Fayette County

Head of Community Action Council fired following sexual harassment lawsuit

The embattled head of one of the area’s largest nonprofits was terminated Tuesday less than a month after being sued for sexual harassment and workplace retaliation by an employee.

The board of the Lexington-based Community Action Council voted at a specially-called meeting Tuesday to fire executive director Malcolm Ratchford effective immediately, according to a statement released late Tuesday.

“During the time of transition, and pursuant to the board’s long-standing succession plan, the agency will be managed by interim executive director Bridgett Rice, pending further action from the board of directors,” the statement said.

Rice was named interim director at a board meeting last week.

Steve Amato, a lawyer for the anti-poverty agency, said a search committee for a new executive director will be named immediately.

“The program and services provided by the Community Action Council are backed by a deeply committed, talented and dedicated group of professionals whose work will continue while the agency seeks new executive leadership,” the statement said. “Malcolm Ratchford ably served the interests of the Community Action Council for many years and his passion for the mission of the Community Action Council was apparent and appreciated.”

Ratchford was placed on administrative leave on Oct. 15, the same day the Lexington Herald-Leader published an article about an Oct. 4 lawsuit filed against Ratchford and the Community Action Council accusing Ratchford of sexual harassment. The board met again on Oct. 22 but no decision was made about Ratchford’s employment.

Malcolm Ratchford

Marbel Bocalandro Gastell alleges in the lawsuit that Ratchford made repeated unwanted advances that included messages expressing a desire to touch Gastell’s backside and another suggesting that he had “an erection” during a meeting with her, according to court documents. He also frequently requested that she travel to out of town meetings with him, she alleged.

The lawsuit also alleged other employees had also been sexually harassed by Ratchford, but when Gastell tried to give the names of two employees to Rice, who is the agency’s human resources director, she was told the testimony of those employees would not be sufficient to take action against Ratchford unless they could document the alleged behavior.

Gastell said she was transferred to a different office, given a different job title and denied a pay raise after she reported Ratchford.

Ratchford was punished but not terminated after an internal investigation, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit said Gastell was told the punishment included suspension of pay for two weeks, sexual harassment training and a prohibition on taking annual leave or vacation for 120 days, according to the lawsuit. Ratchford, though, took a vacation shortly after being disciplined, the lawsuit alleges.

Amato said he could not comment on why the board voted to terminate Ratchford nearly 30 days after the lawsuit was filed.

Nick Wallingford, a lawyer for Gastell, said the board should have fired Ratchford in August, at the time of the investigation.

“They knew his history of inappropriate workplace behavior at the time, possibly even before,” Wallingford said. “Yet, Community Action made a finding that Ms. Gastell’s claims of sexual harassment were false and chose to attack her for reporting her claims. Community Action even prevented her from identifying other victims of his conduct or discussing her allegations.“

Ratchford has served as executive director since July 2013, according to his LinkedIn page.

The Community Action Council has said all sexual harassment complaints are thoroughly reviewed and investigated.

“Community Action Council takes all allegations of sexual harassment seriously,” the agency said in a statement released earlier in October. “All reported incidents are and have been investigated and handled with care, diligence and impartiality for those who are reporting them, as well as the accused.”

The Community Action Council has an annual budget of more than $26 million and employs more than 270 people, according to its website. It serves more than 31,000 people in Fayette, Bourbon, Harrison and Nicholas counties and oversees many federal, state and local anti-poverty programs, including Head Start, emergency food and shelter programs, and assistance with paying electricity and other utility bills.

Amato said the agency’s employees are still administrating much-needed services in the four-county area.