EEOC Complaint filed against John Pepmeyer

 

by Norm Winick

the Zephyr, Galesburg, Illinois

 

In the most specific and damning allegations yet, three employees of the Knox County State’s Attorney’s office have lodged a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Chicago detailing dozens of incidents of sexual harassment and intimidation they claim were perpetrated by their boss.

Teresa M. Cummings, Jennifer S. Brown and Constance M. Griffith all submitted statements claiming that State’s Attorney John Pepmeyer made improper sexual advances and comments from virtually his first day on the job.

Additionally, one of the complainants allege that Pepmeyer, after being named but before being sworn in as State’s Attorney, tried to get her to reduce a felony charge to a lesser offense for one of his clients.

The charges in the EEOC complaint are much more specific than the vague union grievances which started this debacle.

The EEOC complaint is only the beginning to a much more lengthy and serious process. The employees’ attorney, Barry Barash, has requested a “right to sue” letter from the EEOC rather than a hearing. If the Department of Justice approves it, Barash said he intends to move immediately to file suit in federal court in Peoria. “I have not received the letter as of this writing; however, I expect to receive one in the near future. With the right to sue letter in hand, my clients will immediately proceed to file a civil action in federal court against Mr. Pepmeyer and the State of Illinois. To that latter point, there are a long series of cases which hold that the State’s Attorney is an Illinois constitutional officer and that a proper party defendant under Title VII is the state, not Knox County. I realize that’s counterintuitive, but that’s what the law has been for 150 years.”

The litany of charges against Pepmeyer as detailed in the complaint involve several areas of transgressions. All three claim that he made casual comments which, when repeated, became offensive and unbearable. Those included comments about the posterior of a female employee and then progressed to unwanted touching and more specific remarks. “Mr. Pepmeyer walked up behind me as I was sitting at my desk. He put his hand on my back and began to rub my back and whispered to me, ‘I’m ready to ride your ass when you are.’ I thought, ‘Holy Moses, what’s wrong with this guy?’”

Other alleged incidents include sexually suggestive gestures: “On or about Friday, March 2, 2007, as [we] were cleaning the office, [we] asked Mr. Pepmeyer what we should do with an extra table. He replied by saying that we should attach some straps to it. He then grabbed the table and made a sexual humping motion.”

Each of the incidents described in the complaint is in a different section with a descriptive title. The above incident is entitled, “humping.”

In “battery,” a complainant alleges that Pepmeyer went beyond comments and gestures. An employee was locating something on Pepmeyer’s computer for him. “I sat at the front of Mr. Pepmeyer’s desk and told him which icons to click on. At that moment, Mr. Pepmeyer grabbed the back of my pants and said, ‘I just want to see what’s down there.’ He pulled the back of my pants open, touched my lower back, right above my buttocks and peered down my pants at my buttocks.”

“I spun around to hit his hand; I stood up and left his office. At that point, I was angry, upset and frightened.”

One complainant alleges that Pepmeyer repeatedly talked to her about naked ‘Bloody Mary’s” or getting naked in general.

She had recently returned from maternity leave when Pepmeyer is accused of putting his arms around her, kissing her on the cheek and saying he loved her. She also says he asked her if her episiotomy was healed.

Other incidents with names like “Ride ‘em Cowboy’ and “Hair Pulling” seem to detail a pattern of improper advances and sexual comments that, if true, are clearly inappropriate in any setting.

Two of the employees claim that they had been experiencing similar disgusting behavior by Pepmeyer and hadn’t told each other about it. When they learned of a pattern, they realized they had to take action and discussed the matter with their union representatives.

Amidst the alleged misbehaving are reports of the complainants having emotional difficulties dealing with the situation at work, crying incessantly, and taking time off to try to deal with it.

Additionally, the complainants argue that their jobs are not clearly defined and that they are unsure about what they should or should not be doing. The office manager, Constance Griffith, in particular, says he has made her job intolerable by not clearly defining her role or being consistent in assigning her responsibilities.

Pepmeyer has brought in some other workers, some paid, some volunteer, who, the complainants allege, spend much of their time watching and documenting their activities. They claim this contributes to a pattern of intimidation and a hostile work environment.

The hostile work environment claim is also strengthened by the tension that is apparent in the office yet it is a claim that might be hardest to prove in court.

Barash responded “no comment” when asked to provide a law that dealt with hostile work environments. Other sources say that there is no federal statute that specifically prohibits creating or maintaining a “hostile work environment.” To be illegal, it must be caused by discriminatory harassment based on race, color, religion, national origin, disability, age or sex.

One of the most serious allegations in the EEOC complaint alleges that Pepmeyer, on his first day as State’s Attorney but before being sworn in on January 12, 2007…

“He came into the office and asked me to get some of the files on which he was still defense attorney of record as he was trying to get some of these taken care of before he took office later that same day.”

“He asked me to type an amended information in a sex case…. He wanted me to type it to reduce it to a battery (misdemeanor) which would be an offense which would not require registering as a sex offender.”

“I knew the felony attorney Mike Kraycinovich had just recently spoken to the victim and the victim’s family and they wanted the … matter to go to trial. They emphatically were opposed to a plea agreement.”

The secretary says she than contacted State’s Attorney Paul Mangieri who backed her up and said that “the family deserved justice and that was what they were going to get.” He would not sign an amended information and said he would tell John in no uncertain terms that this case would go to trial.

Barash says that the complaint stands on its own merit and that he will not try the case in the media. “In my opinion, Mr. Pepmeyer has (1) attempted to try his case in the media; and (2) to distract attention from his own conduct by pointing his finger at the Sheriff and former State’s Attorney. I think those issues stand on their own; Mr. Pepmeyer has plenty of grief on his own plate with which to deal.”

The statements in the complaint are made “under oath” and have been forwarded to the Attorney’s Registration and Discipline Commission, the FBI and the Illinois Attorney General’s office.

Barash says that a federal courtroom is the next likely venue for action in the matter. “I’m advised there will not be an EEOC hearing and that the files have already been sent to the Department of Justice in Washington.” They are the ones who issue “right to sue” letters and a lawsuit cannot proceed without it. With the State’s Attorney being a state employee, the Attorney General would likely have to appoint a special prosecutor to avoid a conflict in the matter if it gets to that point.

 

4/19/07