The Kentucky Personnel Cabinet has requested an investigation of whether a male officer sexually harassed female employees at the prison in Elliott County.
In response, the state Personnel Board on Monday authorized staff members to begin the investigative process, according to the board’s attorney.
An earlier internal investigation by prison officials did not substantiate allegations that Sgt. Stephen Harper had sexually harassed female corrections officers.
However, “questions about the quality of that investigation have since arisen,” Personnel Secretary Thomas B. Stephens said in a letter requesting the new inquiry.
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One current and three former female prison employees said in a lawsuit that Harper masturbated in view of one woman, touched female staffers’ breasts and buttocks, exposed himself to them, rubbed against them, tried to force them to touch him and attempted to rape one woman.
A state court jury ruled last year that Harper sexually harassed the women and that his actions created a hostile environment at the Little Sandy Correctional Complex.
The jury awarded the women a total of $1.6 million.
When female employees first complained about Harper, officials assigned a woman who worked at the prison to investigate.
However, the woman was not trained to conduct such investigations, according to Lexington attorneys Joe F. Childers and Bethany Baxter, who represented two of the women in the harassment lawsuit.
In addition, the woman worked close to Harper’s wife, who also was a prison employee, Childers said.
“In my view, it was a biased investigation,” Childers said.
Stephens said in his request to the Personnel Board that because of questions about the investigation, a new inquiry is warranted to make sure such allegations are handled appropriately.
Stephens asked the board to investigate whether sexual harassment allegations against Harper — who still works at the prison — can be substantiated, and if so whether the actions violated state policy or merit-system rules.
Stephens also asked the board to look into whether state employees have received proper training on recognizing and responding to sexual harassment in the workplace and conducting investigations.
The Department of Corrections welcomes and supports an outside investigation, said spokeswoman Lisa Lamb.
The Personnel Board says on its website that it was set up to safeguard the merit system for state employees and to be an impartial judge of employee-employer disputes.
The board received Stephens’ request and voted Monday to have staff members begin the process of investigating, said Stafford Easterling, the board’s attorney.
Childers said he would welcome a new investigation of sexual harassment allegations at the prison if it is thorough and independent.
When another female employee complained about Harper, the woman who had done the first investigation said the complaint got lost, meaning there was no investigation of the subsequent complaint, Baxter said.
In another case, a state police officer called to investigate Donna Adkins’ claim against Harper and made her feel like she was in the wrong, Adkins said in a sworn statement. The officer was the twin brother of a supervisor at the prison.
The lawsuit by the four women was against Harper, then-Warden Joseph Meko and the state Department of Corrections.
The $1.6 million judgment for the four was against the department. The women reached a confidential settlement with Harper earlier, according to their attorneys.
Childers and Baxter represent Colleen Payton and Lisa Suliman, while Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf represents Adkins and Jennifer Dennis.
Only Payton still works at the prison, Childers said.
The Department of Corrections has asked the judge for a new trial or a judgment setting aside the verdict.
That request is pending.