York County government supervisors will participate in anti-sexual harassment training this week following the resignation of a former county official who co-workers allege made “inappropriate” and “suggestive” comments, according to county officials and public records obtained by The Herald.
County Manager Bill Shanahan said the supplementary training for supervisors will be in addition to the annual training for all employees and the standard new employee training.
The training, which starts Wednesday, includes policy and procedure reviews related to workplace harassment, including sexual harassment.
Shanahan told The Herald on Monday that the training is being held following the county’s investigation into sexual harassment claims made last month. The claims were against former Pennies for Progress Manager Phil Leazer, public records show.
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Leazer resigned, effective May 5, after nearly 26 years with the county. He was the project manager for one of the area’s most visible government programs: The voter-approved Pennies program is York County’s funding arm for building roads, relying on money from a 1 percent sales tax.
Leazer’s salary was $85,417, paid for by York County taxpayers.
Shanahan said the county gave Leazer the opportunity to resign April 21 after a two-week investigation into claims that he made inappropriate comments. Leazer told The Herald the complaints from co-workers were part of the reason for his leaving but that he wasn’t forced to resign.
He says he already was considering other job opportunities before the complaints were filed with York County’s human resources department.
Four employee statements accusing Leazer of inappropriate behavior or comments recently were provided to The Herald under a public-records request filed under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Two female York County employees alleged Leazer asked them to show him a part of their bodies while at work, according to the records.
South Carolina’s open-records law requires public agencies like York County to make employee personnel records available to the public. Names of the employees who made complaints were redacted.
Other York County employee statements chalk the situation up to “joking.” Some employee statements say many county employees, not just Leazer, participated in joking around the office. One woman described it as “men will be men.”
Officials said Monday that Leazer was placed on paid administrative leave for one week in April while York County’s human resources department and others investigated the claims. After Leazer resigned April 21, he did not return to work. Instead, he was on unpaid leave for three days and used vacation time until May 5, Leazer said.
As part of the HR investigation, Leazer gave county officials a written admission April 8 about one of the alleged comments, Shanahan said.
That statement reads, in part, that Leazer admitted to making “a joking remark that was inappropriate.” He also wrote: “It was never my intention to offend anyone.… I am sorry that the statement was made and was offensive to anyone in this organization. This kind of thing will not happen again.”
Leazer’s statement was in response to an April 7 complaint made to HR. The complaint was about a conversation April 6.
Specifically, the female co-worker claims Leazer pointed to her chest and said, “Hey, will you show me those,” according to an email the employee wrote to the HR director. The employee said she told Leazer, “Don’t talk to me like that at work.” Leazer then apologized, according to the records.
The Herald provided Leazer a copy of the complaint, and he said the description of the conversation is “generally accurate.”
Leazer said he was later made aware by county officials that another employee had made a similar complaint about alleged inappropriate comments. He also was told that HR and county managers would be looking into the complaints.
When those officials later raised concerns about the work environment, Leazer said, he offered to resign.
“I certainly didn’t want people to be uncomfortable,” he told The Herald.
Understanding that at least two co-workers felt uncomfortable, Leazer said, he decided to “take it on the chin” and submit his resignation last month.
Shanahan says the York County Council was told of Leazer’s resignation during an April 21 executive session – a portion of council meetings closed to the public. The county manager declined to say whether the reasons for Leazer’s resignation were discussed in the meeting.
County office had relaxed feel
Another complaint from a county employee last month claimed Leazer talked about sex at work “frequently.” The co-worker alleged that Leazer tried to inappropriately “grab” a co-worker, according to county records.
Leazer denies those events and said some may have misunderstood or misinterpreted his actions.
One complaint against Leazer, also reported last month, claimed he and other men gathered in his York County office to look at a female co-worker’s Facebook page. The co-worker alleges Leazer “called a bunch of us guys into his office one day to show us pictures and specifically a picture of (name redacted) in a bathing suit.”
The employee statement also alleges Leazer wanted to enlarge the image to focus on a specific area of the woman’s body. The co-worker wrote: “I immediately left his office because I was so disgusted at what he was up to.”
Leazer told The Herald, however, that the employee’s depiction of that interaction isn’t what happened. He said there was a photo on Facebook of a co-worker in a bathing suit that some male employees looked at while at work one day. He contests he did anything inappropriate or said anything inappropriate about the picture.
“There are two sides to every story,” Leazer said.
He added that he and his co-workers in York County’s engineering and Pennies offices often left their individual office doors open. It’s possible, he said, that someone can overhear or misinterpret parts of conversations happening in other offices.
The majority of the 20 to 30 people working in the office are men.
The working environment was somewhat relaxed, Leazer says.
Employees in the county’s engineering office work long hours with high stress levels, Leazer said. “We spend more time with our co-workers than we do with our families.”
It wasn’t uncommon, he said, for there to be banter, joking, minor pranks, laughing and possible “off comments” among co-workers – not just from him. Those breaks, he said, were needed to deal with the work pressure.
He viewed the environment as joking and lighthearted, Leazer said, and didn’t realize any co-workers were uncomfortable. The initial complaint last month, he said, was the first time a problem was mentioned to him.
Based on various county documents, it appears the initial complaint was made by a new female employee.
In his statement to county officials April 8, Leazer wrote that he was attempting to get to know his new co-worker and build a trusting relationship to help with the transition. “To let her know she could trust me and know I would support her… I began to open up and joke with her,” he wrote.
Documents provided by York County to The Herald indicate it’s possible several people interpreted some of Leazer’s comments as joking, not harassment.
For example, one male employee wrote that Leazer’s “little jesters towards me are not offensive to me.… Phil tries very hard to keep the morale up in our division, by joking, and I think others could misinterpret him.”
Many of his co-workers were also friends, Leazer said, adding that his colleagues often came to him for advice, help and encouragement – not signaling that they were uncomfortable.
“I wish that anyone who found my personality offensive – if anybody felt that way – that they would have come to me or my supervisor… (and said) ‘This is a problem.’”
Pennies a boon for York Co.
County records in Leazer’s personnel file indicate he had been disciplined for previous incidents at work, but none of those incidents involved inappropriate or suggestive comments toward female co-workers.
In May 2011, Leazer and another male employee were suspended for one day without pay for allegedly searching Internet pornography sites and “emailing pictures of naked women” using Leazer’s personal computer while at work, according to York County records.
Leazer said he and two other employees were disciplined over the incident; but the infraction didn’t involve “porn,” he said. The image, however, could be considered “indecent.”
Someone had a photo of a partially unclothed woman on Facebook, Leazer said, that he and others looked at at work. The incident was reported by an employee who was upset at Leazer for defending his own employee in another workplace incident, he said.
Other write-ups in his personnel file date back to 1998 and cover issues largely related to alleged communication issues about road project timelines. Those problems, Leazer said, were products of innocent miscommunication or misunderstanding.
Leazer says he’s not happy with the way things have turned out with his employment at York County. The Pennies program, he said, matters deeply to him.
The road construction effort under Pennies, he said, “is the single most significant accomplishment long term for York County.”
The program, Leazer said, “is a good program, with or without me.”
Anna Douglas • 803-329-4068