Employees Allege Commission Hiding ‘Damning’ Report; H.R., Board Members Complicit in Retaliation
By RON AIKEN
It happened in plain sight, with two witnesses.
James Brown III, embattled Richland County Recreation Commission executive director currently on paid leave from the agency, had been making comments of a sexual nature to an employee we’ll call Jane for the purposes of this story.
Because that was a common occurrence around the agency from Brown, Jane said, she never paid much attention to it.
“He’d always be telling me and other women to ‘put your hand in my pocket, stick your hand in my pocket,” Jane said. “He loves to say that.
“He’s just nasty. Another time I was in a break room with another female employee and a male employee and he started talking about “jacking his **** with his hands,” she said. “He said he gets off all the time with his hands.
“It’s just how he is, how he talks. He’s nasty all the time and doesn’t care, so I didn’t care.”
Jane said she was able to ignore it until it got physical one afternoon about a year ago.
“He put his hands down my shirt, tried to touch my breasts in front of two other people,” Jane said. “I’m in the office with two of our employees, two co-workers, and he does that.
“I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock. I backed away and put myself behind another person in the room. He tried to play it off, but he really didn’t care then. People just don’t understand who this person is. He’s a predator.”
NO FAITH IN H.R.
Of the more than 20 people Quorum has spoken to since first breaking this story here, all have indicated that aggrieved employees have no faith in Human Resource Division Head David Stringer due to repeated instances of Stringer allegedly taking no action on behalf of the employee and instead turning the information directly over to Brown, who then would seek to intimidate the employees through confrontation, threatening their employment or firing them.
“I didn’t file a complaint because there was no need because nothing would happen,” she said. “When H.R. reports to Brown directly, if I go to H.R. for something private, what David does is go straight to Mr. Brown. There’s just no trust there from anyone who Brown has targeted for that kind of thing. None.”
Another employee who did file a sexual harassment complaint with H.R. experienced what she called a “worst-case scenario.” The employee, who has since been suspended, explained what happened the day after she filed the complaint.
“The entire H.R. department, which was located right next to my office, was moved across the building away from me,” she said. “That was the next day. The next day!
“To this day I have never gotten a response from H.R. about my complaint. I never had a conversation with them about it. No questions were asked. Nothing. Not even a, ‘Hey, we completed our investigation and found no evidence.’ Not anything.
“There is no separation between H.R. and Mr. Brown because they report to him and no one else, and the result of anything said is that it goes straight to Brown.”
For former employee Julian Shabazz, who has a graduate degree in recreation and was with the recreation commission for four years, Brown’s retaliation through H.R. was a fact of life.
“He’s a dictator,” said Shabazz, whose history with Brown predated the commission. Before becoming his boss at the recreation commission, Brown was a mentor of Shabazz’s while Shabazz was a student at Benedict and Brown was a coach.
Until Brown turned on him, he considered him a close friend.
“Back in June 2014 I won the recreation commission’s employee of the quarter award for having started an internal awards program he didn’t like,” Shabazz said. “Brown was against recognizing employees and got offended at giving out awards, so he campaigned against the event.
“That October was when the letters people had written to the legislative delegation and county council went out, and I was threatened by Brown in a room with three other people because I had read a letter of complaint. That was October the sixth. David (Stringer) was in the room. I have an audio copy of that meeting, by the way, and you can hear (Stringer’s) voice on the tape.”
Shabazz made a formal complaint with HR after the harassment continued.
“After that meeting my county car was taken from me and my duties were getting messed around with and so I made an official report of the harassment to Stringer in November,” Shabazz said. “I was fired Jan. 22.
“And the two other employees also were retaliated against. It was Stephon Scott and Lefunzo Wright with me; Stephon Scott was the supervisor of all the community centers and was immediately demoted to a receptionist answering phones at the technology center.
“Wright was an assistant park manager at Crane Creek gymnasium and was demoted to the grounds crew. I was then fired in January. In June I’m the top employee. In January I’m fired. No disciplinary actions, no write-ups in my file, nothing. That’s what my H.R. complaint got me.”
According to multiple women Quorum has spoken to who told their stories to outside investigator Linda Edwards earlier this year, those who spoke to her about their sexual harassment situations or those who witnessed them were candid.
“This was the first time we thought we could tell our stories honestly and they’d be listened to,” Jane said. “I think people thought something might come of this. Everybody she spoke to, they told her the truth. It was very direct.
“That’s why they don’t they release it, because the information is so truthful.”
The suspended employee on leave said there’s no doubt that Edwards’ report is “damning.”
“Ask yourself why are they trying so hard to protect that document that was paid for with public money?,” she said. “It’s absolutely damning. And they know if people see it and the truth comes out, they’ll also be on the hook for doing nothing about it.”
Jane said the 5-2 vote in favor of Brown by the board in April after considering the report in executive session had the effect of destroying morale at the agency and confirming people’s worst fears about Brown’s hold over certain board members, namely board chair J. Marie Green and vice chair Barbara Mickens.
“All that (report) got us was that Mr. Brown found out from a board member what each of the allegations were,” Jane said. “So it was worse than before, because he knew he was untouchable and even though it didn’t have our names, because the incidents were described in detail and he was the one who did them, he knew exactly who said what and then came to us specifically about it afterward.”
