months since.
The Housing Authority accepted Topping’s request to resign the week after the rape accusation last year. The authority’s director of personnel agreed to provide him a “neutral” reference and share no details about the circumstances of his resignation.
The woman was removed from the Housing Authority position and reassigned days after the incident. She is currently unemployed.
Michael Gritton, executive director of KentuckianaWorks, which oversees SummerWorks, described the case as an “unusual circumstance” that he didn’t believe indicated a systemic problem at the Housing Authority.
“We never want anything bad to happen to any of our young people, so it makes me sad that any bad thing happened,” Gritton said.
In a February interview, the woman said no one ever told her Topping wasn’t charged with a crime, or that he’d been allowed to resign. She also did not know that Topping had a previous accusation.
Barry of the Housing Authority defended his agency’s handling of the alleged rape victim’s complaint, saying employees involved the police right away. But he declined to take follow-up questions regarding the 2011 complaint against Topping.
Knowing Topping was accused of something once before left the woman who alleged he raped her feeling stunned.
“He could’ve not been there and I wouldn’t have had to deal with this,” the woman said. “They gave him a second chance for what? To do it again.”
Allowing Topping to resign and offering a neutral reference are ways for the Housing Authority to protect him and itself, according to JoAnne Sweeny.
Sweeny is an associate law professor at the University of Louisville whose recent research focuses on sexual assault and harassment in the digital age, including in the workplace.
“I’m not surprised. It’s guys looking after guys. ‘Oh, I don’t want to ruin his life. He’s got a family.’ Like, she has a family, she has a life. But that’s not what we worry about,” Sweeny said.
City says reporting harassment encouraged
There is no singular document that governs how city and county agencies should handle investigating and proving sexual harassment.
But most Metro agencies follow the federal standard of “severe or pervasive” that courts have ruled is required by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
J.P. Hamm, Metro Government’s director of human resources, said his goal is to catch incidents before they rise to the legal level of sexual harassment. That may be why some incidents can’t be substantiated as sexual harassment, but may be acknowledged as a different kind of misconduct, he said.
Metro Government is comprised of 25 different departments, including Parks and Recreation and Public Works. Metro Government has substantiated two of its 15 complaints of sexual harassment since 2012, records show.
The Housing Authority and police department do not fall under Metro Government’s purview.
Hamm said all new employees are informed about Metro Government’s harassment and sexual harassment policies and managers get periodic refresher training.
The most recent manager training came at the end of last year, on the heels of news reports that launched the #MeToo movement, he said.
“I think it takes a lot of guts for people to actually go forward, which is why we try to do our best to encourage them particularly, the sooner they do it, before it escalates, the better,” he said.
Sweeny, the law professor, said she is concerned that some government employers use the high bar set by the legal definition of sexual harassment to determine punishments. The Title VII standard could put discipline even for lower infractions out of reach.
“If employers are adopting that as their threshold for action … the kind of day-to-day humiliations and ways that women are subtly told they don’t belong in a workforce, that’s never going to change,” Sweeny said.
Union membership high
Hamm pointed to unionization as one factor affecting the effectiveness of disciplinary actions. Union members can appeal disciplinary decisions, all the way up to arbitration or mediation, Hamm said.
About 80 percent of Metro Government’s approximately 5,600 employees are in unions or have collective bargaining agreements, he said. The rate is even higher for sworn members of the Louisville Metro Police Department, spokesman Sgt. John Bradley said.
Union contracts also determine how long investigators can refer to past incidents to determine future punishment, according to officers’ collective bargaining agreement.
Maj. Frank Hardison of the special investigations division said the police chief determines disciplinary outcomes, but union membership brings help on appeals.
LMPD has nearly 1,600 employees and provided records for two internal sexual harassment complaints since 2012. Neither was substantiated for sexual harassment.
In December, Lt. Jill Hume sued Louisville Metro Government and LMPD for failing to appropriately handle her complaint, which she lodged in late February 2016. She alleges fellow Lt. Robert Shadle sent her an unwanted photograph — a close-up side view of a man holding his erect penis — on Valentine’s Day that year.
Shadle said he did not know who he sent the image to, according to Police Chief Steve Conrad’s report. The accompanying text said, “Thinking about you.”
Hume declined to comment, and Shadle didn’t respond to emails. A police spokesman said they are forbidden from speaking to the media about a case under litigation.
Conrad ruled in April 2016 that the incident did not rise to the level of sexual harassment. Instead, he sustained a charge of “conduct unbecoming” and suspended Shadle for 20 days without pay. Shadle was also removed from his post as commander of the Hostage Negotiation Team.
Hume’s complaint alleges that LPMD “failed to implement prompt and appropriate corrective action.”
LMPD defines sexual harassment as “so severe or pervasive that it has the purpose, or effect, of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating a sexually intimidating, sexually hostile or sexually offensive working environment,” according to the department’s standard operating procedures document.
Thomas Clay, a Louisville attorney who has brought numerous high-profile sexual
harassment lawsuits, is representing Hume. Clay said Hume was discouraged from initially filing a formal complaint against Shadle for the purpose of protecting LMPD’s reputation.
“It reflects badly on the police department to have an allegation of sexual harassment sustained and made public record,” Clay said.
Sweeny, the law professor, said the rate of complaints at LMPD sounded like “terrible under-reporting.” She said government agencies may avoid labeling incidents as sexual harassment in order to avoid negative press, or even to protect the perpetrator on some level.
Hardison of LMPD’s special investigations division wouldn’t talk about the allegation against Shadle, but he said there is no incentive to avoid calling an incident sexual harassment.
He said conduct unbecoming is a “pretty serious” charge.
Experts say culture change needed
It is important for employers to not only take complaints seriously but also to discipline offenders adequately, said Jennifer Drobac, a law professor at Indiana University.
That can lead to cultural change that encourages employees to come forward with complaints, she said.
“When you find out that someone has engaged in this behavior and has retaliated against a complainant, you throw the book at that person,” Drobac said.
Sweeny of U of L said employers should use discretion to ensure the punishment fits the offense, and that overall, investigations and policies need to become more “victim-centered.” More comprehensive training would also help supervisors handle such incidents better, she said.
If an employee feels unsafe or if someone’s behavior substantially interferes with an employee’s ability to do her job, a manager should be allowed to take action even if the “severe or pervasive” standard isn’t met, she said.
Victims should also have the opportunity to rebut any statements made by the alleged harasser, Sweeny said.
Perhaps a more thorough investigation from the Housing Authority of its maintenance worker after his first reported transgressions might have meant a different outcome for the young woman who alleged he raped her, according to Sweeny.
Sweeny said she would like to ask why Housing Authority leadership thought a “letter of concern” was a sufficient response to the accusations that he offered a resident money for sex and entered her apartment while she was showering.
“If someone’s already doing that, they’ve pushed before,” she said.
When the 21-year-old woman alleged rape against Topping, she felt at first that her employers handled her case the way they should have.
The other women in her department supported and checked in on her, she said. The Housing Authority called the police, and most of her disappointment was with LMPD.
But she felt differently when she learned Topping had been accused of misconduct before — and still had keys to apartments and authority to go where he pleased.
“At that point, in 2011, he should’ve got let go,” the woman said. “Even if they didn’t press charges because there’s nothing to press charges towards, he should’ve been let go.”
Eleanor Klibanoff contributed to this report.
Contact Amina Elahi at 502.814.6556 or firstname.lastname@example.org.