The Essex town attorney found the subject of a sexual harassment investigation free of wrongdoing despite claims of “abusive conduct towards women,” newly obtained documents show.
Attorney Bill Ellis ruled the alleged behavior detailed in a private investigator’s report did not rise to a level that violated policy, and therefore warranted no discipline from the town, he wrote in letters to the accused and complainant.
“Taking all facts you allege as true,” he wrote to the complainant, “they are insufficient to establish that [redacted] sexually harassed you.”
The Dec. 22 letters were part of a 40-page response to The Reporter’s request for all documents related to private eye Bill Burgess’ investigation. They further clarify the timeline surrounding the allegations and illustrate the town’s attempt to keep the investigation and its conclusion under wraps despite racking up over $11,000 in legal fees on the matter.
The allegations trace back to an email from the complainant to an undisclosed party in late October that claimed at least two women were subjected to the official’s “abusive” behavior. Names of the accused, the complainant and the email’s recipient are redacted.
The allegations eventually made their way to selectboard chairman Max Levy. He sought guidance from Ellis, who advised an investigation was legally necessary to “protect the interests of the town,” Levy wrote to the selectboard in November.
Levy informed members of Ellis’ decision a month later and asked them to maintain discretion given the investigation’s “personal nature.” Marked confidential, the letters show the selectboard’s passive role in the matter, not once mentioning it publicly or even alerting taxpayers to the existence of an investigation.
Emails show Ellis discussing the investigation with an unnamed town employee who was identified as a witness. When the employee questioned some specifics, like whether the accused was aware of the investigation, Ellis said he’s not at liberty to say.
“I ask that you please cooperate with the investigator and not make this more difficult than it has to be,” he wrote.
The employee complied but later wrote to Ellis, saying, “It was quick but still a mystery. I still have no idea why I was ‘chosen’ for this investigation. Will I ever know what it is all about?”
It’s unclear how many interviews Burgess conducted beyond the employee, complainant and accused. He declined to speak with The Reporter earlier this month, and the town refused to share his report.
Responding to an interview request Monday, Levy confirmed the extent of his involvement and said he’s now being as “transparent as I can be without exposing the town to legal claims.”
“Since this is a personnel matter, I am not able to give any further specifics as I balance transparency v. right to privacy of those involved,” Levy wrote.
So far, that balance has favored the latter: Levy’s email is the first time he has confirmed any details about the town’s investigation after repeatedly denying requests for interview on the matter over the last month.
And beyond the two letters to the selectboard, he’s offered little details to elected officials as well: Selectwoman Sue Cook said the board hasn’t discussed the topic in executive session, and she hasn’t seen details about the investigation or the report.
Levy said Ellis shared an assessment of the allegations and the “underlying” facts with him but never shared a copy of the report. Levy declined to say if he had asked for one, however.
Ellis and his colleagues are the only people who have seen Burgess’ full report. After being denied a copy, the complainant asked to see only a summary of their comments to ensure Burgess’ accuracy – a courtesy afforded by the village’s hired investigator, Christina Jensen.
Ellis denied that, too, emails show. He said the report is considered an attorney-work product and will be kept in his files as a confidential document, adding Burgess based his report off a recorded interview with the complainant.
“What you are requesting (fact checking yourself) would be inappropriate,” he wrote.
The complainant requested the summary three more times, emails show, arguing Ellis’ refusals showed his bias toward the accused.
The complainant said a “neutral party” could find three obvious violations of the sexual harassment policy detailed in the hours of testimony to the investigator. The complainant also described an emotional toll, saying the questionable process left them feeling re-victimized.
Ellis reiterated his stance and effectively stopped communication with the complainant.
“You are obviously dissatisfied with the result of the investigation, and as I have repeatedly pointed out to you, you are free to pursue your complaint further as you see fit,” he wrote. “The investigation by this firm on behalf of the town, however, is closed.”
In a phone call with The Reporter on Tuesday, Ellis said his main goal is to look out for Essex taxpayers.
“The complainant feels wronged? I can understand that,” he said. “But the complainant has rights, and they’ve been explained several times. My job is to protect the interest of the town of Essex. That’s what I’m hired to do. And that’s what I’ve done.”