Soon after City Attorney Larry Long announced his resignation amid a sexual harassment controversy, another one of his employees filed a new complaint that alleged unequal pay based on gender. Now the city is fighting to keep records about that case secret at the public’s expense.
The employee who filed the latest complaint was Todd Stephens, a senior assistant attorney, and he alleges pay discrimination based on his salary and the salaries of female attorneys. Investigators in the previous sexual harassment case had noted problems with Long’s behavior toward women who worked for him — including touching them and calling them pet names — and found that his differing treatment of staff contributed to a “hostile and intimidating environment.”
The latest investigation remains ongoing about three months after the complaint and more than a week after Long’s departure. But Mayor David Turner acknowledged a pay issue exists.
“We’re going to have to reevaluate the pay,” Turner said, adding that a disparity might have resulted from reasons such as performance or difficulty filling a position because of the economy. “I don’t see any discrimination from the limited part I’ve seen.”
Stephens declined to comment.
An outside attorney for the city, Cal Hendrick, sought to withhold the records in a letter to the Texas Attorney General on March 2. But Hendrick inadvertently named Stephens in a letter to the Odessa American, before asking the OA to destroy it. The OA declined.
Hendrick also offered a summary of the case and acknowledged the AG is likely to order the release of information. It raised immediate questions about why the city is not releasing the information voluntarily.
“Off the record, you will discover, when the AG releases its report, that it involves a claim of disparate treatment—a male city atty claims he was treated differently, based on his salary, compared to female city attys. It is under investigation.” Hendrick wrote.
The OA did not agree to an off the record conversation with Hendrick and declined to keep this description secret.
His effort to keep records about the case secret is the latest in a series of attempts to withhold public records related to Long. In the most recent cases, the result was the delay of their release. And one outcome is that the public costs of resolving the sexual harassment complaint remain unclear.
On behalf of the city, Hendrick fought the release of records about a settlement the city reached with Long’s legal assistant who had filed the sexual harassment complaint in the summer. She had accused Long of sexually harassing her in ways including touching her hair against her will and staring at her — behavior the HR department noted was similar to another sexual harassment case in 2007 that resulted in an unpaid suspension.
The settlement stemmed from a complaint the legal assistant filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The City Council never disciplined Long, but ultimately allowed him to resign at the end of February in part so he could receive better retirement benefits. Long’s last day was Feb. 28, following a retirement party the week prior in the City Council chambers that records show cost about $200.
Even though the AG ordered the city to release the settlement records on March 6, the city still hasn’t done so. City attorneys referred the matter to Hendrick but said he was out of town and wouldn’t release the records until this week.
The new Interim City Attorney Gary Landers, who took charge on March 1, said he started a review of the way the city handles requests for public records with a goal of greater transparency. Landers was hired through an outside firm that the city is paying about $25,000 a month while the City Council seeks a permanent replacement for Long.
By Jan. 16, the city disclosed it had paid $23,300 for Hendrick’s work related to the sexual harassment complaint.
After the sexual harassment complaint was filed on July 12, it took the city less than two weeks to investigate the case and produce a report that included a recommendation of greater discipline for Long than the month-long suspension given in the 2007 case.
It’s now been about 12 weeks since Stephens filed the complaint alleging pay discrimination.
But Turner and Interim City Manager Michael Marrero said the city did not delay the investigation or a resolution to the complaint because of Long’s pending departure at the end of February.
Marrero said the City Council was informed promptly, per protocol, and that outside counsel hired by the city is still investigating the complaint. He said the city’s personnel committee, which includes District 3 Councilwoman Barbara Graff and District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales, had discussed the complaint.
Turner, who attends the committee meetings in a nonvoting capacity, said they had not discussed this case in detail as the investigation continues. There have been no additional sexual harassment complaints against Long since the most recent case, Turner said.
Turnover in the human resources department may have contributed to the length of the investigation, Marrero said. An HR director resigned late last year, months after her predecessor did the same, and the current HR Director Darrell Wells was named to his post a little more than a month ago.
“We take all of these things seriously,” Marrero said.