The town of Essex paid for a private investigator to probe a complaint against an employee just days after the village kicked off its own personnel-related inquiry, according to legal invoices obtained by The Reporter.
The documents reveal a synchronized response to still-undisclosed allegations that surfaced last November. But unlike their village counterparts, town officials haven’t discussed their investigation publicly, nor have they explained how the town has racked up over $10,000 in legal fees on the matter.
Selectboard chairman Max Levy said he’s unaware of any recent legal issue costing that much. He declined multiple interview requests, writing in emails that he can’t comment on personnel matters, and said he hoped The Reporter’s request for legal invoices answered any questions.
The town shared invoices the next day with descriptions of the attorneys’ work redacted – albeit improperly – that allowed the Reporter to glean some details about the investigation.
On November 17, two days after the village contacted an outside attorney for its own investigation, the town’s law firm signed a contract with a New Hampshire-based private investigator Bill Burgess.
Earlier that day, town attorney Bill Ellis met with Levy and two village officials: attorney Dave Barra and president George Tyler.
Asked a few weeks ago, Levy brushed off that meeting as a regular rendezvous for consolidation updates, explaining the personnel matter would have been one of several conversation topics. But the email exchange in which officials discussed meeting times had the subject line “personnel matter,” correspondence obtained in a records request shows.
To date, the town and village have withheld the nature of the allegations and the name of the accused. The village trustees also refused to name which policy they consulted in handling the matter, and municipal manager Pat Scheidel denied a request for the investigative report. Trustees consider the matter closed.
An October invoice, however, shows a town attorney spoke with Scheidel about a “potential hostile work environment complaint” on October 24 — two weeks before town and village lawyers began working on the matter.
In an email Tuesday morning, Levy said Scheidel’s office takes “formal and informal complaints very seriously and handles them accordingly.” Scheidel didn’t return a request for comment.
After hiring the private detective, Ellis penned letters to the complainant and respondent and continued working on the matter almost daily over the next two weeks. The invoice shows he met with Levy and the accused, spoke to the complainant, had repeated contact with Burgess and communicated with potential witnesses.
Ellis also reviewed a report on a prior complaint, the invoice shows, though there’s no description with it. The Reporter requested all employee complaints related to a hostile work environment, harassment or discrimination over the last three years.
On Tuesday, deputy town manager Greg Duggan said fulfilling the request would cost The Reporter $1,024. He estimated it would take more than 30 hours for each department head to check their files.
It’s unclear when Burgess completed his investigation. The town reimbursed its law firm $3,150 for Burgess’ work, and although Ellis spoke with potential witnesses on November 30, there’s no record of further reimbursements in December.
Burgess declined a request for interview, saying he never confirms or denies information about clients he “may or may not have work [sic] for.” Ellis didn’t return a call for comment.
A week after the complaint was filed, a town attorney finished a draft personnel policy revision dating back to 2013. The attorney then consulted with staff to add additional language throughout November, including “harassment” and “other protected characteristics.”
Among changes in the final document: a general provision titled “investigations/violations” that covers all forms of harassment.
Levy previously said that language was inspired by the surge of sexual harassment and assault allegations nationwide. He said the revisions were in the works for a while and denied a suggestion that they were related to the personnel matter.
Read stories from The Reporter’s investigation to date here:
- Village official faced undisclosed allegations (11.29.2017)
- Investigation details under wraps (1.10.2018)
- Town hires private eye, pays $10k in legal fees (1.31.2018)
- Harassment claims sparked investigation (2.21.2018)
- Wrenner sues town over sexual harassment records (6.5.2018)
- Town responds to Wrenner’s lawsuit (7.3.2018)