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A recent investigation revealed egregious sexual harassment and racist language at one site of the Phoenix Water Services Department.EXPAND
A recent investigation revealed egregious sexual harassment and racist language at one site of the Phoenix Water Services Department.
Elizabeth Whitman

‘Hit with a Dildo’: Reports Detail Harassment, Racism at Phoenix Water Services

One city employee reported being hit in the face with a dildo. Another employee said a colleague grabbed his butt and his chest multiple times.

Other witnesses overheard that same butt-grabbing colleague frequently use the n-word and other epithets, according to two recent investigations into Phoenix's Water Services Department.

The reports from those investigations, which were conducted by the city’s Equal Opportunity Department this year, detail abuse, racism, and harassment by employees on the overnight shift in the water distribution division, which oversees the fixing of leaks and breaks in Phoenix's water system. Witnesses said some of that conduct had gone on for years, with managers doing nothing.

The city’s EOD is supposed to investigate claims of discrimination, including those filed by employees of the city. Phoenix New Times obtained and reviewed copies of two EOD reports detailing the problems. Names of witnesses and victims were redacted, but those of offenders left intact.

After its investigations, the EOD concluded that several employees had violated city regulations regarding harassment. The Water Services Department recently wrapped up an investigation that a spokesperson said revealed sexual harassment, racial slurs, inaction by supervisors, and employees viewing "adult content" at work.

The department said that five of the nine violators named in those investigations had been fired in May, one supervisor demoted, and one employee reprimanded in writing. Two others still work for the Water Services Department. The entire overnight shift has since been suspended, with repairs now handled through an on-call system.

"The actions of these employees are a disservice to, and in no way reflect the excellent work of the 1,400 ... other Water Services employees," said Stephanie Bracken, a spokesperson for the department, in response to questions directed to her or director Kathryn Sorensen.

Bracken said that in the past five years, the Water Services Department has worked to "develop a culture of professional conduct," including putting employees through formal training. The employees cited in the reports took that training within the last two years, she added.

Mario Ayala, president of AFSCME 2384, the union that represents the city's blue-collar workers, including the employees who were victimized, expressed concerns about how the city handled the problem.

He said that customers and employees alike had been hurt by the loss of the third shift, and that the Water Services Department was slow to respond to reports of harassment and abuse. Lower-level managers and employees had been fired for their inappropriate conduct, he added, but supervisors and higher-level managers who he said knew of the behavior "walked out of this without a single scratch."

'You had to protect yourself'

The Equal Opportunity Department launched one investigation on March 1, after a former trainee in the Water Services Department alleged that utility technicians Matthew Hart and Thomas Jones, foreman Carlos Lepur, and Robert Dorn, a supervisor, were sexually harassing him and had made racist comments toward him.

Lepur frequently slapped him and others on the butt, the former trainee said. Dorn, the supervisor, was aware of the misconduct, the report noted.

Investigators concluded that “it is more likely than not that Mr. Lepur" slapped the former trainee, even though no one specifically saw it happen, because “during the investigation, 12 witnesses reported that Mr. Lepur slapped them and/or other employees on the buttocks.”

When interviewed by investigators, Lepur denied slapping any butts, and Dorn denied witnessing any butt-slapping, the report said.

The former trainee, whom the report implies is African-American, also said that Jones once asked him, “Can you swim?” The former trainee believed that the question reflected the false stereotype that black people don’t swim. When investigators asked Jones about this question, he denied asking it.

The former trainee also said that the four men would hit each other in the genitals, and alleged that Lepur had hit him in the genitals, too.

One witness told EOD investigators that “you had to ‘protect yourself like you were in high school,’” the report said.

The four men denied to investigators that they had ever hit each other in the genitals, even though 11 witnesses told investigators that they had seen the men hit each other and other employees in the genitals.

