Watchdog

Newberry calls for jail inquiry

Mayor Jim Newberry on Saturday called for an independent investigation into management and personnel policies at the Fayette County Detention Center, which faces a spate of lawsuits alleging harassment, sexual discrimination or retaliation by male employees.

Newberry's announcement came two days after the most recent suit was filed by corrections officer Tanya Newcomb, who alleged that her supervisor, Capt. Dwight Hall, retaliated against her for filing a complaint about a warning he gave her in 2006.

Newcomb's complaint also described a "sexually hostile atmosphere" at the detention center — a theme that arose in a previous lawsuit brought by a female corrections officer in November.

A witness in that lawsuit told the Herald-Leader on Saturday that she saw a male supervisor physically harass the female officer.

And a third female officer alleged in a lawsuit in January that she was stripped of her rank and placed on leave by Ron Bishop, director of the Division of Community Corrections, after raising questions about issues at the jail.

The city's law department told Newberry the two previous situations were unrelated to each other.

But Newberry, in a news release issued Saturday afternoon, said in light of the third complaint, "I think we need an independent agency to take a look at employment practices at the jail."

The FBI also has been investigating allegations that corrections officers abused the civil rights of some inmates in the jail since at least January 2006, which was before Newberry took office.

The investigation Newberry is calling for will cover all levels of personnel from the actions of top brass to policies governing jail officers, said Susan Straub, the mayor's spokeswoman.

Bishop said in an interview he welcomed the investigation and would fully cooperate. He said he didn't sense his job is in jeopardy.

"Yes, it will be a top-to-bottom review, but I don't feel I'm on the hot seat," he said. "But when you're the head of an agency, you're accountable for anything that happens there, and I accept that responsibility."

Bishop said he couldn't address the specific allegations in the lawsuits. And no new policies have been put in place because rules already exist to discourage discrimination and harassment in the workplace, he said.

Until now, Newberry has remained largely quiet about the lawsuits, citing the sensitive legal nature of the cases.

Newberry is expected to select an organization to conduct the review this week.

Straub said the inquiry could be conducted by a law firm or a government watchdog group that specializes in corrections issues.

Several Urban County Council members, including At-Large Councilwoman Linda Gorton and 2nd District Councilman Tom Blues, said they think the time is right for an investigation.

Vice Mayor Jim Gray said he wanted the mayor to consult with the council "about the scope of the independent study so it examines root causes as well as symptoms."

Newberry's announcement of the investigation follows Gray's decision last week to challenge Newberry in next year's mayoral race. But Straub said the timing of the investigation was unrelated to that.

Blues said the council also is concerned about high turnover of corrections employees.

Bishop said that rate has gone down in recent years but couldn't quote any figures. Still, Bishop acknowledged the corrections division is going through a rough patch of publicity.

In addition to Newcomb's lawsuit filed Thursday, a complaint brought by Charlotte Trotter last month also alleges misconduct by male employees at the jail.

Trotter alleged in her suit that Maj. Michael Korb grabbed his crotch and yelled "you know you want this."

Former Fayette County Detention Center corrections officer Beth Despain said in an interview Saturday she saw the alleged harassment of Trotter and will testify in Trotter's civil case.

Despain said she told human resources officials about the event in October and was fired Dec. 4 after jail officials learned she was having a relationship with a supervisor and had sent him several "inappropriate e-mails" on her government e-mail account.

Bishop said he couldn't address issues brought in Trotter's lawsuit. But he confirmed Despain and the supervisor with whom she was having a relationship were fired. He said multiple "offenses that are so egregious" led to the terminations, although he declined to give further details.

"You guys have been getting a lot of one-sided information because we can't talk about it," he said of issues related to the lawsuits. "Stay tuned."

Despain said she should have received a warning or suspension for her first offense and believed she was fired for agreeing to be a witness for Trotter.

Shane Sidebottom, a Northern Kentucky attorney who represents Trotter and Doris Zirbes, who filed the first retaliation lawsuit in January, said the independent investigation was needed.

"I hope they can focus on fixing their problems so people like Mrs, Zirbes and Ms. Trotter can do their job," he said. "That's all they want to do is do their job."

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