Officials failed to properly investigate sexual harassment claims at the state prison in Elliott County from female guards who said a male supervisor exposed himself and groped them, an investigator concluded.
The administrator who looked into the claims wasn’t trained for such investigations, she didn’t interview some potential witnesses, and appeared to ask only limited questions, according to the independent review of the cases.
In addition, the warden at the Little Sandy Correctional Complex and the staffer assigned to look into the complaints mistakenly believed that if a woman waited more than 24 hours to report sexual harassment, the allegation was less credible.
“Such beliefs betray a fundamental misunderstanding of sexual harassment allegations,” Mark A. Sipek, executive director of the Kentucky Personnel Board, said in a report released this week.
The complaints that led to the review involved Stephen Harper, a sergeant at Little Sandy.
The allegations that female employees made against Harper in 2013 and 2014 included that he masturbated where one woman could see him, touched their breasts and buttocks, exposed himself to them, rubbed against them and tried to force them to touch him.
One female staffer said Harper grabbed her in a stairwell and kissed her, pushed her against a wall and touched her breasts, and took out his penis and forced her hand onto him.
The woman said she got away after hitting Harper in the stomach and telling him an inmate was approaching.
The woman sought therapy after the attack.
Harper denied the complaints, and prison officials decided the allegations were not substantiated. He was never disciplined.
However, four women sued Harper and the Department of Corrections, and a jury ruled in 2017 that Harper had sexually harassed them and that the department hadn’t done enough to stop the problem.
The women settled privately with Harper and agreed to a settlement of $1.5 million from the department.
The women involved in the settlement were Colleen Payton and Lisa Suliman, represented by Lexington attorneys Joe Childers and Bethany Baxter; and Donna Adkins and Jennifer Dennis, represented by Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf.
Only Payton still works at the prison.
After the verdict, state Personnel Cabinet Secretary Thomas B. Stephens asked the Personnel Board to investigate the claims against Harper because of questions about the quality of the original investigation that found no wrongdoing.
Sipek led that outside investigation, interviewing witnesses and reviewing thousands of pages of documents.
The report cited a number of problems in how the department and some officials at Little Sandy handled the allegations against Harper, who left the prison last November.
Serena Waddell, the human resources administrator at the prison who looked into the initial complaint against Harper, was not trained to do sexual harassment investigations, Sipek said.
Sipek said corrections officials erred by not seeking an independent investigation.
The warden at the time, Joseph Meko, and Waddell were too close to the situation to be impartial, Sipek said.
Little Sandy officials received a total of four written complaints against Harper and “numerous” verbal complaints, but completed only one investigation and didn’t handle any of the reports adequately, Sipek said.
The prison didn’t investigate one claim at all.
Instead, Meko ordered a female officer — who made the report on behalf of other employees — not to look into the complaints on work time.
Prison officials called Kentucky State Police to investigate the allegation about Harper cornering a woman in a stairwell.
However, the investigator concluded the event had happened more than a year earlier and the prosecutor told him there couldn’t be a charge filed after that time, according to Sipek’s report.
Sipek concluded Harper harassed four female employees, but said he could not make a determination on allegations related to five other women.
Sipek said several witnesses told investigators there were problems other than Harper at Little Sandy — a history of sexual harassment by supervisors and a refusal by managers to treat the problem seriously.
Witnesses believed one woman lost her job after alleging harassment by a former deputy warden; another supervisor had faced several complaints of sexual harassment, but none had been confirmed and he’d been promoted several times, the report said.
In another case, a current supervisor at the prison has been accused of harassing behavior three times and admitted it each time, but has not been disciplined and has been promoted, Sipek’s report said.
Those examples send a clear message to Little Sandy employees that supervisors “can get away with sexual harassment without serious consequences,” creating an atmosphere in which employees are reluctant to report harassment, the report said.
Pillersdorf, the attorney for two of the women who sued, applauded Sipek’s findings.
The internal investigation of Harper “was an incestuous investigation by somebody who was unqualified,” Pillersdorf said.
“There was a real bad culture up there” at the prison, he said.
Sipek said the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, which includes the prison system, has made positive changes.
All sexual harassment complaints now go to the cabinet’s Internal Investigations Branch, and there is an effort to make sure all investigations are handled by trained investigators.
Sipek said there was an on-going investigation at Little Sandy while he was doing his independent inquiry, and it appeared that the cabinet had fixed many of the problems found in Harper’s case.
The investigators in the new case were thorough, impartial, followed all leads and appeared to figure out what happened, Sipek said.
Lisa Lamb, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said the department has taken a number of steps to prevent harassment, make sure investigations are done properly and protect employees from retaliation.
The measures include increased training, a new case management system and collaboration with the Personnel Cabinet to beef up oversight mechanisms, Lamb said.
“A comprehensive review of department policies also remains underway, and we believe the board’s report will help us to continue our positive momentum,” Lamb said.