Jessica Waters
News-Leader

A three-year old sexual harassment complaint against Tax Collector John Drew and a settlement agreement with the woman who made it has prompted County Attorney Mike Mullin to review current policies and procedures.

On April 14, 2013, Teri Murray – a customer service representative working in the Nassau County Tax Collector’s office since June 4, 2012 – tendered her resignation.

During an exit interview with two office supervisors, Murray reported she had been subjected to repeated acts of verbal sexual harassment. According to case documents from the resulting investigation, Murray told department manager Tracy Bazar and finance director Michael Love she was resigning because of the harassment, but at first refused to identify who had been harassing her.

At a follow-up meeting with Bazar and Love on April 16, Murray named Drew as the individual who made inappropriate comments to her over a six-week period.

“The Tax Collector vigorously denies the allegations asserted by Murray,” states a case document obtained by the News-Leader.

No record of Drew being formally interviewed by investigators for his side of the story was included in county records or the insurance claim case file. Per the stipulations of a 2013 settlement agreement – which bears no evidence of approval or input from the Tax Collector, the County Attorney or the Board of Commissioners – the Tax Collector’s office paid Murray $20,000 as well as covering $1,652 in attorney’s fees for a mediation session. The settlement amount, including incidental charges, was below the county’s $25,000 insurance deductible and was paid directly by the Tax Collector’s office.

When questioned about Murray’s claims, Drew advised the News-Leader that, on the advice of his attorney, he could not discuss the matter due to restrictions instituted by the settlement agreement approved by the county’s liability insurance company.

Several attempts by the News-Leader to contact Murray by phone and in person were unsuccessful.

According to an investigation report Murray told Bazar and Love that “the harassment had been going on for some time and was so bad that she had to go to counseling and was on medications.”

The report, filed in May 2013 by Meg Zabijaka, an attorney and partner with the employment law firm Constangy Brooks & Smith, LLP, was obtained pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request filed last month by the News-Leader.

“Murray stated that all occurrences of harassment occurred after February of 2013. Before that time, she stated that Drew was always professional,” Zabijaka wrote in her report. “Murray stated that there was no physical touching by Drew — the harassment was limited to comments in the workplace.”

Bazar and Love offered to reassign Murray to another office building at no loss of pay or benefits, but Murray refused, saying she was afraid that Drew could still appear at another office.

“She also explained during the interview that it was too far for her to drive (to another Tax Collector’s office location) because every other Friday, she has to leave work early to take her daughter to the daughter’s father,” the investigation report stated.

 

Policy and procedure

After resigning her position at the Tax Collector’s office, Murray reported her allegations of harassment to the county’s human resources office and to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, complying with established policy as recommended by Love and Bazar. Chili Pope, who was the county’s human resources director at the time, referred the complaint to the county’s liability insurance carrier, Florida Association of Counties Trust, which assigned the claim to it’s insurance underwriter, Florida Municipal Insurance Trust. FMIT is an arm of the Florida League of Cities that provides underwriting services for public entities.

Depending on the specifics of an employment liability case, FMIT will determine whether to investigate the claim in-house, or refer the claim to “defense council,” said FMIT claims manager Jessica Sheets. Sheets told the News-Leader during a January phone interview that claims are evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine who will be in charge of the investigation.

Employment attorney Mike Grogan with Allen, Norton and Blue was retained by FMIT to represent Drew and the insurance company. Grogan is retired and no longer employed by the law firm. No contact with Grogan was possible and Allen, Norton and Blue representative Marc Sugerman declined to discuss the case with the News-Leader.

“Our office was retained to investigate the allegations of harassment raised by Ms. Terri Murray against Mr. John Drew, Nassau County Tax Collector,” states a May 31, 2013 memo from Zabijaka to Alonzo Hatchette, Litigation Specialist at the Florida League of Cities. “We were initially notified of the complaint on May 1, 2013 by Ms. Chili Pope, Human Resources Director (of) Nassau County.”

