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Sexual harassment inquiry leads to discipline for Hernando County assistant utilities director

BROOKSVILLE — An investigation into sexual harassment allegations against the county's assistant utilities director has resulted in a warning for the 31-year employee.

The incident leading to the discipline of Jesse Goodwin happened in October 2007, but was only recently investigated when it came to light during another investigation. In the recent case, Goodwin was exonerated on a charge that he retaliated against and harassed utilities inspector Chris Soto over a possible job change.

As witnesses were questioned in the Soto case, three employees noted that they were aware of another situation, involving sexual harassment.

County human resources officials investigated and found that Goodwin and an unnamed female employee had different versions of what had happened back in 2007.

The female employee said she was talking to Goodwin just before she left her job working for him at the Wiscon Road utilities office to take a job in the utilities administration office in Brooksville. Goodwin was conducting an exit interview when, according to the employee, he asked her to "lift her shirt." She did not comply.

He allegedly asked her a second time, and again she said she refused and left Goodwin's office.

The employee said she never reported the incident because she formerly was in the Navy and was used to men making inappropriate comments to her. She also said Goodwin made another inappropriate comment to her in a subsequent phone conversation, but later apologized.

Goodwin's version of the story is that the employee was in his office just before she transferred, but it was not an exit interview.

Goodwin told county investigators he was experimenting with his new phone and learning how to take pictures.

"The employee then jokingly said that she would flash him for a photograph. Mr. Goodwin then said, 'Yeah, go ahead,' '' according to the investigative report.

"Mr. Goodwin stated that he had realized (that) his comment had been in poor taste and had apologized to her the next day,'' the report states. "Mr. Goodwin did not deny that he had made an inappropriate but not sexual comment to the employee during a subsequent telephone conversation and then apologized to her for making the comment.''

Goodwin also told investigators "what he perceived to be his friendly attitude to female subordinates could be perceived as flirtation by those subordinates,'' according to the report.

"Your conduct was unbecoming of a supervisor and was a violation of our harassment and discrimination policy,'' states the warning given to Goodwin this week. "You admitted that your conduct may be seen as flirtacious to some employees. You are to refrain from any conduct that may violate the harassment and discrimination policy.

"Failure to follow this policy will result in further disciplinary action up to and including termination.''

The employee who transferred to the administration office shared details of the incident with her new supervisor, Grace Sheppard. Sheppard told investigators that she asked the employee if she wanted to report the incident and she said no. She asked whether the employee transferred from the Wiscon Road facility because of harassment, and the employee said she did not. So Sheppard went no further with the issue until she was questioned recently about the Soto complaint.

Human Resources officials also disciplined Sheppard with a warning for failure to follow county policy, which requires supervisors to report any harassment complaints.

During Tuesday's County Commission meeting, commissioners got an earful about sexual harassment issues at the utilities office when Paul Douglas, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, blasted the county for allowing such incidents to occur.

He was assured that all allegations were reviewed, and Cheryl Marsden, the county's administrative services director, confirmed that the investigation concluded with warnings to both Goodwin and Sheppard.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Sexual harassment inquiry leads to discipline for Hernando County assistant utilities director 01/09/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 7:39pm]
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