“Buckle up because this is just beginning.” – Milwaukee City Attorney Tearman Spencer
Milwaukee City Attorney Tearman Spencer trashed the employees who have accused him of harassment on talk radio Monday, accusing them of “crying wolf” and “conspiring” against him, implying several times that he was being targeted because he’s black and ousted a long-term incumbent.
“So often do we see now people blowing the whistle, saying that someone is raping them, robbing them, etc., and mainly minorities, and only to find out someone is crying wolf to get the police out to kill them,” said Spencer, a close ally of U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee). “I think we need to have something in place when we find that individuals blew that whistle falsely, they should be held accountable for that instead of tarnishing someone’s reputation and character.”
Spencer added, “Buckle up because this is just beginning.”
Radio host Sherwin Hughes asked, “So why can’t you just fire everybody?” Rather than pledging not to retaliate against the accusers, Spencer replied, “unfortunately, not. They have civil service protection.” He added that he was told he could pick his own deputy city attorneys, though, but claimed the city “hindered and stifled me” from doing so.
Harassment – and retaliation – are banned by the city’s anti-harassment policy, but the city investigators found that, as an elected official, Spencer isn’t bound by it.
Hughes raised the fact that Spencer is Milwaukee’s first black city attorney; Spencer responded, “I knew it was coming…It’s not the first time they accused an African-American elected official of impropriety with females or the like. That’s right out of the playbook. Attorneys in the office think they can cry wolf.”
Spencer, who claimed he’s the one working in a “hostile environment” despite the numerous claims against him, also lied on the radio that he was “exonerated” of “any wrongdoing.” In fact, the city’s report did not make a conclusion on the harassment allegations, saying that the city’s anti-harassment policy did not cover Spencer because he is an elected official. It also alleges of Spencer, “Some comments he admitted making, some were made to lighten the meeting/conversation with humor, and some comments or actions he did not recall.”
Some aldermen are trying to change it so elected officials fall under the city anti harassment policy, although we’ve previously reported they already have the power to remove Spencer for cause under state law, were they so inclined. The report did find, in a separate conclusion, that investigators did not find that “adverse employment actions were taken because of gender.”
The December 2020 report, which we received via an open records request from the city, says: “At least six (6) employees have individually complained about Mr. Spencer, and there are several others who have witnessed the behavior. 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.” The complaint said: “One female employee reported that she was physically touched on her body by Mr. Spencer.” Read the report and details on the accusations here.
The report says: “Several employees expressed a strong fear of retaliation, even though the employees have Civil Service job protection.” It adds, “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.”
Hughes has a show on 101.7 the Truth, a new radio station targeting black listeners. Hughes is a former Jim Doyle appointee who has worked for Tom Barrett, John Kerry, and Lena Taylor.
Spencer, who has been city attorney for a year after ousting long-time respected incumbent Grant Langley, stressed he was “deeply disappointed” that the city released the harassment investigative report against him to the public, while also claiming his office is transparent in the same interview.
Hughes declared himself “a little disturbed” by the news coverage, telling his listeners that the accusations were “alleged by a colleague in the office that there was some harassment going on.”
The Tearman Spencer Harassment Accusers
According to the report, there are multiple accusers, and at least one of the incidents was witnessed by two other lawyers. They didn’t file filed a formal complaint because they feared retaliation, but the investigation included interviews with 19 people.
Spencer cast the harassment claims as part of a widespread conspiracy against him by 16 people in his office and some aldermen who “didn’t want the change” and were “attached” and loyal to Langley, the incumbent he ousted a year ago.
What changes has he sought? The Milwaukee Police Association’s leader has expressed grave concern that Spencer is too quick to settle and admit wrongdoing in cases involving police officers, potentially wrecking their careers and costing taxpayers millions of dollars (including in a case where the man shot had a gun and the officer was acquitted). Police don’t believe that Spencer is acting as their attorney, which is partly his role.
Spencer promised to “always make judgment on the side of righteousness” and said he was “trying to be more inclusive.”
He claimed that “folks not wanting that change, they had to get together and figure out a way to disrupt that,” claiming he was the one who faced a “hostile environment.”
He said that subordinates were immediately “disrespectful, disgruntled” and that he knew “something was coming down five or six weeks in. Sixteen or so odd attorneys in the office were going to come together and do this with just what you see right now,” he said.
He said he took precautions not to meet with people one by one.
He said that a male attorney named in the report and “a group of others conspired and colluded” into “how they’re going to get me out of there. That’s the key.”
Hughes told Spencer, “You subjected yourself to an investigation which I didn’t even think was warranted in the first place” and questioned why personnel records were released, to which Spencer declared himself “deeply disappointed” by the release.
“Now that they set the tone, they opened the floodgates” on releasing personnel information, Spencer claimed.
He did say, “Everyone deserves not to be harassed. We should always investigate.”
He expressed concern that the city releasing the records could make them “liable,” calling the decision “selective.”
In fact, we spoke to a local employment attorney, Alan Olson, who told us the city is opening itself up to liability by NOT protecting the employees alleging harassment. The city is now on notice and has an obligation under federal and state law to protect its employees from harassment in the workplace, he said, strongly criticizing the city’s statement that Spencer didn’t fall under its anti-harassment policy.
That doesn’t remove the city’s duty to protect its workers, he said. The city did suggest a series of changes to practices in Spencer’s office, such as holding focus groups and more training, but Spencer wrote in an email that he didn’t think the city had the right to do so, as he is an elected official.
“An employer has a duty to maintain a workplace free of retaliation and discrimination and harassment,” Olson said. “It’s pretty absurd to suggest the city doesn’t have a responsibility to protect employees from the city attorney.”
Hughes also claimed that attorney-client privilege could have prevented the records from being released. “You’re looking at it totally right,” Spencer said, alleging, bizarrely, that the harassment allegations against him might “extend a little further into work product. We don’t have to disclose our work product.”
He said the city allowed the “veil to be pierced.”
Spencer singled out long-time aldermen Michael Murphy and Nick Kovac for criticism. He claimed the conspiracy against him was a “collective effort. Those at City Hall don’t want that change.”
In the interview, the city attorney said he wanted to reduce the costs of police misconduct, protect protesters’ first amendment rights, diversify his office, and make the office “more equitable when enforcing policies.”
Tearman Spencer Accusers
The report alleges in part,
“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.’”