The high-voltage controversy swirling around West Jordan mayoral candidate Kelly Atkinson's campaign picked up new intensity this week with a pair of press conferences, additional court filings, more conflicting statements and a new batch of dueling documents.
Charges and countercharges continue to fly like lightning bolts in an electrical storm as Atkinson has taken the offensive, battling to salvage both his personal reputation and his political life.The former state lawmaker, 2nd Congressional District Democratic candidate and union leader stepped up his assault this week on credibility of a former employee whose allegations of sexual harassment and other wrongdoing at the Utah School Employee Association headquarters led to his dismissal as executive director of the 7,00-member labor union.
Atkinson was fired earlier this month as administrator of the union, which represents classified (nonteaching) education employees statewide. Also fired was deputy director Richard McGuire, an associate and longtime friend.
Those terminations followed an in-house investigation by outside attorney Randall Edwards that determined the environment in the USEA office was sexually harassing and hostile to women.
The employee in the center of the storm, Pam Westbye, was fired by Atkinson last month but has since been reinstated to her job by the union board of directors.
She and her husband have filed suit against Atkinson and McGuire in Third District Court, and the two men have fired back this week with a countersuit.
Here's the updated political weather report:
- At a press conference Tuesday, Atkinson's former administrative assistant issued a sworn statement recanting earlier complaints about alleged discrimination at the USEA office and said she had been coerced into making false statements.
Shannon Carlson said she has changed her story "of her own free will" because she couldn't bear "to destroy three lives" and told reporters Atkinson has not promised her anything in return.
- Atkinson's attorney, Patricia O'Rorke, also presented a sworn statment from an unnamed teenager that minimized Atkinson's role in a Memorial Day incident in Mesquite, Nev.
Potentially the most politically damning charge against Atkinson, the incident involved two teenagers in a game of "Truth or Dare" with McGuire and Atkinson. Both Carlson and the teen described the incident, which involved the unidentified teen briefly modeling a swimsuit, as innocent and harmless.
- During a press conference Wednesday, Westbye said she stands by her story and told reporters "there was a very hostile environment there . . . as long as you played along with Kelly and played his games, it was all right."
Carlson's credibility also became an issue after Westbye's attorney, Robert Wilde, released a sworn statement Carlson gave to USEA special council Edwards who investigated the allegations. That statement twice quoted Carlson as saying the atmosphere at the UEA office was "sexually charged."
"Essentially, we've got sworn statements from the same person going both directions," said Wilde. "Arguably, it could be called perjury. But I doubt she (Carlson) will be an effective witness" for Atkinson.
- Wilde suggested Wednesday that the unidentified teen, who was 16 years old at the time of the Mesquite incident, may have been coerced into making a toned-down statement by "being told she would be subpoenaed and that her name would be in the newspaper.
"That's something we will look into as the case progresses further," the attorney said.
- Dale Gardiner, Atkinson's lead attorney, provided news media Wednesday with four affidavits from two former USEA staffers and two of Atkinson's former legislative interns saying they had never seen Atkinson engage in sexually harassing behavior or create a hostile work environment.
One secretary called Atkinson "the finest person for whom I have ever worked," while the other said the former executive director had held several staff meetings "in which he stressed that all employees should avoid making comments that could be offensive to others."
- A USEA secretary and a former worker who filed affidavits charging sexual harassment and improper conduct by Atkinson and McGuire in the union office told the Deseret News they stand by their sworn statements.
In one case, a former worker, P.J. Secrist, said the two men had made references to her breast size during a golf game and added that Atkinson had made a racially derogatory joke, with a well-known black racial slur, at that time. She also said Atkinson had described sex movies he had seen on cable TV, screamed at her, called her a "b----" and "told me I was going to be put in my place."
Wilde said he thinks the case will have to go to court to sort out all the conflicting claims. "We've got plenty of evidence to corroborate what we've said," he added.
Meanwhile, Edwards, the outside attorney who conducted an investigation into sexual harassment at the USEA headquarters for the association board, says he recommended to the board that Atkinson and McGuire be fired.
The board fired the pair on Oct. 2. Atkinson was an "at will" employee who had no contract with the board and wasn't covered by normal employee grievance procedures, says Ty Nea Sorenson, board chairman, and so has no process for appeals.
McGuire has appealed his firing and a board hearing on that firing will be held later, she says.
Edwards says there are no major, undisclosed incidents of misconduct in his private report that have not already been discussed in the media.
"I did recommend that he (Atkinson) be terminated," said Edwards. He made that recommendation after interviewing all eight of the union's headquarters staff.
Edwards said he recommended the firings based on "founded" information; that is, he had corroboration of the incidents by someone other than Pam Westbye. Some of the "founded" information came from Atkinson himself, said Ed-wards.
"Atkinson admitted that he said: `Down on your knees, woman' to a female employee and he admitted that he poured water down the front (shirt) of a female employee," said Edwards.
One thing that should be remembered in the wake of former union secretary Shannon Carlson's recanting of her claims of sexual harassment is that a hostile, sexual harassment atmosphere doesn't only lie with the individual who may have had something said or done to her, said Edwards.
Other employees, not directly involved in an incident, can still feel intimidated.
Edwards said that in fact happened to a third secretary at the union, Veronica Haas. Edwards said that Hass, who witnessed some of the incidents that Carlson has since characterized as "innocent horseplay" told him she was offended by the incidents and complained to Atkinson about them.
"(Haas) said that she confronted Atkinson about the incident where he told Shannon Carlson, `Down on your knees, woman,' and that he flat out denied" that the incident happened, said Edwards. "Yet both Atkinson and Carlson later admitted" that the incident did indeed happen, Edwards added.
The fact that nothing was done about the complaints was one reason Edwards says he believed there was an ongoing hostile atmosphere in the headquarters that couldn't be changed without Atkinson and McGuire leaving.
Edwards confirmed, as Atkinson has stated, that he did recommend to Atkinson that Wesbye be fired. "But I could only make a recommendation on information given to me (by Atkinson) at the time." Edwards said he now has come to question the accuracy of some information that was provided to him, specifically that Pam Westbye's husband, Jack, had threatened Atkinson's life in a telephone call.
Atkinson in his lawsuit against Westbye says that the life-threatening incident did happen, and filed a police report that same day. Pam and Jack Westbye, in their lawsuit against Atkinson, say it didn't.
During the press conference Wednesday, Jack Westbye said he has a tape of the conversation and has offered to provide it to West Jordan police to demonstrate no threats were made.
So far, he said, police have not taken him up on the offer. Meantime, West Jordan officials have refused to release a copy of Atkinson's report, saying the incident is under investigation.