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Sexual-harassment suit blasts legislative office

A young secretary for the Legislature complained five years ago that her supervisor was making sexual advances toward her and another woman at the office.

Her bosses investigated, but they never directly confronted the man she accused.

"I didn't think that was necessary," said Fred Breeze, executive director of the Joint Legislative Management Committee, which oversees House and Senate operations.

Indeed, it would take two more years and complaints from at least four more women before purchasing administrator Bobby Hinson was fired.

Now, what started as one woman's complaint has spiraled into a federal lawsuit that is embarrassing lawmakers, many of whom well remember the harassment scandal that rocked the Legislature in 1991.

The first complaint against Hinson came from Elizabeth Granger, a committee secretary. Two years later, administrative assistant Linda Phelps, who filed the lawsuit, made a complaint to her bosses. She said Hinson harassed her for more than two years, culminating in a "violent sexual assault" at the office one night in 1994.

Hinson, who has denied any wrongdoing, was fired after that accusation. But with the help of his boss at the Legislature, he was able to quickly find work elsewhere in state government.

Depositions in Phelps' court case, set for trial in June, paint a disturbing portrait of the legislative office, which one woman said "was like a crazy house."

According to the women's testimony, it was a place where low-paid female employees felt they had to tolerate inappropriate behavior to keep their jobs.

"When we go through those sexual harassment courses, they tell you to tell your boss (about problems)," Granger said last week.

"But when your boss is the one who's doing it, who do you go to?"

"People with no tops on'

More than most bosses, Fred Breeze knows what sexual harassment complaints can mean.

In 1991, he testified in a harassment case against state Rep. Fred Lippman, D-Hollywood. Breeze was involved in approving a secret payment of $47,000 made to a legislative employee who claimed Lippman tried to have sex with her.

"I've thought about it so much, I'm confused," Breeze said nervously as a legislative committee grilled him about how the payment was made.

A year later, Breeze's own office would be the scene of accusations every bit as seamy as those in the Lippman case.

Phelps said Hinson grabbed and kissed her at work, exposed himself at the office, propositioned her, and used sexually graphic language on the office intercom. One night after co-workers had left, Hinson grabbed her and pushed her onto her desk, kissed her, touched her, exposed himself and tried to engage her in oral sex, Phelps told the state attorney's office.

Prosecutors never pursued the assault charge. Phelps' credibility has been challenged because she continued to socialize with Hinson outside the office, even after the unwanted advances she described.

But Phelps is not alone in her complaints.

"It was like a crazy house," said administrative assistant Mary Ann Bolton, who still works at the committee.

She told lawyers in Phelps' case that when she worked for Hinson, he made a "proposition," asking her to go on a weekend motorcycle trip to Panama City. When she walked away without answering, he yelled out the office door asking for a decision.

"I felt like his purpose was to say it as loud as he could so that other people might hear . . . so that it would look as though I was the one that initiated the whole thing. It was just a real uncomfortable terrible position for somebody like him to put you in," she said in a deposition.

Bolton remembers watching co-workers go into and out of Hinson's office one day in 1994 to look at his photos from biker trips to Daytona Beach.

"I thought they were pictures that anybody could look at. The people that were in there said, "No, Mary Ann doesn't need to see these.' "

Still, Hinson threw one photo down in front of her. It was a man bending over, his pants down to his knees. "I was just sick," Bolton said. "It made me sick."

Hinson has denied all the women's allegations, saying Phelps and her co-workers made them up. Hinson has said that the photos are vacation pictures and that he doesn't recall who saw them.

Depositions and records, however, show that even top bosses saw the photos in Hinson's office.

Ratowski, then a division director at the committee and Hinson's boss, told lawyers that he saw what might have been "people with no tops on" in the photos.

"Did you ever tell him to take them out of the office?" lawyers asked.

"No, I didn't," Ratowski replied. "I thought they were locked in the bottom drawer. And, you know, they weren't for distribution anywhere."

Two other managers later got in trouble for "viewing potentially offensive photographs in the workplace," the records show. Luther Bowen, the committee's budget officer, and Donald Ray Linch, the fiscal officer, lost scheduled salary increases last year after state officials learned during the lawsuit that they had looked at Hinson's pictures. Both men declined to comment for this story.

Ratowski was fired last week after the Times reported that he had given glowing job references for Hinson, who now works in purchasing at the Department of Management Services.

Ratowski says executive director Breeze told him to help Hinson. Breeze denies that. But Hinson also says Breeze offered to help him.

"He told me . . . I'm not able to put you in a position in the Legislature, but if there's anything I can do outside of here, give us a call," Hinson said last week.

Breeze said Hinson's recollection "is absolutely false."

No corroboration

Hinson maintains that he never knew he was accused of sexual harassment in 1992, when Elizabeth Granger complained about him.

Granger told lawyers in the Phelps case that Hinson always played with her hair at work. And one day, "I was sitting at my cubicle, and he came up behind me, and he had started massaging my shoulder, and I had kind of moved my chair down. And I mean, it wasn't very long, and I turned around, and there was a wet spot on the front of his pants."

She said she complained to personnel officer Beverly Cook that Hinson "was grabbing on" Linda Phelps as well.

Personnel officers "found absolutely no corroboration" for Granger's accusations, Breeze said in a court deposition.

Cook, who headed the investigation, now says she interviewed Hinson and other purchasing employees only generally, asking if they had observed any sexual harassment at work. She said she never told Hinson that he was the accused.

"I didn't think we had enough to go on," Cook said last week. "There was never anything to go back to Bobby or go back to his supervisor and say these are accusations, there has been substantiation."

Several factors worked against Granger. Records show that she came forward after getting in trouble at work: She had been accused of disruptive behavior at a purchasing meeting.

Other purchasing employees, including Phelps and Hinson, were asked to "comment on any unusual or disruptive behavior" at work, and Granger's accusations were not corroborated.

Now, Phelps said she didn't back up Granger because Hinson had called her from a pay phone in the cafeteria of their office building and "told me to keep my mouth shut," according to a deposition. Hinson denies that he made such a call.

Why didn't the investigators come right out and ask Hinson if he had harassed Granger?

"We didn't use specific names. That wasn't fair to the individuals involved," said Cook, who now works at the Department of Management Services.

Nor did Ratowski, Hinson's immediate supervisor, ever confront him.

"This was a confidential investigation, (we) didn't want to cause trouble for anybody," Ratowski said in a court deposition.

"I just didn't want a lot of, you know _ didn't want to hurt anybody."