Dec. 15, 2004 Sen. Usie Richards received an official reprimand and admonition from the Senate Committee on Ethical Conduct Wednesday regarding sexual charges brought against him in September by two female Senate employees.
Richards was not penalized for his alleged behavior, but was admonished "to desist from violating the Legislature's zero tolerance sexual harassment policy."
The letter was made public during Wednesday's special Senate session, called by Lt. Gov. Vargrave Richards, in his capacity as acting governor, to act solely on a St. Croix horse racing contract.
But the senators didn't let that restriction stand in their way.
Sen. Ronald Russell started things off with a point of personal privilege — a request to make public the results of the committee's investigation. Referring to remarks made by Richards after the charges were made public in October, Russell said, "My name was implicated as part of a conspiracy, and the protection of this institution needs to be dealt with immediately."
Richards had denied allegations from a V.I. Legislature employee that he sexually harassed her. He stated the allegations were a political ploy to defame his character and influence voters in the upcoming November elections. (See "Senator Denies Sexual Harassment Charges").
Senate President David Jones said he had the letter from the committee which he would circulate to the senators later. He deferred comment to Sen. Lorraine Berry, committee chair, who confirmed the letter would be given to the senators "at the appropriate time."
Russell said, "We owe it to the public to publish the evaluation of this committee." He expressed the hope that it would be "before we adjourn today, sine die."
Then things began to heat up. Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. took umbrage with Russell's request. "It's a frivolous motion," he said. "It's continuing electioneering and it's wrong. If you entertain a motion, you guys better be careful. The only item to be considered in the special session is the contract."
White told Jones he was "without authority to add to this session." Jones countered that Russell hadn't made a motion. "It was a point of personal privilege," he said. "There was no effort to place it on the agenda."
Meantime, as the testifiers for the horse racing contract sat in the chambers, White and Russell engaged in a shouting match which was heading into high gear, when Jones called for a five-minute recess.
Russell later gave a copy of the committee's recommendation to the media.
The report, addressed to Richards, states that the investigation has disclosed that on numerous occasions, Richards "violated the Legislature's policy against sexual harassment in the workplace."
It goes on to describe instances of "frequent unwelcome sexual communications and unwelcome sexual remarks pertaining to the complainants' clothes and anatomy."
Though the original complaint was from a single Legislature employee, another employee subsequently brought similar charges.
The report states instances of Richard's "continued sexual advances" including kissing one of the employees "on the lips."
It continues, "This letter is to be construed as an official Letter of Reprimand and Admonishment rebuking your illegal, discriminatory conduct, which, as determined by the committee constituted sexual harassment. Such conduct has had the effect of unreasonably interfering with the complainants' work performance and creating an intimidating, hostile, offensive working environment. The letter serves to express the Legislature's contempt for conduct that has abridged the rights of employees to have a workplace free of sexual harassment…..and brought disgrace upon the good name of the Legislature."
The woman who issued the original complaint against Richards said Wednesday: "I am not satisfied with the committee's decision. It's a slap on the wrist, and I'm not happy with the punishment." She would not comment on whether she planned any further action.
Five letters written to the committee by other women four Legislature employees, and one woman who said she had occasion to visit the Legislature regularly on business were made available to the media after the session.
All five detailed instances of Richards' advances toward them repeatedly asking for dates, trying to kiss them, in one instance, doing just that. They all stated that Richards continued his behavior after being told to desist.
One of the women said Richards "continuously made sexually explicit comments, which created a very uncomfortable environment for me in the Legislature." She added, "Unfortunately, Sen. Richards is not alone in the sexual harassment of female staff. It is my hope that the Ethics Committee begin to correct the problem once and for all."
Another woman said Richards "would grab my hand and pull my body close to his. I pushed him away and warned him that he was a lawsuit waiting to happen. On several occasions, Legislative staff would be present and would just laugh it off as if to imply that such behavior was acceptable. I laughed it off, too, but I was extremely angry."
The woman said she began to wonder if she was at fault until the "young lady stepped forward to bring this to your attention."
One of the women said, "The Legislature is a sexually hostile environment where sexual harassment is tolerated and women are encouraged to 'ignore it' because it is endemic to the Virgin Islands." She said she wants comprehensive training on sexual harassment to be attended "by all senators and employees of the Legislature. This behavior that is so pervasive throughout the Legislature must stop."
Berry wrote a memo to all employees of the 25th Legislature on Oct. 13 in which she encouraged to report to her any cases of sexual harassment. "To ensure your right to a discrimination-free work environment, I am asking any employee who has experienced any act of sexual harassment or who knows of any acts of sexual harassment at the Legislature to contact me."
Berry said the information would be kept confidential, and "employees should not be worried about losing their jobs or other retaliatory actions."
Richards, when contacted Wednesday, wondered how the press had copies of the other women's letters when he said had not seen them, himself. He referred any further comment to his attorney, Jeffrey Moorhead.
Moorhead released to the press a series of letters he has written to Berry over the course of the committee's deliberations.
He wrote Berry Wednesday that the committee's letter "is misleading and fails to mentions the myriad procedural and constitutional violations involved in the process of reaching its recommendations."
He claimed all of the committee's interviews were "conducted in secret violation of federal and Virgin Islands law." He said, "A Nov. 23 hearing was conducted in the absence of Sen. Richards, or his counsel, and none of the testimony was taken under oath or subject to cross examination as required by law."
Moorhead said the committee "refused to provide Sen. Richards with names of all witnesses, copies of their statements, or information in possession of the committee regarding this matter."
He said it is "unfortunate" that the Senate president approved the committee's recommendation without first sending the recommendation to the full Senate for a vote, as required by law when penalties are recommended.
Berry explained last month that the Senate rules do not apply specifically to sexual harassment; therefore the committee's recommenda
tion could not come before the full Senate. (See "Berry: Ethics Committee has Acted").
Moorhead concluded, "Under the circumstances, Sen. Richards is left no choice but to seek protection of his rights in a court of law."
Berry said Wednesday evening, "We did offer Sen. Richards the opportunity to appear. He was invited, and we spoke with him and his attorney in a conference call." Berry reserved further comment.
Richards is a member of the 26th Senate majority, which Berry heads. She said last month after the new majority was announced that having Richards in the majority would pose no conflict of interest. "I have the ability, just like Jn Baptiste [also a committee member], to do what is right, and it has nothing to do with the organization of the Legislature."
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