MOUNT VERNON — A federal lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court on Wednesday alleges Brian Hess, director of the Knox County Emergency Management Agency, sexually harassed 9-1-1 dispatchers and created a hostile work environment in the 9-1-1 Emergency Call Center since early 2009.
In addition, it claims the county sheriff, commissioners and members of the 9-1-1 and EMA boards conspired together to deprive the plaintiffs a safe work environment after they failed to act on complaints of Hess’ behavior, failed to reprimand Hess after an investigation and failed to protect the plaintiffs from retribution on Hess’ part.
The plaintiffs in the case are Nicole S. Crabtree, Donna J. Durbin, Leslie R. Orr, Lisa D. Pay, Lisa L. Smith and Patricia L. Stewart.
Defendants include Hess; Knox County Sheriff David Barber; Knox County Commissioners Alan Stockberger and Teresa Bemiller; former Knox County Commissioner Bob Wise; 9-1-1 Board and EMA Board directors, Claude Gates, Robert Shipley, Roger Hite, Barry Bowden, Roger Reed, Richard Mavis, Alan Kitner, Shawn Christy, Jim Hughes, Larry Stimpert, Kelly Brenneman; representatives of Ledman & Teeror LLP, who investigated allegations against Hess in 2010, Brandi Dorgan and Jeffery Stankunas, and their supervisor Brant Isaac.
Sixteen specific allegations are documented in the lawsuit regarding Hess’ behavior toward the plaintiffs. Some of those allegations include lewd actions, inappropriate touching and comments to the plaintiffs about themselves or other Knox County employees.
“The conduct of Defendant Hess [based on these 16 allegations] was unwelcomed and offensive to Plaintiffs and were done to Plaintiffs on account of their sex, female,” the court document states. “Defendant Hess’ conduct was intentional and malicious and with wrongful disrespect of the rights of the plaintiffs.”
The suit further alleges Hess’ sexual comments, gestures and actions were a condition of the plaintiffs’ employment.
Plaintiffs claim they took their complaints of inappropriate “sexual harassing activities” to Barber in at least March 2010. They also approached Bemiller and Stockberger with their concerns around the same time. The suit alleges the three “failed and refused” to take prompt action. It continues to state that after a discriminatory harassment policy was implemented in January, Hess retaliated against the plaintiffs by threats and intimidation where they feared for their safety and their employment.
The lawsuit maintains Hess was not provided with sufficient, if any, sexual harassment training and by doing so, the defendants under the employment of Knox County, aided Hess in his inappropriate behavior.
“Any discipline of Hess was ineffective since he laughed and made fun of the commissioners and the EMA and 9-1-1 boards’ actions in January 2011 in finally implementing a discriminatory harassment policy,” the document states. “In addition to ineffective discipline, the commissioners and the EMA and 9-1-1 boards had Hess report to Sheriff Barber for ‘professional mentoring,’ the very person to whom plaintiffs brought their complaints of sexual harassment in at least March of 2010 and who took no action.”
Hess was placed on paid administrative leave on Dec. 13, 2010, while an investigation took place.
A resolution passed by the 9-1-1 and EMA boards on Jan. 6, indicates Hess has largely acknowledged his behavior, shown appropriate remorse and is willing to remedy his behavior. Hess was removed from paid administrative leave at the end of the business day and served a five-day suspension without pay from Jan. 10 through Jan. 14. After that, he assumed his regular duties.
Currently, Hess is director of Knox County EMA and the position of 9-1-1 coordinator was assumed by Richard Dzik.
Knox County Assistant Prosecutor Chip McConville said the county has yet to receive a copy of the lawsuit. However, he did tell the News, “This was not unexpected. The county will mount a vigorous defense.”