July 15, 2014 in City, Washington

Whitman County assessor faces sexual harassment lawsuit

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Whitman County’s longtime assessor is in federal court in Spokane this week, fighting a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by an employee.

Joe Reynolds, who has served as assessor in Whitman County since 1991, described his office as “loose” and that employees “talked nasty at times,” according to court filings. Yet Brenda Arthur, who started working for the office in 2000, says Reynolds crossed the line, touching her inappropriately and making several sexually explicit remarks during the past several years. The alleged harassment prompted Arthur to request time off and to seek medical help for physical and emotional distress.

Whitman County investigated Arthur’s harassment allegations in 2010. It was the third such complaint against Reynolds, according to court records.

Arthur began working from home, an arrangement her attorney, James McPhee, said made her feel “banished or punished” in opening statements Monday.

A letter approved by county commissioners and sent to Reynolds later in 2010 informed him he’d violated the office’s harassment policy, and human resources officials ordered a shuffling of desks to reduce contact between the assessor and Arthur when she returned to work two years later. The county also ordered office members to complete sexual harassment training.

At that training, the instructor used a hypothetical example in which the harassment victim, like Arthur, was named “Brenda,” according to court documents. Arthur is also suing the county, saying she endured “unwarranted humiliation” as a result of the presentation, has had to work odd hours since filing her complaint and the county did nothing to alter what she claims is a “hostile work environment.”

Whitman County and Reynolds argued that no witnesses were present during the alleged statements and inappropriate touching. Arthur also told investigators that she and her co-workers antagonized their superiors, including Reynolds, at the office because they believed work was not shared equally.

Reynolds’ attorney, Jerry Moberg, said employees in the office would testify the assessor was “like a grandfather to them.” Moberg said Arthur invented the allegations because she was upset about a promised raise that never materialized.

An attorney for the county, Michael McFarland, said the “loose” atmosphere in the office described by Reynolds was a consequence of longtime employees feeling comfortable to share adult conversations.

“In large part, the employees knew each other very well,” McFarland said in court Monday.

Whitman County voters last elected Reynolds to office in 2010, when he ran unopposed as the GOP candidate. Jim Hawkes, also a Republican and a current appraiser with the Assessor’s Office, has filed against Reynolds in the August primary.

A jury of four men and four women was selected to hear the civil lawsuit.

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