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Incoming Senate President, Legislature to Face Sexual Harassment Suits

Dec. 28, 2006 Two women, who in 2004 brought sexual harassment charges against Sen. Usie Richards to the V.I. Legislature, have now filed civil action suits in V.I. District Court against both Richards and the Legislature.
The actions, filed Friday in the St. Thomas/St. John district, contain 16 counts filed by former Legislature assistant legal counsel DeeDee Byas and another woman employed in the office of two 25th Legislature senators.
Richards is charged both in his official capacity and a personal capacity. The counts, filed against all parties, include: sexual harassment; retaliation; disparate treatment; equal pay act violation; civil rights violations; assault; battery; false imprisonment; infliction of emotional distress; breach of contract; and violation of public policy.
Richards is due to be installed as President of the 27th Legislature on Jan. 8.
Following complaints of sexual harassment brought against Richards, then Senate President David Jones convened a Senate Ethical Conduct Committee regarding sexual abuse by Richards in October 2004. The Senate at that time had no formal sexual harassment policy.
Byas and the other woman were two of several women that entered written complaints to and appeared before the committee.
Byas wrote a strong letter to the committee. After detailing her encounters with Richards, she said the Legislature was a "sexually hostile environment." She said that when her supervisor, Yvonne Tharpes, chief Legislative counsel, asked her what resolution of the issue would be satisfactory to her, "I told her that I wanted a comprehensive training on sexual harassment to be attended by all senators and employees of the Legislature."
A sexual harassment policy was adopted by the Legislature in February 2005, followed by a series of seminars in May of that year. It marked the first time that a sexual harassment policy was adopted for the V.I. Legislature.
When the committee issued its findings in December, the employee who brought the first complaint was disappointed with the committee's decision a letter of reprimand, which would remain in Richards' personnel file for four years. She called it a "slap on the wrist."
Richards also took issue with the committee's findings. He filed suit in Superior Court against the 25th Legislature for reprimanding him for sexual harassment. Named as defendants in Richards' suit against the Legislature were Sens. David Jones, Lorraine Berry, Douglas Canton, Louis Hill, Norman Jn Baptiste and Almando "Rocky" Liburd — all members of the Ethics Committee.
Richards won a victory of sorts when Superior Court Judge Edgar D. Ross ruled in October 2005 that the 25th Legislature "is without authority to impose punishment on the plaintiff that exceeds the life of the 25th Legislature or otherwise punish the plaintiff after it adjourns." (See "Usie Richards to Appeal Judge's Ruling on Senate Reprimand").
In other words, the letter couldn't remain in Richards's file beyond the 25th Legislature. Richards' attorney, Jeffrey Moorhead, said at the time that he would appeal Ross' decision. Moorhead didn't return calls for comment Thursday on the current case or whether he had filed an appeal in the former case. Richards on Thursday referred comment to Moorhead.
Subsequent to the committee's action, both women lost their jobs at the Legislature. (See "Two Women Who Reported Sexual Harassment are Without Jobs").
Byas was informed in writing by 26th Legislature President Lorraine Berry on Jan. 10, 2005 — the first day of the new Legislature — that her "contract had not been renewed." The other woman was also let go in January by the senators employing her, because of what one of the senators called "budget cuts."
Both women have excellent work records in the Legislature. The court documents state that both performed their duties in outstanding fashion, with no disciplinary actions on either of their records.
The court filings state that Richards came into Byas' office and kissed her on the lips, without permission. The other woman claims that Richards pushed his body against hers and attempted to kiss her. Both women cite numerous incidents of Richards' inappropriate behavior.
After receiving what both women claimed was an inadequate response from the Legislative committee investigating the complaints, the women decided to use other venues.
They both filed "first-degree unlawful sexual contact" charges against Richards with the V.I. Police Department on Jan. 17, 2005. Territorial Police Chief Novelle Francis said at the time that "sexual harassment is a crime." He said he thought the case would move "expeditiously," since all the parties involved were accessible.
Police Sgt. Thomas Hannah, department spokesman, said at that time that the investigation had been completed, except for one statement, and would be handed over to the Attorney General's office soon. The Source was unable Thursday to determine the outcome of that investigation.
The court records state that after the sexual harassment charges were filed, the workplace became "increasingly hostile to both women."
The lawsuits state that both women were unjustifiably terminated because of bringing the sexual harassment charges against Richards. Also, the documents state: "Defendant intentionally and/or negligently breached its duties under said [employment] contract by discriminating against Plaintiff(s) with respect to terms, conditions, privileges of employment, discharging the plaintiffs' without good cause.
"Plaintiff(s) have suffered and are entitled to recover damages for back pay and other actual and consequential damaged, including expenses and damages Plaintiff(s) incurred as a result of Defendant's breaches, or reliance on Defendant's promises."
Both women are asking the court for economic and non-economic damages, such as "loss of health and life insurance policies; pain and emotional suffering." The plaintiffs say Richards and the Legislature have violated their civil rights. They are also requesting the court to award them punitive damages; attorney fees, costs and disbursements, and reinstate them to their former employment.
No sum for the damages is mentioned specifically, but the documents state that "the court order defendants to make plaintiff whole, insofar as she was adversely affected by the wrongful discharge by awarding damages, including interest, and employment-related benefits lost, in an amount to be shown at trial, and other affirmative relief."
The women are demanding a jury trial. Both are represented by attorney Karin A. Bentz, who was off island Thursday and unavailable for comment.
As far as the Source could determine, a trial date has not yet been set.
Editor's note: DeeDee Byas has given the Source permission to use her name; the other woman has not.

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