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December 23, 2012

Demoted health director denies harassment

FRANKFORT — William Crawford was demoted from his job as director of the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department amid allegations he sexually harassed a subordinate.

But Crawford said this week the allegations are false. He wants a public retraction from local officials whom he said sullied his name. He also wants his job back.

"I was shamed publicly," Crawford said. "It was very painful, and I feel my reputation was ruined. Beyond family, there's nothing more important to me than my reputation."

Crawford, 61, was the health officer for the two counties' Health Department from January 1999 to June 2012. He's worked there for 36 years. A subordinate at the Health Department's Benzie office filed a sexual harassment complaint, alleging he paid too much attention to her and stared at female co-workers' breasts.

The Board of Health in Benzie and Leelanau counties said it found merit to the following allegations:

-- That Crawford persistently left his work area to have close contact with the female accuser almost every time she was in the coffee area.

-- That Crawford waited in his car until the female employee arrived for work, then walked near her while attempting to engage her in conversation.

-- Crawford would follow the woman in close proximity at the end of the day when she walked to her car.

"This excessive personal contact behavior has been observed by every employee who was interviewed regarding this matter," the Board of Health stated in minutes from a June meeting. "It was described "¦ (as) variously obsessive, very unusual, obvious, a pattern or noticeable."

The Board of Health demoted Crawford in June. The demotion halved his pay, from approximately $78,000 to $40,000 a year.

Crawford fought back, and vehemently denied the allegations publicly and in a closed hearing in front of the Board of Health. He agreed that he poured coffee for fellow employees, but he never waited for fellow employees in his car or stared at womens' breasts.

"It is not true," Crawford said, adding that for weeks he had no idea of his accuser's identity. He said he believes the board "rush(ed) to judgement out of a fear for potential litigation."

"I would defy anyone to go into this community that I've lived in for 37 years and find any female that would recognize this as my behavior," Crawford said.

Crawford's attorney, Nicholas Roumel, questions whether the Health Department followed its sexual harassment policy. He said the accuser took it upon herself to gather witness statements, then presented them to the Health Department's attorney. He said employees of the Leelanau office of the Health Department weren't questioned — only employees from the Benzie office.

Department policy requires the department to name two people to conduct the investigation under an attorney's supervision. Instead, the Health Department's attorneys conducted the investigation.

"To me the biggest unanswered questions are why was this allegation raised now when the conduct had allegedly been going on for a year and a half, and what was the motivation to raise it at that time?" Roumel said. "That question was not asked during the investigation."

Lynne Bernabei is an attorney in Washington, D.C. and an expert in sexual harassment cases. She said there are generally two types of sexual harassment cases. One involves the creation of a hostile work environment, and the second involves a "quid pro quo" scenario in which, for example, a supervisor demanded sex for a promotion.

She said a sexually hostile work environment exists if the offensive conduct is "severe or pervasive, and it has to be more than an isolated incident. It has to meet the test of being objectively offensive to women and subjectively hostile or offensive to the particular woman who is making the claim."

"You need something that at least most women would see as objectionable or hostile," Bernabei said.

Roumel secured a public hearing on Dec. 7 before the Board of Health in which Crawford, Roumel, and others presented statements in support of Crawford.

Crawford said the room was packed with people who backed him, an outpouring that left him humbled. Crawford's wife, Liz, bristles at the mere suggestion her husband is a sexual harasser.

"When people are told of this, universally, they laugh, and they say 'you've got to be kidding,' and then they realize how serious it is," Liz Crawford said. "If this is sexual harassment, every man should quake in his boots."

The new Health Department Director, Jenifer Murray, declined comment. The Board of Health's decision to demote Crawford was unanimous. Benzie County Commissioner Marcia Stobie and the Board of Health's citizen representative from Leelanau County, Mary Tonneberger, said they relied on the results of the investigation presented by the Board of Health's attorneys.

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