 

Allegations

During Murray’s interview with Zabijaka, she specified 10 occasions during which she claimed Drew made inappropriate and harassing comments and/or actions.

According to Murray, Drew allegedly told her “You do not have to get a part time job. I’ll pay you for sex. As a matter of fact, I prefer to pay for it.”

Other comments Murray claimed Drew made included explicit requests for sexual acts, requests for her to “talk nasty and perverted,” and a statement claiming that he was “black from the waist down.”

Murray also claimed Drew told her that he could get away with harassing her because he was the “golden child” and that he could “do anything he wanted in his house.”

“Throughout the interview, Murray was tearful and appeared to make a very sympathetic witness. Murray stated that she would like to consider mediation, and her preference was to have this matter mediated before it became public,” Zabijaka’s report concluded. “I explained to Murray that I would look into the possibility of mediation and whether my investigation could be halted to allow the mediation process to work. As you know, the mediation was scheduled and held on Wednesday, May 29, 2013 and the parties reached a settlement of this matter. As a result, we understand that this matter is closed.”

According to Murray’s statement to Zabijaka, there were no witnesses to any of the events, although she stated that other people in the office were aware of Drew’s behavior in general.

“According to Murray, after she named Drew as the one who was harassing her, Finance Director Mike Love told her, “We know he (Drew) has made comments to others.”

Love told the News-Leader in late January that he had never witnessed Drew behaving in an inappropriate manner to any employee, and said he had not told Murray that he was aware of any comments made by Drew.

Bazar, who is still an employee at the Tax Collector’s office, also told the News-Leader that she has never witnessed Drew speak in a harassing or sexual manner to anyone, nor had she heard complaints regarding inappropriate conduct by Drew other than Murray’s claim.

When asked if she agreed with Murray’s statement that Drew was well known in the office for inappropriate behavior and comments, Bazar said that she did not.

No information in the case file or investigation report indicates Zabijaka interviewed Drew or any Tax Collector’s office employee. Nor was any mention made in the report of the contents of Murray’s personnel file. Zabijaka was provided with a copy of Murray’s file prior to interviewing her, according to the report. The personnel file includes 10 disciplinary write-ups and an extension of her probationary period. The first disciplinary form was issued on July 12, 2012 and the final write up was issued on March 19, 2013. Bazar or supervisor Erica Dupree signed the disciplinary forms, and Drew’s signature did not appear on any of them.

When contacted by the News-Leader, Zabijaka declined to comment on the case. She stated that the only information she would provide was included in the report the News-Leader received from FMIT. Transcripts, records or information regarding the mediation session were confidential and would not be disclosed, she said.

 

Settlement

According to Zabijaka’s investigation report, Murray requested compensation for her loss of employment and her emotional suffering. She also requested that Drew be “forced to step down” from his elected position and that he should be “required to receive counseling.”

According to the settlement agreement, finalized on May 29, 2013, “Neither this agreement nor anything contained herein is to be construed as an admission by either party of any liability, wrongdoing or unlawful conduct whatsoever.” The settlement agreement reiterated Drew’s denial of the charges, stating that matter was settled during mediation to “limit any further expenses and or litigation.”

Drew advised the News-Leader that he was told he was not allowed to be present at the mediation, although Grogan, representing both Drew and the insurance company, was present.

Bazar, who signed the settlement agreement as the representative of the Tax Collector’s office, was present the day of the mediation, but was not involved in any discussions with Murray.

“I was in a separate room; they just came in and told me it was settled and told me to sign (the settlement document),” she said.

According to the settlement, “Both parties agree to refrain from expressing or causing others to express to any third party any derogatory or negative opinions, comments (or) statement concerning the parties.”

In addition to filing a complaint with the county, Murray filed a complaint with the EEOC containing the same allegations as stated in the complaint filed with the county. The EEOC complaint was withdrawn as a condition of the settlement agreement.