For Dorn’s 40th birthday, “the crew,” including Hart and Jones, gave Dorn a Green Bay Packers tool box with gag gifts inside, handing it off in the parking lot before their shift started. It allegedly contained a dildo. Dorn later denied the story, though according to Jones, Dorn had told him about the dildo.

It is not clear whether this was the same dildo referred to in a separate complaint, in which Hart allegedly “hit [name redacted] in the face with a dildo.” That claim was backed up by someone else, who told investigators that Hart kept a dildo in his backpack and that Hart “slapped [name redacted] on the forehead with the dildo.”

In the end, investigators concluded that Lepur had sexually harassed employees, including the complainant, “by slapping them on the buttocks and hitting them in the genitals,” while Dorn, the supervisor, did nothing to stop it and instead joined in.

Investigators also decided, “It is more likely than not that Mr. Hart hit [name redacted] in the face with a dildo.” The investigation, they wrote, “revealed evidence that Mr. Hart brought a sex toy to work and hit other employees with it,” and that Dorn was “untruthful” when he denied receiving a dildo inside the Green Bay Packers tool box.

The report contained no timeline for these incidents, other than saying that the reporting of them was “timely.” It noted that others employees didn’t speak up because they saw the supervisor, Dorn, either taking part “in the discriminatory conduct” or witnessing it and doing nothing.

EOD investigators concluded that Dorn, Hart, Lepur, and Jones violated city regulations regarding sexual harassment. Bracken said that Dorn, Hart, Lepur, and Jones all resigned May 3 after the city handed them their termination notices.

The EOD had previously launched a separate probe on December 27, 2018, after several employees reported harassment by colleagues and supervisors at the same site.

Some of that harassment was nearly identical to the harassment detailed in the later report — the chest- and butt-grabbing and genital-slapping.

But other aspects of it were quite different. Like the case of the employee who used the n-word when he saw black people, who called people “fag,” and who used the word “gay” as a slur. Or the supervisor who referred to a human resources employee as a “black bitch.” Or the fact that some of that behavior had gone on for at least a decade, possibly two.

That investigation looked into alleged harassment by three men: utility supervisor Stephen Michels and senior utility technicians Adolfo Cabral, and Robert Johnson. It also investigated Errick Earl, a utility technician, for allegations of using foul language, and probed a fifth man, utility foreman Martin Jimenez, for allegedly failing to take action after learning about one incident.

It found that Cabral would grab or massage men’s chest areas, grab their butts, and randomly hit men in the genitals. One witness told investigators that he’d seen Cabral do precisely those things “over the past 10 years.” Another witness echoed that, saying “this kind of conduct has been going on for a long time.”

One of the victims told investigators, “I now know how a woman feels when she gets harassed at work.”

Cabral, after initially refusing to sit for an interview before agreeing to a second request, denied the allegations to investigators of chest-squeezing. (Investigators said they had “concerns” regarding his credibility.)

But he did tell them that “20 years ago, when he first started with the city, employees used to participate in this kind of conduct but he did not approve of it and would not participate in it now,” the report said.

Cabral also had a history of cursing and screaming, the report indicated. He yelled at one employee, who asked him a question, “Just do your job, you punk ass bitch.” Michels, the supervisor, overheard the comment and issued Cabral a letter of reprimand.

Another employee said that Cabral had called him “stupid” and “retarded” many times over the years, despite being told to stop. That employee gave up reporting Cabral because no one ever took action in response, he told investigators.

Other employees reported being called “piece of shit” by Cabral or hearing him call other employees “fucking worthless motherfuckers.” One told investigators that “over the years,” he repeatedly heard Cabral tell other employees, “You are gay” or “You’re a fag.” When Cabral saw a black person, he would say, “Fucking [n-word],” witnesses told investigators

Michels, meanwhile, referred to a human resources employee as a “black bitch,” saying he was frustrated with payroll processing. The report stated that an employee reported that language to the foreman, Jimenez, who took no action but told the employee to write a complaint if he wanted to report it. Jimenez told investigators that he "never received a report."

