EVERETT — Ron Gipson is expected to return to his job as a Snohomish County juvenile corrections officer later this month after spending a year and a half on paid leave for a workplace investigation that concluded he sexually harassed female co-workers.
While Gipson might soon be back in uniform, the findings could hurt his public standing. He’s a 20-year member of the Everett City Council who’s up for re-election this year.
While on leave, Gipson received about $40,000 in overtime the county said was due to him because of labor rules. Because of confidentiality policies for county employees, it’s unclear what repercussions he faced.
Two women who settled a lawsuit against the county over allegations about Gipson’s behavior said the atmosphere at Denney Juvenile Justice Center improved while he was away.
Management left them with the impression that things had changed for good.
“I felt they led us to believe he was not returning,” said Karen Hastings, one of the juvenile corrections officers from the lawsuit. “When we were told he would return, I felt blindsided.”
Co-worker Dee Thayer said their case helps explain why many women are reluctant to report workplace mistreatment.
“When you come forward, they retaliate or they make it hard for you or they don’t listen,” Thayer said.
The women have worked with Gipson at Denney since the late 1990s.
Issues between Gipson and some co-workers existed for years but blew up after Hastings filed a complaint about his conduct while accompanying him to pick up a detainee in central Washington in December 2013.
A few months later, Hastings, Thayer and a third female co-worker sued the county. They eventually settled for $750,000.
Gipson remains steadfast that he did not harass or mistreat female co-workers.
“In the weeks to come the truth will be exposed regarding the false allegations directed towards me,” Gipson said in an email. “We are also challenging the bias investigation performed by Snohomish County administration and the Judicial branch and strongly object to the flawed investigation … ”
In a follow-up, Gipson made additional points:
“Clearly, if the County felt they had sufficient evidence to discharge me, I would have been discharged. Instead they kept me off work … and then suspended me for 30 days, which seems ironic given the nature of the initial charges.”
He called the workplace investigation conducted by an outside law firm inadequate and incomplete:
“The initial charges of sexual harassment during the … transport with Karen Hastings and myself allegedly occurred with a witness present, yet (the law firm’s report) failed to mention or question the witness. There are many other examples but I have listed just a few. The initial charges of sexual harassment made by Karen Hastings are false.”
Gipson said Hastings continued to work with him “in the same manner as she did before.”
A report about the sprawling workplace investigation, released early this year, concluded that many of the women’s claims were true, even as it was unable to substantiate some of the more serious allegations, such as inappropriate touching and physical intimidation.
The investigation by the Mill Creek law firm of Marcella Fleming Reed found that Gipson, who is black, made inappropriate sexual and racial remarks to co-workers.
After he was accused in early 2014, Gipson and two supervisors complained about being subjected to racism at work. The investigation found no evidence in support of the claims.
More than a dozen witnesses reported Gipson making sexual comments and innuendos at work. Several told investigators from the law firm about Gipson making suggestive remarks to women, such as, “I’ve got sweet dark chocolate for you,” then brushing it off as a comment about food.
One woman said she responded repeatedly to what she felt were inappropriate comments by telling Gipson, who is married, to “go tell your wife.”
Investigators from the law firm said Gipson must have known his behavior violated county policies. A supervisor had ordered him to stop, and he had been counseled in 2006 after being the subject of a sexual harassment investigation.
The report also concluded that Gipson dated at least one mother of a juvenile detainee, but Gipson told investigators that wasn’t true and said the same in an earlier interview with The Daily Herald.
Investigators questioned Gipson’s credibility during their interviews “because he made sweeping across-the-board denials of wrongdoing inconsistent with the weight of the evidence.”
Gipson has said he was singled out because of his stature in the community. Some co-workers said he used that position and his seniority at work to bully them.
Investigators from the law firm finished their report at the end of 2014. They talked to the entire juvenile corrections staff — 76 people — and conducted 171 interviews. One interview with Gipson lasted nearly seven hours.
The investigation has cost taxpayers more than a half-million dollars. Most of the expense was for contracting with the investigating law firm, but there were also clerical costs and extra staffing to cover shifts while employees sat for interviews.
Still to be factored in are expenses related to the grievance process for union employees and time spent by managers and county attorneys.
The workplace investigation grew entangled with new accusations as investigators talked to additional witnesses. By the time it was over, Gipson was just one of 22 Denney workers accused of various types of wrongdoing, from the criminal to the trivial. There were unconfirmed allegations of threats and physical intimidation as well as name-calling and complaints of co-workers failing to return greetings.
The 13 workers who said they had been wronged included black, white and Hispanic employees who complained of race-based discrimination by co-workers.
Earlier this year, Gipson said he wanted a fair hearing about the workplace allegations but would “take it like a man” if things didn’t go his way. Court administrators who oversee Denney said county polices prevent them from discussing the outcome, including whether Gipson was disciplined.
“He is able to return to work,” said Marilyn Finsen, the administrator for Snohomish County Superior Court.
Co-workers have said they’ve been told to expect Gipson back Wednesday.
While on leave, Gipson continued to be paid overtime he did not work. The county’s human resources department said labor law required them to pay Gipson for shifts he could have expected to work had he not been on leave.
He received more than $18,000 of overtime this year on top of a base salary of nearly $56,000. In 2014 he was paid nearly $24,000 in overtime, despite working for less than a month before being put on leave.
Personnel actions are still pending against one of Gipson’s supervisors, who was placed on leave with him on Jan. 21, 2014, and returned to work a few months later.
Finsen said she shares the workers’ concerns and is making changes. Above all, managers won’t tolerate retaliation. “I think this investigation shows we have work to do,” she said. “I am committed to ensuring that all employees in this court have a safe and professional work environment.”
A union contract, county guidelines and legal mandates place strict limits on what managers can do, Finsen said.
Thayer and Hastings said they don’t want their complaints about Gipson to reflect poorly on other male co-workers.
Their suit wasn’t the first at Denney to end in a major settlement over sexual harassment, though. The Seattle attorney representing them reached a half-million-dollar settlement in 2006 on behalf of three different women who worked at Denney. Gipson was not the focus of that suit.
Under terms of last year’s settlement, the county admitted to no wrongdoing. All parties are barred from discussing details. It was clear, however, that Hastings, Thayer and the third plaintiff wanted to continue doing their jobs steering teen offenders toward better lives.
“The community should know that their youth are in good hands,” Hastings said. “Is the staff in good hands? I feel that’s another story.”