Complaints allege sex discrimination at Rock County Coroner’s office

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Ted Sullivan
Sunday, January 10, 2010
— Two complaints have been filed against Rock County Coroner Jenifer Keach, alleging sexual discrimination, a hostile work environment and inappropriate behavior, according to county documents obtained by the Gazette.

Keach has mistreated male employees, made inappropriate sexual comments, instilled fear in her staff and insulted Catholics, according to county documents.

The former employees filed complaints against Keach with the Rock County Human Resources Department, and other employees confirmed the allegations, according to county documents.

In response, Keach said disgruntled former employees are targeting her. She said their allegations are false and politically motivated in hopes of unseating her in November’s election. She offered explanations for each accusation.

Human resources investigated the sexual discrimination complaint and determined it was unfounded, and the other complaints have not resulted in any action against Keach, according to county documents.

“It’s been an unfortunate distraction from other things I prefer to be working on,” Keach said.

The Gazette filed a request under the Wisconsin Open Records Law to obtain documents regarding complaints against the Rock County Coroner’s Office.

Keach and her attorneys were allowed to include a written response to the allegations in the documents released to the Gazette.

Sexual discrimination

Sam Armstrong, a former deputy coroner, filed a complaint in May 2008, alleging discrimination against male employees.

During an investigation, John Becker, former human resources director, interviewed several employees in the coroner’s office.

Three employees in the coroner’s office confirmed Armstrong’ allegations of unfair treatment of men, according to documents.

Four male employees quit or were fired under Keach, according to documents. Reasons they left included a bad environment, personality conflicts and pay.

In Keach’s written response, she said accusations that she doesn’t like men are false. She has been married 12 years and has hired nine men and 10 women.

Keach’s former employees left because they were part-time employees who wanted full-time work, benefits or continuing education, Keach said.

In June 2008, Becker decided his department’s investigation didn’t reveal sexual discrimination. He decided the coroner’s office had a communication problem and needed to undergo a team building exercise.

No other employees have made sexual discrimination complaints against Keach.

Hostile work environment

Christine Hawley, former chief deputy coroner, resigned in October and filed a complaint against Keach.

She accused Keach of sexual harassment and religious discrimination and creating a hostile work environment, according to county documents. She said she feared retaliation from Keach.

“(Keach’s) professional posture is of superiority and condescending speech,” Hawley wrote in her complaint. “She rules with dominance, control, emotional displays, threats, lies and humiliation.”

After Hawley filed her complaint, a human resources manager interviewed Keach’s employees.

A deputy coroner told the manager that Keach is a “bully, which goes along with her tremendous mood swings,” according to county documents. The deputy coroner said Keach screams and shouts.

Another deputy coroner confirmed Hawley’s complaints.

In her written response, Keach said her office doesn’t tolerate harassment and employees are treated fairly. She said her office has an appropriate work environment.

Keach told the Gazette she has created new policies and guidelines since becoming coroner. She said she has instilled high standards.

Those changes could have upset employees if they received critical feedback, Keach said.

Positive reinforcement, constructive criticism and encouragement are part of her office’s culture, Keach said. Employees are encouraged to speak with her any time.

Several e-mails between Keach and her employees, which were released to the Gazette, support those claims.

“Why would the long-term employees stay if it was so terrible to do so?” Keach said.

Inappropriate comments

In Hawley’s complaint, she alleged Keach made offensive comments about sex and religion.

Keach demeaned Catholics in the office, according to the complaint. Her comments upset a Catholic employee.

Keach made sexually offensive comments to her staff, according to the complaint.

The coroner joked with a funeral director and slapped him on the behind, according to county documents.

In her written response, Keach had an explanation for the allegations.

She said the issue of sexual abuse by Catholic priests was being discussed in the office.

Keach said she voiced her disagreement with the church’s handling of the priests’ indiscretions.

She said she spoke to staff members like she would friends. She said she respects an individual’s right to choose a religion.

Keach said she also made a sexual joke while at a bridal shower with employees. The bridal shower was outside the office.

The coroner said she was under the impression she was among friends and participating in talk that often is included in bridal showers.

Keach admitted she touched a funeral home director’s behind. She said they were goofing around.

The funeral director told Keach he wasn’t upset.

“We were kidding around,” Keach said. “It wasn’t sexual.”

Overall, allegations of offensive comments are exaggerated, Keach said. She never meant to offend anyone.

Unprofessional investigation

Keach’s attorneys wrote the county, saying the human resources department’s investigations were unprofessional and insufficient.

Attorneys Margery Tibbetts and Scott McCarthy told the county that many of Hawley’s complaints were petty and years old. They said she should have reported her concerns immediately.

The complaints never included any issues about how Keach does her job, the attorneys said. In fact, many e-mails released to the Gazette include employees praising Keach for her work.

Keach has asked human resources for the results of its investigation. Her attorney also has sent the department a letter.

The county has not responded, Keach said.

Keach, who is up for re-election in November, said she expects Hawley to challenge her.

“I strongly believe that there is a political element here,” she said.

Last updated: 12:42 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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