EOD investigators determined that Michels' “derogatory” language violated city regulations. They decided that Cabral’s use of the word “retard” also violated regulations, as did his calling employees the n-word, “fag,” and “gay.”

Cabral resigned immediately after receiving his termination notice, according to Bracken. Michels was demoted, Earl was reprimanded in writing, and Jimenez and Johnson do not appear to have been disciplined.

No accountability at top levels

Management acted swiftly once the abuse and harassment were reported, immediately putting all of the accused employees on leave, Bracken, the spokesperson, said.

Asked for an explanation about how some of the behavior lasted for years without consequence, Bracken said, "Management can only fix problems they are aware of." That was why, she added, the department "encourages employees to report instances of unprofessional conduct."

Ayala disputed the characterization of "swift" action. Months before the EOD investigations began, he had sat in on meetings with "tiers of water human resources and superintendents," he said.

"I witnessed the accusations being made of the inappropriate conduct on second and third shift," Ayala said. But the department didn't act until December, he said, when he walked a few employees on the verge of quitting to the EOD office to file complaints

He alleged that the department's upper-level management, including assistant directors and the director herself, had known about the abuse and harassment for at least a year. "Not a lot of accountability coming from the top down," Ayala added.

In response to that comment, Julie Watters, a spokesperson for the city of Phoenix, said that last summer, "the superintendent over the Water Distribution Division, a middle manager and Human Resources staff from the Water Services Department, heard rumblings of an issue with this overnight shift."

Those managers made multiple attempts to reach employees to address those issues, she said, but it wasn't until an employee came forward in December that employees were placed on leave and investigation launch.

"Director Sorensen categorically denies.. that there was no accountability from her or her office, or that offensive and unacceptable behavior was ignored by her or her office," Watters added. "Her actions and that of the city’s Human Resources Department were swift once the allegations were brought to light. The city does not tolerate harassment of any kind and directors and their management staff are required to take action if/when bad behavior is alleged."

Bracken said she was not aware of any other complaints or investigations into similar problems at the Water Services Department, but Ayala, the union president, said he was under the impression that similar investigations were ongoing and was still awaiting reports from a public records request.

Ayala also raised concerns that customers and employees have been hurt by the suspension of the third shift. Employees roused in the middle of the night can't respond as quickly to leaks or breaks in the water system, he said, while second-shift employees are working overtime, sometimes as long as 18 hours, to compensate for the lack of a third shift.

All of those issues, he added, were the very real consequences of some employees' inappropriate behavior, and of management's failure to address the problem promptly.

Ayala cited a recent case in which a resident's home flooded because no once could respond quickly enough. "If we'd had a third shift, we would've been able to get out there and stop that water," he said. "That's not happening."

The reports themselves offered eye-popping details but little real insight into the skyrocketing number of complaints in recent years, which indicate something is rotten in the Water Services Department.

In one set of data obtained by public records request, from 2011 to 2014 an average of 10 complaints a year were lodged against the department, including with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 2015, that rose to 20, and the next year, to 28. In 2017, water services employees filed 58 complaints against the Water Services Department; last year they filed 53.

Another set of data, which covered complaints only to the EOD from all city departments, showed a similar surge of complaints in recent years. Those figures showed that from 2011 to 2019, more employee complaints have been lodged with the EOD against Water Services than against any other department except for the police department, which has nearly three times the number of employees. The Phoenix Police Department has about 4,300 employees, according to the 2018-2019 budget, while Water Services has fewer than 1,500. 

In those nine years, 217 employee complaints were filed against the police department, and 169 against Water Services. The number of complaints filed doesn’t reflect the outcome of those complaints — some are investigated and substantiated, while others are dismissed.

This article has been updated to clarify differences in the numbers of complaints lodged against the Water Services Department, to include an additional response from the city of Phoenix, to clarify the allegations against Jimenez and Earl, and to correct inaccuracies in a previous version regarding Michels' violations of city regulations.

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