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Sandy has a second sexual-harassment investigation of a city official; staff chief is cleared

An internal investigation into Sandy’s chief administrative officer found that while his emails to a female employee were “inappropriate” and “unprofessional,” they did not constitute sexual harassment.

Matthew Huish was placed on administrative leave April 17 after the April 10 formal complaint to the human resources department. The city was verbally briefed on the concluded investigation April 20, and Huish returned to work April 23.

The investigation came on the heels of a sexual-harassment investigation of then-Police Chief Kevin Thacker, who had been with the department for 35 years. Thacker was put on leave April 2 and was fired April 24 for inappropriate touching that consisted of long and frequent hugs of female employees.

Huish’s job is analogous to chief of staff, Deputy Mayor Evelyn Everton said; he manages day-to-day operations for the city. Huish was Mayor Kurt Bradburn’s campaign manager and started with the city after Bradburn’s election in November.

The employee who complained about Huish said he sent her unprofessional emails and treated her in a way that made her uncomfortable. She also said that during a luncheon, Huish got too close to her and invaded her personal space.

The investigation found that Huish’s emails crossed a professional line but were not sexual. The investigation was conducted by Salt Lake City-based law firm Ray Quinney & Nebeker, which also investigated Thacker.

The law firm released 24 emails exchanged between the two employees from Jan. 30 to March 20. The investigation found the messages to be overly casual for a work setting.

Everton declined to say which department the complainant worked in, but that Huish works mostly with top city officials, not the bulk of employees, and that the complainant does not report to Huish. The deputy mayor said the complainant has to communicate with all employees at some point.

Huish would email things such as, “Of course! I ALWAYS have time for YOU! :-)” or “I’m not a man who is easily dissuaded, so expect to see me trying again soon! Haha” during a time when the two kept missing each other while trying to meet at work.

A few of his emails came after hours, including one at 9:45 p.m., which the complainant said made her uncomfortable.

Huish started one email by saying, “Hey Girl, (is that an HR violation?)” and signed off several with “keep smiling.” In one email, he said he felt he needed to treat the complainant to a lunch or expensive dinner for the expertise she had provided.

The complainant told investigators that she felt there was a “price” for Huish’s friendliness.

The report, like the one released after the Thacker investigation, is heavily redacted, removing the context of many of the situations that were investigated.

When asked about the extensive redaction in both reports, Everton said it was to hide the identity of the complainant. When asked how comments Huish allegedly made that were part of an investigation would identify someone, Everton said that city attorneys did the redacting and that they know the law.

The complainant also said Huish treated her differently than other employees. Workers interviewed in the investigation agreed, saying Huish was nice to the complainant but “abrasive” with others. One said he “generally ‘speaks down to people’ and is unfriendly.” The report said another employee characterized Huish as “condescending, unfriendly and difficult to work with.”

When asked whether anyone at the city has discussed this conduct with Huish, Everton said, “I don’t know, I don’t have any information on that.”

When interviewed, Huish told investigators he was shocked by the complaint and, had he known his conduct was making an employee uncomfortable, he would have changed his behavior. He said he was trying to use a friendly, informal management style to avoid coming off as cold. He said he never sought a romantic or social relationship with the complainant.

Investigators found him to be sincere and said his conduct was an “awkward attempt” to establish a friendly rapport. One situation, which was redacted, was found to be a “strange and inappropriate attempt at humor,” investigators wrote.

“I do not find that Mr. Huish harassed her in violation of the City policies or the law,” the report states.

When asked whether the city plans to re-educate personnel on sexual harassment and proper office communication policies, Everton said the city already has regular training for that.

Everton said the city treated Huish the same way it did Thacker. She said Huish was not given special treatment due to his relationship with the mayor or due to his position on the campaign.

“These are clearly not the same kind of actions that were in the previous case,” she said, referencing the Thacker investigation.

When asked why the city sent out a news release when the police chief was put on leave, but not when Huish was, Everton said it was because the media had found out anyway and had been calling. Otherwise, the city would not have announced the investigation, she said.

“That is not our policy, to publicly announce that we put anyone on administrative leave,” Everton said.

Councilwoman Kristin Coleman-Nicholl said she can’t remember internal investigations other than those of Thacker and Huish. The city opening up about the investigation into Thacker, she said, set a precedent for transparency for the new administration that wasn’t followed when Huish was placed on leave.

Coleman-Nicholl messaged two city employees to inquire why Huish wasn’t at work, she said, but she never got a response.

After the Thacker investigation, Councilman Steve Fairbanks said the city’s handling of it was troubling.

“The mayor campaigned on increased transparency,” Fairbanks said in an email last week. “I guess it’s a question of interpretation.”

The complainant has seen the report, Everton said. The deputy mayor was not sure whether anything else was done to remedy the complainant’s discomfort.

“I would imagine that HR has probably had conversations with her, but I cannot confirm or deny that because I haven’t been in those meetings,” Everton said.

Huish has seen the report.

“He knows the findings of the investigation,” Everton said, “and I think he understands that made her uncomfortable, so he has been directed to not engage in that behavior, as far as making her feel uncomfortable.”

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