Milwaukee City Attorney Tearman Spencer was investigated by the city for harassment after he “made potentially harassing comments and has [allegedly] exhibited behavior targeting female employees in the workplace,” an investigative report obtained by Wisconsin Right Now through an open records request says.
It adds: “One female employee reported that she was physically touched on her body by Mr. Spencer.”
Because he is an elected official, the city found he was not bound by its anti-harassment policy. The documents released also show that Spencer, who adamantly denied wrongdoing, pressured the city not to release the report under open records laws.
In a follow-up article, we discuss what options the common council and mayor have to address this.
Wisconsin Right Now filed an open records request with the city for the Tearman Spencer harassment investigation report on Feb. 15 after getting a tip from a source. We previously reported about Spencer, “Tearman Spencer: New City Attorney’s Thoughts Revealed in Secret Messages.”
In addition to finding that Spencer was not bound by the anti-harassment policy, the Tearman Spencer harassment investigation concluded about two other accusations: “The investigation did not conclude that adverse employment actions were taken because of gender. Most, if not all, of the employment decisions that were brought forward during the investigation were made at the recommendation of the Deputies for legitimate work-related reasons.”
It further concluded: “The concerns raised around COVID-19 safety protocols were due to a lack of clear communication and there is not enough information to substantiate that the protocols are not being followed.”
We reached out to the mayor’s office and Common Council President Cavalier Johnson for comment. Johnson responded, “In my opinion, elected officials should be held to the same, if not a higher, standard for conduct in our official offices – especially as it relates to issues around harassment given the events of the last few years. We will be undergoing an internal review of options available to make sure that all City employees, including the elected ones myself included, are subject to an anti-harassment policy.”
Tearman Spencer Harassment Investigated
On April 7, we received the report from the city. You can read it in full here: City of Milwaukee Investigation Summary Report Final and Evidence – Redacted. It says:
“At least six (6) employees have individually complained about Mr. Spencer, and there are several others who have witnessed the behavior,” the report says. “Among such concerns are several incidents of potentially offensive/discriminatory verbal comments and behavior, as well as one incident of unwelcome physical contact with a female colleague.”
In total, 19 individuals were interviewed between October 6 and November 11, 2020, the report says. “Several employees expressed a strong fear of retaliation, even though the employees have Civil Service job protection,” it says. The employees’ identities were not released to Spencer, the investigation says. The report says Spencer was also accused of unsafe practice regarding COVID-19 in the workplace.
The Tearman Spencer harassment investigation concluded, “The person with the most power in this situation, City Attorney Mr. Tearman Spencer, needs to understand the role he plays, and the culpability belonging to him in key City Attorney office changes as well as in the potential costs to the city.”
But it found: “As an elected official, the City Attorney is not bound by the Anti-Harassment Policy. Comments based on gender, gender identity, physical appearance and body parts, and touching are not appropriate workplace behavior.”
Spencer defeated long-time City Attorney Grant Langley in spring 2020. As city attorney, Spencer has settled at least one case involving sexual harassment allegations against a city employee.
The investigation was conducted by Katherine M. Holiday, human resources compliance officer with the Department of Employee Relations and by Deborah Schultz, surveys and custom research director with the MRA – The Management Association.
The investigation started on Oct. 5, 2020. The investigation summary is dated Dec. 28, 2020.
What was Spencer’s response?
“The Respondent’s response to the allegations was generally that some employees were not happy that he had won the election and were resistant to change. Because of this resistance to change, the employees were looking for reasons to complain about him. In terms of the types of comments he made, he characterized these complaints as making too much out of minor issues. Some comments he admitted making, some were made to lighten the meeting/conversation with humor, and some comments or actions he did not recall. In addition, he called out the need to get to know 66 employees while the department is transitioning to new leadership and while much of the City Attorney department’s work is being accomplished while employees are working remotely vs. onsite. The Respondent did not acknowledge that his words or actions may have played a part in the employees’ perception that he made harassing comments and exhibited behavior targeting female employees in the workplace.”
The Tearman Spencer harassment report contains emails from employees making the allegations. Here are some of the comments they made:
“I found Spencer’s comments to be incredibly inappropriate…”
Spencer responded by saying, “Women like to be fashionably late.”
“I am concerned as an attorney for the City that Spencer’s behavior appears to be establishing a troubling pattern (of) conduct that may result in legal liability and financial exposure for the City and its taxpayers.”
“Mr. Spencer stated he is aware of ‘people trying to undermine [him] in the City.’”
The emails also allege that Spencer made comments about Griselda Aldrete, the former executive director of the Fire and Police Commission.
