County harassment trainer let go after harassment complaints

The county determined that he made improper remarks as he led training sessions on proper behavior.

EVERETT — An employee who was supposed to ensure that Snohomish County provided a workplace free of harassment and offensive behavior was let go at the beginning of the year — for conduct other county employees considered harassing and offensive.

Staff complained about remarks that Equal Employment Opportunity officer Tony Robertson made while leading training sessions.

During one session, Robertson suggested that a female employee had a coughing fit because “he had that effect on women,” according to an investigator’s report. He offended staff at another presentation by using the word “retarded.”

His last day with the county was Jan. 2.

“We received complaints concerning our EEO officer, an at-will employee,” county spokesman Kent Patton said. “Therefore, we hired an outside attorney to investigate the allegations. The investigation made clear that he could no longer be effective in his role.”

Robertson could not be reached for comment.

He had been on the county job since September 2017 and had earlier worked in Texas. He had been earning more than $102,000 per year.

The county’s Equal Employment Opportunity policy is meant to provide fair treatment for all workers. It’s based on federal and state laws that protect people regardless of race, sexual orientation or religion, marital status, military service or disabilities, among other categories.

Even so, sexual harassment complaints have bedeviled the county for years, under different administrations.

In 2010, an attorney who ran the county’s EEO office resigned ahead of a report that catalogued problems keeping track of employee complaints. The report revealed a record-keeping system in disarray and nearly three dozen cases closed without clear explanations.

The complaints about Robertson arose in August. To sort out what happened, the county hired Patrick Pearce, an attorney from the Seattle office of Ogden Murphy Wallace.

“Prior to the August 2018 training sessions, no concerns or complaints had been raised regarding Mr. Robertson or the training he provided,” Pearce wrote in his report.

The Daily Herald obtained a copy of the findings under state public records laws. The county paid $13,000 for the investigation, Patton said.

The most serious concerns came up after a presentation to human services employees.

After a woman in the audience started coughing, Robertson paused near her “and made statements to the effect of asking if he was choking the attendee up because he was handsome and that he had that effect on women,” according to an internal investigation. “The female attendee advised Mr. Robertson that the coughing had nothing to do with him.”

Witnesses told the investigator Robertson persisted after the coughing employee tried to get him to stop.

“Witnesses were consistent that the comments by Mr. Robertson were perceived as inappropriate especially in the context of a harassment training, and that the comments were perceived to be sexually related and involved sexual innuendo,” according to the report.

Robertson told the investigator he didn’t have a clear recollection of that exchange, but acknowledged he may have said, “sometimes I have that effect.”

Pearce concluded that those remarks violated a county policy that defines harassment and other inappropriate behaviors.

During a different training session for county council staff, witnesses reported Robertson using the word “retarded” in what they perceived as an offhand matter. The term caught the audience by surprise. Many were taken aback.

“One of the attendees advised Mr. Robertson that she had a child with severe developmental disabilities and asked for an explanation for why he had used the term ‘retarded,’” the report says. “… Mr. Robertson then stated he had deliberately used the term to see how many of the group were paying attention to the training and how much information had been retained from the initial session provided several weeks previously. Mr. Robertson then explained the history of the term ‘handicapped.’”

The investigator concluded the remark did not violate county policy, but “came across very poorly and was unsuccessful.” Most witnesses told Pearce they did not believe Robertson acted with bad intent.

The county’s Equal Employment Opportunity position is now vacant.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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