TAMPA — In the fall of 2020, a legislative aide for City Council member Orlando Gudes approached city human resources officers with a complaint about her boss.
The aide relayed his tendency to “bark” at her and treat her harshly. She noted an incident in which Gudes had made a lewd comment after stopping by her home to pick up work documents.
The city found the matter to be resolved in November 2020 after the aide said she had talked over her concerns with Gudes.
Nine months later, Tampa would rekindle the investigation, with city officials reaching out to the aide twice while she was on an extended absence from work. They would turn for assistance to an outside attorney, who concluded after another seven months that Gudes had created a hostile workplace by repeatedly talking in a demeaning and misogynistic fashion to the aide.
A lawyer for Gudes, Ryan Barack, said his client only learned that he was the subject of a prior investigation when last week’s report was released. He criticized the city for not telling Gudes about the previous investigation that had been dropped with no action.
“The city’s conduct was outrageous,” Barack told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday.
Most of the claims leveled at Gudes were alleged to have taken place before the original investigation was dropped. But notes accompanying the reopened investigation indicate that the aide apologized to city officials about not disclosing all the details of what prompted her to file the initial complaint.
A lawyer for the aide said the city’s most recent findings should not be challenged.
“The facts of this case are clear and incapable of credible dispute,” said the lawyer, Ethan Loeb, who also represented a local business consultant in a public records lawsuit against former City Council member John Dingfelder that prompted him to resign.
Notes taken by city officials during the initial 2020 investigation summarizing the aide’s complaint do not contain most of the allegations included in the findings released last week. They do not mention Gudes commenting about the breasts of the aide’s teenage daughter. Nor do they detail homophobic remarks she says he made about Mayor Jane Castor, who is gay.
They did describe an incident when the aide says Gudes arrived at her home and remarked that it smelled like she had recently had sex.
But a Nov. 10, 2020 draft memo from a human resources worker states that the aide “now considers the matter closed” after speaking with Gudes.
In last week’s report, the 2020 investigation is barely mentioned in the 60 pages of city analysis that was built on a months-long outside investigation by the Trenam law firm.
For reasons not explained in public records, nine months after the aide had dropped her complaint, city officials contacted her twice while she was on leave, according to notes from the more recent investigation.
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During the first call on Aug. 9, the aide told officials she didn’t need any help, according to handwritten notes contained in a public records request. Three days later, the city contacted her again.
This time, the aide detailed her complaints, which subsequently restarted the city investigation of Gudes and formed the bulk of the city’s latest findings that he had created a hostile work environment.
At some point after the second investigation started, the aide apologized for not telling investigators at first what she relayed to them when they started to look again at her case, according to documents.
At an August 2021 meeting, top city officials, including city attorney Gina Grimes, human resources director Kelly Austin and chief of staff John Bennett met to discuss how to proceed with the new complaint against Gudes, who was then City Council chairperson. Among other things, they talked about how to deal with possible disclosure of the initial investigation.
“2020: No sex harrassment but not good for public official.” read one notation from the meeting, referring to the aide’s first complaint.
The group also discussed how to handle potential fallout of having previously vetted her complaints and taking no action beyond “coaching” her on her concerns, the notes show.
“We control disclosure of 2020. We don’t want her to say we did nothing,” read one of the notes from the meeting.
Castor and her spokesperson Adam Smith would later be briefed and instructed not to comment on the matter.
The city on Monday did not respond to requests to clarify who wrote the two sets of notes from the August 2021 meeting. In a response to questions, Smith said in an email that “because of potential litigation, we’re not able to say a great deal more about the complaint and investigation.” When emailed and texted the full list of questions Monday afternoon, Smith responded that he doubted answers would be forthcoming before city offices closed.
As recently as November, about three months after the city began its second investigation, the aide emailed Trenam attorneys hired to investigate her claims to request that the investigation be scrapped.
“I do not wish to continue with this investigation I have informed city of Tampa at HR that I am leaving and I do not want to do this anymore please stop,” according to a Nov. 3 email to the Trenam attorneys Frederick H.L. McClure and Alicia H. Koepke.
But the investigation continued.
Neither McClure nor Koepke returned calls for comment over the last several days. They briefly referenced the aide’s first complaint in their report without noting there had been a previous investigation.
In the findings last week, Thomas M. Gonzalez, the outside counsel who wrote part of the report, concluded that Gudes had created a hostile work environment for his former aide, who had worked for him since he was elected in 2019. The report found at least 18 allegations made by the aide were credible. Gonzalez also didn’t mention the original investigation in his memo.
In his statement Monday, the aide’s attorney, Loeb, accused Gudes of twisting the facts of the case.
“It is far too often that victims of discrimination fall prey to conspiracy theories and false narratives,” Loeb’s statement said. “Unfortunately, we bear witness to this happening today. Rather than admit to the nightmare he created and the irreversible damage he caused to his former legislative aide, Councilman Gudes has elected to wage war with alternative facts.”
Loeb’s statement added that he looked forward to the day when his client could tell her story to a jury and hold Gudes accountable.
Gudes declined comment Monday.
The 54-year-old retired Tampa police officer has said he won’t resign his council seat. Castor has said she would fire Gudes if she had the authority to do so, and two council members — Luis Viera and Joseph Citro — have called for his resignation.
Only Gov. Ron DeSantis has the power to remove him from the council. Last week, his office confirmed that the governor is reviewing the matter.