Ignorance is bliss in harassment case

Posted: Thursday, January 04, 2001

The state has agreed to spend $216,000 to tidy up after the alleged sexual misconduct of one of its supervisors in the Department of Health and Social Services. There are all kinds of ways to deal with misconduct, including what happened in this case - sweeping as much of the matter as far under the rug as possible.

Assistant Attorney General Patrick Gullufsen may have had a lousy assignment in representing Claude "Rocky" Burt, a supervisor in the Division of Public Assistance. Burt was placed in his position of trust and responsibility despite having been convicted of sexually abusing a minor in California.

Gullufsen, having been dealt a bad hand, said the state of Alaska could have been subject to legal challenges if it had refused to hire someone because of their criminal record. If common sense ruled, any applicant's "priors" would raise a red flag and could serve as the basis for possible rejection. Instead, either Burt used his conviction as a bargaining chip or the state interpreted his conviction as a credential it couldn't refuse.

Either scenario raises the question: Is it easier to reject employees who aren't convicted criminals? "Sorry, Ms. Jones, your previous experience and record of community service are exemplary but the other applicant has a criminal record, leaving us no choice but to hire him."

The more recent issue has been the state's handling of the complaint filed in 1999 by Mr. Burt's latest alleged victim, a woman he supervised. Without going into the details of the harassing behavior that allegedly occurred, the woman made a case for having been the target of a crude bully.

The state's response was to fight the woman in court for almost two years.

Just because someone is convicted of sexually abusing a minor does not mean the person will sexually harass or abuse an adult, Assistant AG Gullufsen reasoned.

Sure, the state has an obligation to verify serious workplace complaints. Just as some people try to con businesses by staging slip-and-fall accidents, others may conjure up incidents of harassment and discrimination, leading to fat paydays.

But look what happened in this case. Burt denied the allegations then resigned before the investigation was complete. The state breathed the proverbial sigh or relief and said, "that's that." The investigation ended. The state never found out what happened. It quit trying.

"No conclusions were reached and a number of prominent witnesses had not yet been interviewed" when the investigation ended, said Gullufsen.

Thus, the state of Alaska is paying out $216,000 while perfunctorily disputing the characterization of Mr. Burt's behavior as sexual or harassment - if it happened at all.

We are left to conclude the state really does not want to know what happened.

After all, ignorance is bliss.

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