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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The St. Joseph Catholic Orphan Society's trustees chose not to remove a board member in 2008 despite a consultant recommending his "immediate resignation" because of allegations that he sexually harassed staff members.
The trustee's removal "is the strongest possible statement the board can make that it disapproves of this behavior," the consultant wrote in her investigation.
The trustee, Earl Hartlage, is a central figure in the events leading to a bitter fight for control of the 164-year-old society whose Frankfort Avenue campus includes housing for abused and neglected children and a day care center, and is the site of an annual summer fundraising picnic that draws thousands.
After a new allegation against Hartlage surfaced in 2012, at least a dozen board members resigned in protest over Hartlage's continued presence as a trustee. The members who quit took control of the board in a disputed move earlier this year – prompting a lawsuit by eight people who claim they were "wrongfully removed" from the board.
The May 2008 consultant's report, obtained by WDRB.com, also includes a previous, undated accusation by a different employee that Hartlage had "solicited a sexual act from her."
Hartlage, a former Jefferson County commissioner, remained on the board in 2008 but was required to write a letter of apology and given a warning, according to interviews with trustees at the time.
Hartlage declined to comment on the allegations made in 2008, but he said in a brief interview Wednesday that Thurman Senn, who now chairs the board, is making him a "scapegoat."
In a previous interview, Hartlage denied the allegations of harassment, calling them "baseless" and "untrue." He said the 2012 allegation "never happened."
"It was a contrived thing," he said.
No criminal or legal charges were ever filed against him. WDRB.com has requested a complaint that the alleged victim of the 2012 allegation filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Louisville Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, who is represented on the board through a delegate, raised concerns about the board's failure to follow its attorney's advice and remove Hartlage in 2012, possibly exposing trustees to "personal liability," according to a letter included in the lawsuit.
Neither Kurtz nor Catholic Charities executive director Steve Bogus, Kurtz's delegate to the St. Joseph board, were aware of the 2008 investigation or its outcome, said Cecelia Price, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Louisville.
Ralph Risimini, then-president of the board of trustees, said in an interview that Hartlage remained on the board in 2008 partly because the Hartlage family "had been donors for decades and done a lot of good things for the home. At that point in time, that was my best judgment on the facts in front of me."
Risimini noted that Nancye Combs, a consultant for the board asked to investigate the complaint, suggested an alternative solution that would allow Hartlage to remain but forbade him from having any contact with the staff and clients – and that any further complaints would lead to removal.
But Pamela Cotton, the current executive director of the St. Joseph Children's Home, said Hartlage had "full access to staff and buildings" on the grounds at least since she started in 2010.
Asked if Hartlage was allowed to have contact with staff and clients, Risimini said, "I couldn't lock him out of the grounds. He was told what was expected. To the extent I was there when he was there, we tried to enforce it."
After a third woman complained about Hartlage, the St. Joseph board voted 15-10 in favor of removing him in August 2012 – but the vote failed because it didn't receive the super majority needed, according to court documents and interviews.
At least a dozen board members quit following that vote. Hartlage resigned in November 2012.
But on Feb. 6, 2013, a group led by Senn, who had resigned as trustee following the August meeting, took over as board members in a move disputed in a lawsuit filed in April in Jefferson Circuit Court. The lawsuit claims Senn's faction violated the society's bylaws when it assumed control of the board; Senn's group, however, claims the actions were legal and have the archbishop's backing.
Senn said a widening division among trustees over lifetime tenure and differences about fundraising came to a head when the board voted to allow Hartlage to keep his position.
William Walsh, attorney for the ousted board members, said in an interview this week that the remaining board members believed the concern over Hartlage's board membership was resolved when society president Steve Robbins convinced Hartlage to resign months before the disputed leadership change in February 2013.
"They thought they had taken care of the problem, and they didn't realize there was a coup brewing," Walsh said.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include former orphans and family members of those who once lived at the Frankfort Avenue orphanage, as well as long-time members whose board tenure dates to the 1960s. The defendants – largely the current board – include Senn, an attorney with Morgan & Pottinger, and James "Ja" Hillenbrand, president of Stock Yards Bank & Trust.
Walsh said his clients, besides claiming Senn's group didn't follow the organization's bylaws when society members installed a new slate of trustees, weren't given the opportunity to defend themselves at the Feb. 6 meeting.
"They were run out of there and told they were bad board members," he said.
The rift has led to Kurtz removing his delegate from the board. Price said resolving the lawsuit would "provide a likely opportunity" for the archdiocese to return to the board.
"Strongest possible statement"
On May 13, 2008, an employee who had worked for about six months at the St. Joseph Children's Home told her supervisor that Hartlage put his arm around her and touched her breast the day before, according to a report of the incident and subsequent investigation.
The board's membership at the time included both sides now involved in the legal fight for control of the society.
The report by Combs concluded that the employee said she was concerned about the ramifications of making a complaint because of her short tenure at the agency and didn't want to be seen as a "troublemaker."
Barry Walker, the then-executive director at St. Joseph, interviewed other staff members to determine if the alleged harassment was isolated or "a pattern and practice," and discovered a formal complaint made by another employee alleging Hartlage had solicited a sex act from her, according to the report.
Walker could not be reached for comment.
The woman named in the report as making the allegation that Hartlage sought sex from her told WDRB.com that the incident never happened. However, in an interview Combs defended the accuracy of her investigation.
Her report noted that the complaint "was resolved and a procedure for removing a board member was part of the outcome."
The alleged victim in the 2008 incident had asked to file a formal sexual harassment complaint, according to Combs' report.
In an interview, Combs said she recommended Hartlage resign "because that was the most appropriate mediation for the behavior, which appeared to be totally verified."
Risimini said he and the board's executive officers made the decision to keep Hartlage. He also said the woman who made the allegation about Hartlage soliciting a sexual act from her was no longer an employee of the agency in 2008 and he had very little documentation about the complaint.
Risimini declined to say whether Hartlage should have been removed in 2008, given the most recent allegation, saying it was "hindsight" that "doesn't serve any purpose."
Senn, the current board president who has been a trustee since 1992, said he wasn't involved in the 2008 investigation and didn't have specific memories about what happened.
On May 29, 2008, Hartlage apologized in a letter to the woman who made the harassment claim, saying he was sorry if he offended her or made her feel uncomfortable, adding there "was no inappropriate intent on my part."
In the current lawsuit, eight people who claim they are the rightful board members and the president of the St. Joseph Home Alumni Association say they were "wrongfully removed" from their leadership positions in February by a group that included the board members who had resigned in protest over the board's failure to remove Hartlage in August 2012.
Walsh, the attorney representing the ousted board members, said all of his clients believed Hartlage should leave the board but preferred that he resign voluntarily. In addition, Senn's conduct prior to the vote "may have put some board members off" and also had criticisms about Cotton's work as executive director.
Senn defended his actions.
"The person who delivered the message and the manner of its delivery doesn't detract from the accuracy of its content, which was: He should have been removed that night," Senn said. "He had been asked several times to resign and he wouldn't do it."
Wednesday, November 27 2013 3:11 PM EST2013-11-27 20:11:25 GMT
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