Jane said one afternoon Brown came into her office and shut the door behind him, instantly triggering her guard to be up.
“He came to me out of the blue and said ‘In one of the guy’s statements it said that I had harassed you,’” she said. “Is that true?
“You don’t come into someone’s office and shut the door because you’re talking about something good. You do it so you can say things you don’t want anyone else to hear.
“I played dumb and said ‘You don’t see my name anywhere in that report, do you? I don’t know who would have said what, but it wasn’t me.’ Of course I knew what he was talking about. He then said, ‘Now don’t tell nobody that I had this conversation with you. Don’t tell nobody we talked.’ I can’t afford to lose my job; I don’t know anyone here who can.”
For another former employee released, he said, in retaliation for his participation in the investigations, Brown’s attitude after the 5-2 vote was one of vindictiveness.
“He told several people he knew what was in that report and that he was going to deal with them,” the source said. “I contacted Linda Edwards, and she told me the only way he could have known who was in them is if he was basically guilty of the actions, because if they weren’t true he’d have had no way of knowing who said what. He knew exactly who to go see.”
And, in at least two cases, threaten.
“I know he made an indirect threat to at least two people I know of,” the source said. “One woman, he told that if she partook in investigation she’d be in same situation as (former employees) Kenya (Bryant) and Taurus (Lewis) were in.
“The girl told me he came in and pointed at her daughter’s picture on her desk and said ‘You better think about her.’ He has a way of putting fear in people. He told her he’d put her out the door. When you’re a young single mother, what are you supposed to do?
“It puts a lot of people in uncomfortable situations who are just trying to protect their family.”
A male employee still at the agency said the recreation department has suffered tremendously and is continuing to as the situation drags on.
“Mr. Brown tells people he’ll be back by August and that his (suspended son who faces more than 10 felony drug-related charges) son will be back, too,” he said. “Why shouldn’t anyone believe him? I’m not kidding. Everyone here believes that will happen.
“And meanwhile I can tell you parents are telling me they’re pulling their kids out of programs and morale is at an all-time low.”
The worst cut of all, several current and former employees tell Quorum, wasn’t the lack of action from a commission board they don’t trust in the first place but rather came from the comments last week from Sen. John Scott, who alleged racial discrimination in calling a letter to the commission board with specific questions from Richland County legislative delegation members last week as being “…the second time the same group has made an inquiry as it relates to an African-American director” and that the group was attempting to “try Mr. Brown in the newspaper.”
For those who have been the subject of sexual harassment and have lost their jobs for trying to expose it, those words are more offensive than any racial slur could be.
“Does (Scott) not understand all the people (Brown has) harassed and retaliated against are black?,” the woman who filed a complaint with H.R. asked. “I’m a big supporter of black people, too, but you can’t play the race card in this because we’re all black. You can play the ‘friend’ card because Scott and Brown are friends, but you certainly can’t play the race card.
“Why aren’t any of the black representatives saying it’s not OK to treat black people this way? You’re going to jump on (Sen.) Joel Lourie (who authored last week’s letter) because he’s sticking up for us? Why can’t they take up for us?
“If a white executive director had said those things (at the meeting Quorum reported on here) to a predominantly black RCRC audience, he’d have been fired the next day. They’re offended Joel Lourie is trying to influence what they see as a black affair. Where are our representatives for us? This should never be about race.”
The male employee no longer with the agency said Brown’s personal friendships go beyond just Sen. Scott.
“He’s friends with him but also (Sen.) Darrell Jackson from their time at Benedict together and (Rep.) Leon Howard. It’s no secret that the legislators protecting him are his friends and the people they’ve appointed to the commission.
“There is no other reason to support a man in his position who has done so many things for so long, because this isn’t new information. These complaints have been going on for three, four years now and have been sent to the delegation, to county council, to the recreation commissioners, to everyone.
“It’s disgraceful on the part of those officials to support him and it is completely transparent. It makes you wonder what is in it for them to take such a crazy position.”
And crazy is the operative word in this entire affair, Jane said.
“Brown is crazy,” she said. “He is a lunatic who has no sympathy for anyone but himself and doesn’t see anything he’s done to anyone as being bad or wrong. He takes what he wants from people, he treats people at the agency as them owing him their livelihoods. If you don’t give him what he wants, he’ll cut you loose.”
For ex-employees who lost their jobs due to alleged retaliation like Shabazz, change can only come with a change in the board.
“Change can only come from the top, with the board that’s corrupt,” Shabazz said. “I think (commission member) Wilbert Lewis understands what’s going on, but I don’t think anyone else cares enough to do anything. (Former board members) Todd Latiff and Todd Weiss cared as well, but they’re not there anymore.
“You have to start with the board, which requires legitimate oversight by the delegation, but because they appoint these members who are the problem, they have no desire to do that because they’d have to admit they appointed bad people, and they’re friends with those people, too. They’re never going to say that, and because of that pride, how many people have to suffer?
“We’re past making a change for the better. We’re to the point where I think only legal action can remove the people who perpetuate this, because the legislators won’t.”
The board of commissioners meets tonight at the Parklane Road facility at 6 p.m.
Reach Aiken at (803) 200-8809. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @QuorumColumbia.