A Spokane mining and construction magnate is on trial this week, facing allegations by a former worker who says he was fired for raising sexual harassment allegations on behalf of female workers.
The alleged harassment included 72-year-old Neal Degerstrom’s practice of taking pictures of unclad young women in the company basement, according to the former worker.
Jurors are expected to hear three days of testimony before deciding if 36-year-old Matthew Failing deserves monetary damages for losing his safety engineer’s job at Degerstrom’s company in 1994.
Failing’s lawyer, Greg Staeheli, said in opening remarks that the nude photos are one example of an insensitive company where women were gawked at, harassed and regarded as male playthings.
Because Failing was responsible for reporting the sexual abuse, he was fired, Staeheli argued.
“If you keep complaining about what he’s doing about women, you will be fired, just like the last guy,” Failing was told, Staeheli said.
The photos - some taken by Degerstrom 20 years ago - are in a locked room under the control of Superior Court Judge Paul Bastine.
Degerstrom has acknowledged paying women to model for photos that he would take in two rooms in the Valley company’s basement. Many of the women would pose on top of furniture or on animal-skin rugs.
He has said those sessions were legal and the pictures were taken in private. He often paid models $100 per photo session, assuring the women the photos would never be sold.
Among the women whose photos are in court possession is Failing’s ex-wife, Bridget Anderson, who still works at Degerstrom’s office.
Staeheli also said women often were asked to serve as barmaids for guests in Degerstrom’s basement.
Degerstrom’s attorney, Keller Allen, said the nude pictures have nothing to do with the lawsuit.
Failing failed to do his job adequately and deserved to be fired, he told jurors.
Allen said Failing’s job performance was poor after he and his wife became locked in a bitter divorce battle from 1991 to 1993. During that time, Failing “threatened other employees, became hostile and abusive,” Allen said.
The photos taken by Degerstrom don’t belong in court and “have no relation to (Failing’s) work performance,” Allen argued.
Bastine has said the photos could be used as evidence under one condition: if Degerstrom’s attorneys challenge the accuracy of what the other side says about them.
Expected to testify today will be Eugene Friend, the company supervisor who fired Failing.
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