“He noted that Griselda often hears something the way she wants to hear it, doesn’t research it or look into any further, then runs with it causing problems.”
“Regarding Griselda Aldrete, he mentioned that she is like a lone wolf and she needs to subdued aso as to prevent her from making decisions and taking actions that create additional difficulty and liability for the city.”
“He asked if I was a sci-fi fan. I responded that I used to be but not as much anymore. He asked if I’ve ever seen ‘Men in Black,’ I said I had. He then referenced a scene from the movie where one of the characters comments that there is always someone or something that’s going to blow up the universe, and that this is how he views all the ‘emergencies’ coming across his desk.”
“I can say that I have never before endured such an uncomfortable and disappointing conversation with a supervisor in my professional life.”
During an introductory meeting with Assistant City Attorneys, he “repeatedly asked the male attorneys how tall they are.”
He allegedly said a woman had “very nice calves” and asked whether she worked out. Two people witnessed this.
According to the Tearman Spencer sexual harassment report, during 2020, the Department of Employee Relations received verbal allegations by employees of the City Attorney’s Office. The Director of Employee Relations, Maria Monteagudo, “made the decision to investigate the claims even though no employee filed a formal complaint due to wanting to remain anonymous. Ms. Monteagudo retired on September 30, 2020,” it says.
“The City of Milwaukee Department of Employee Relations engaged MRA – The Management Association, an outside organization, to assist in the investigation,” it says.
The investigative report details these allegations against Spencer, in addition to the accusation of unwanted physical contact:
“During a virtual meeting on or around April 28, 2020, Mr. Spencer asked men about their heights and told females that question was just for the men; in that same meeting, Mr. Spencer referred to female employees as dear, sweetheart and/or sweetie. Mr. Spencer also remarked about one female staying home to be with family and noted that being with children is the most important thing she could do.”
“During a virtual meeting on or around August 13, 2020, Mr. Spencer asked males about beards and females about their families.”
“In various meetings or conversations, Mr. Spencer called women over-emotional, smiley, having a nice smile, telling women they looked nice and commented on women’s looks or bodies/body parts.”
“In a virtual meeting including City Attorney employees and others outside of the City Attorney’s office, Mr. Spencer stated that ‘women like to be fashionably late.’”
“Mr. Spencer gave work to men instead of women without an apparent or legitimate reason to do so. Mr. Spencer assigned men to oversee women on projects/cases/assignment or to review women’s work when the men had considerably less experience in that area than the female.”
“In meetings, Mr. Spencer did not give females’ opinions the same consideration as men’s opinions.”
“Mr. Spencer hired three new deputies, all of whom are male.”
“Mr. Spencer asked multiple employees to remove their face coverings in the workplace.”
“In a virtual meeting, Mr. Spencer made comments to the effect that employees had to be in the office (as opposed to working remotely) for Mr. Spencer to find value in their work or for employees to be considered for promotions.”
The investigators offered the following recommendations:
“Effective communication, e.g. timely and thorough communication of internal changes along with documentation as necessary; clarity in communication aimed to avoid misinterpretation around updated procedures, or something such as, e.g. ‘mask off vs. mask down; perceived necessity to be in the office vs. processes to build knowledge of team members and their responsibilities, and mindful communication when communicating with employees, e.g. assimilation to different styles, needs, approaches to work, etc.
Change management, e.g. clear communication and implementation of your reporting structure; establish and clearly communicate expectations regarding performance management.
Implement training, training refreshers, focus groups or similar for all staff and leadership on unconscious bias, creating a respectful workplace, harassment, offensive behavior, retaliation, etc.
Establish risk management emphasis and processes around, e.g. effective attraction and retention efforts for employees and prospective employees; creation of an internal City Attorney office resource/process for handling concerns of team members confidentially and for working with HR and DER to address as necessary
Engage in one-on-one focused executive coaching to enhance personal effectiveness and to understand the seriousness of perceptions of offensive behavior.
Suggest monthly, or more frequent, progress checks with progress toward implementation and improvement by end of June 2021 or sooner.”
Spencer tried to keep the documents from being released. “As you have been made aware, even though I am not legally bound by the City of Milwaukee’s Anti-Harassment Policy, I fully cooperated in Attorney Holiday’s investigation and voluntarily submitted to interviews relating to the meritless allegations lodged against me,” he wrote.
“Further, the investigator expressly concluded that no employment actions were taken on account of gender and most, if not all, employment decisions were made for legitimate work-related reasons. At no point did the investigator conclude that I made inappropriate remarks of a sexual nature or that I had touched anyone in an inappropriate manner. In short, I was not found to have violated any employment law or policy of the City of Milwaukee. Nevertheless, for the reasons set forth below, I write,