The settlement was paid directly by the Tax Collector’s office, with no expenditure by FMIT, the county’s liability insurance carrier.

 

The need for a new procedure

According to County Attorney Mike Mullin, his goal now is to ensure a thorough investigation of allegations prior to entering into a settlement agreement for any similar cases.

Although Mullin was not the county attorney at the time of the mediation and settlement, he has looked into the matter in the past month and told the News-Leader there are several procedural policies and actions that he will be discussing with FMIT. Mullin says the handling of the Murray/Drew case strayed from common practices on a number of points, including the fact that Murray was never required to provide a sworn statement regarding her allegations, and instead only gave verbal recollections of events.

“The fact that John (Drew) was not interviewed, that other office employees were not interviewed, that is bizarre,” he told the News-Leader.

Concerns regarding the handling of the claim include the fact that the investigation of the allegations did not include interviews with other Tax Collector’s office employees. The fact that no apparent attention was given to the contents of Murray’s personnel file also strayed from what Mullin said he has experienced as standard procedure in harassment cases or pre-suit mediation settlements.

Per the terms of the county’s contract with FMIT, if the insurance company recommends settling a liability claim, and that recommendation is ignored, FMIT will not pay any judgment or costs associated with the claim. That risk can discourage county officials from opposing the settlement, Mullin said.

Insurance companies can be nervous about sexual harassment cases and will often settle out of court in order to avoid the risk of litigation, regardless of whether the accusations have been proven, he said.

“I don’t want to use the word sloppy, but as I said (to FMIT), sexual harassment claims should be taken seriously and should be thoroughly investigated,” Mullin said. “When you investigate just one side and you put that in a file, and that is a public record; when you release that, then for someone in public office, that is very damning because you don’t have the other side.”

“This is a weird settlement, and now he (Drew) can’t even talk about it,” Mullin added.

A background search conducted by the News-Leader into Drew’s legal and employment history revealed no prior civil or criminal cases involving Drew outside tax assessment-related appeals. County records contain no allegations of harassment or workplace complaints other than Murray’s.

A similar background search conducted on Murray revealed several court cases in Nassau and Orange counties, including property-related cases and two petitions for domestic violence injunctions filed by Murray.

A petition for injunction for protection against domestic violence, filed by Murray under the name Teri Jeanette Davis against Gary Davis in May 2011 in Nassau County, was denied by the court.

“The petitioner failed to allege facts sufficient to support the entry of an injunction for protection,” court documents state, adding that the acts alleged by Murray were not recent.

The News-Leader was unable to locate any records of allegations of abuse made by Murray against Gary Davis prior to the 2011 case.

Murray was also the petitioner in a domestic violence injunction case filed on Jan. 1, 1985 in Orange County against Joseph Meyers. On Feb. 2, 1985, an order of abatement was issued on the temporary injunction. On Jan. 1, 2007, the case was reassigned to a different judge and the court took no action. There is no further information available on that case.

 

Rush to resolve

In Florida, 68-69 percent of all civil cases filed are resolved in mediation and are not heard in court, Mullin said.

“Either the parties determine that this is going to be expensive if we continue our claim, or it is an insurance company saying ‘we will pay ‘x’ amount on your behalf and we think that is best because it saves us litigation costs that could end up more than the settlement, plus the risk of losing the case,’” he explained.

“I have to say, in this case, it’s almost like as soon as (the insurance company) was told it was a sexual harassment case, they said ‘we have to get this settled.”

A rush to settle a case without proper investigation is something Mullin hopes to avoid in the future.

“I want to ultimately look at and address the fact going forward about how we are going to deal with this type of claim,” he said. “Surely not in this fashion. We have to say to the insurance (provider), ‘what is your procedure, and if you don’t have a procedure, let’s develop one for everyone’s protection.”

jwaters@fbnewsleader.com

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