HARASSMENT WHISTLE-BLOWER ABUSED?

Woman alleges mistreatment by U.S. base

by

A former TV anchorwoman at the U.S. Navy’s Yokosuka Base has accused the base command of failing to address what she calls a hostile work environment that allows “nonstop harassment and reprisals.”

Sharon StephensonPino claims she has been repeatedly retaliated against, demoted and suspended, and was finally forced out of her job earlier this month because of a sexual harassment complaint she filed against her immediate supervisor.

The command at the base in Kanagawa Prefecture declined to discuss the matter on grounds that the case is pending before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

StephensonPino, who approached The Japan Times with her grievance, said she has repeatedly asked the base command, including the commanding officer, Capt. King Dietrich, to intervene, but has received no help.

“This should never, ever happen again,” said StephensonPino, who anchored “The Yokosuka Report,” a navy cable TV station the base’s public affairs office started up in 1998. “My goal is not to destroy anyone’s career, but to stop the abusive management.”

According to StephensonPino, the abuses started in December 2002, when she filed a sexual harassment complaint against her supervisor, a public affairs officer, with the base’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office, seeking a U.S. Department of Defense investigation into her discrimination allegations.

Soon thereafter, StephensonPino said the base launched an investigation into allegations that she was spreading false rumors about the supervisor, mainly concerning his sexual activities. She denied spreading any rumors.

StephensonPino said she was never allowed to make a statement in connection with the probe, and instead she was suspended for 10 days in March 2003. The following month, her appearances as anchor of “The Yokosuka Report” were reduced from five nights per week to Tuesdays and Thursdays, she said.

StephensonPino said that in May 2003, she was notified that her contract, which ran through last November, would be renewed only for three months until February, although contracts for most civilian employees at overseas U.S. bases are regularly extended for three years.

She claims she was given the option of either resigning, retiring or registering with the Department of Defense Priority Placement Program, a voluntary transfer system for employees who are displaced due to downsizing and other reasons. StephensonPino was removed from her position on Sept. 2 because she failed to enroll in the system, according to a document she received from the base.

“Although I have handled other cases involving more egregious sexual harassment and other retaliation cases, I have never encountered a more overt instance of retaliation than in this case,” said Adam Conti, an Atlanta-based lawyer for StephensonPino. A specialist in labor and employment law, he said he has been representing U.S. federal employees for over 20 years.

Conti argues that the Yokosuka base command manipulated the Pentagon transfer program, which in itself should be voluntary, and blocked her registration on purpose.

StephensonPino said she was initially told by a base human resources specialist that she did not need to apply for the transfer until the day her contract expired, and that when she tried to sign up for the system last December, her supervisor said it was too late.

“I am surprised that the U.S. Navy would countenance such conduct,” Conti said.

Asked to comment on StephensonPino’s removal, Hanako Tomizuka, a spokeswoman for the Yokosuka Base, replied in an e-mail that “her employment ended after the expiration of her contract.” The supervisor accused of sexual harassment did not respond to a request for comment.

According to friends and former colleagues, StephensonPino was a popular anchor and reporter because of her dedicated work of bringing on- and off-base local stories to the community of U.S. service members and their families.

StephensonPino said her supervisor gave her only good ratings before she filed the complaint against him. “She brings a distinct personality and style to the newscast that make it a ‘must watch’ event for the 23,000-plus members of the Yokosuka community,” stated her job evaluation sheet covering the period between July 2001 to June 2002, which StephensonPino said was compiled by the supervisor.

“It’s amazing to me the navy stands by (the supervisor),” said Thomas Amend, a history teacher at the base’s junior high school and a strong supporter of StephensonPino.

Others familiar with this case say StephensonPino is not the only victim.

Foremost is her former colleague, Brian Hammond, who claims he was removed for trying to support her. A technical director for “The Yokosuka Report,” Hammond said he testified “whenever investigations came” and wrote letters to the base command in efforts to help her.

When one of his affidavits was revealed last October, Hammond said, he was given a letter, signed by the base commander, notifying him that his contract would not be renewed and would end last January.

Like StephensonPino, Hammond said the supervisor had given him an exemplary record, and he had won many navy awards for his work, which included developing a system to upload TV programs on the Web site.

Hammond said he filed an EEO complaint in protest, but it was dismissed by the base’s EEO office after only the supervisor and another person he identified were interviewed.

“I am done with this place,” Hammond recalls thinking, adding “it would look better on my resume if I quit on my own” instead of being fired. He left his job Jan. 28, the date his contract expired.

“I find it interesting how an employee who had nothing but good remarks and who received numerous awards for television production can be removed and replaced by three employees. Yes, there are three employees doing my job now,” he said. On Hammond’s employment, Tomizuka, the spokeswoman, only said he had “voluntarily resigned.”

StephensonPino’s case is now before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Merit Systems Protection Board, an independent body of the U.S. government handling appeals concerning federal employment.

Separately, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel and the Pentagon Office of Complaint Investigations are probing her case.

“In order to receive any type of assistance, I had to take my case outside of Yokosuka,” StephensonPino said, noting that the Pentagon, based on its investigation, issued two confidential reports, in September 2003 and last month, backing up her complaint that she had been sexually harassed and subject to retaliatory treatment, but no one at the base acted to correct the situation. A summary of the first report is on the Web site of the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Capt. Dietrich said in an e-mail, “it would be inappropriate for me, or any other Department of the Navy official, to discuss this matter” while the case is still being addressed through the EEOC.

Dorothy Mackey, executive director of STAAAMP, an Ohio-based organization working to help people who claim to be victims of abuse or other mistreatment in the U.S. military, said abuses committed by the U.S. forces “has been far worst” at overseas bases, especially those in Japan and South Korea, compared with bases in the United States, because such misdeeds abroad get less publicity and no one is serious about stopping them.

Mackey claimed that instead of holding the abusers accountable, the U.S. military often puts “them on a plane and (sends) them to the next assignment.”