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County: Bell did not sexually harass employee

By Linda Looney-Bond

lbond@news-daily.com

A Clayton County investigation into allegations that Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell sexually harassed a police department employee has found that Bell's actions did not constitute sexual harassment.

The allegations stemmed from a complaint by a 911 supervisor that Bell kissed and touched her inappropriately during an employee appreciation day celebration, held July 31, at the Clayton County International Park.

Clayton County Chief Staff Attorney Michael Smith announced the decision in a Sept. 2 memo to Chief of Staff Alex Cohilas.

Witness statements and other information pertaining to the investigation were forwarded to an outside attorney to review independently, to determine the legal implications of the complaint, Smith said in the memo.

The county based it's decision on the legal review provided by Atlanta attorney, Kimberly Martin, according to documents provided by the county's legal department.

Smith said in the memo to Cohilas: "...the facts are pretty consistent that ... Chairman Bell came upon one of the picnic tables where the Complaining Employee and at least three other individuals were seated. As the Chairman reached the table, he, with one arm around the shoulder of the Complainant, hugged her, reached across the table, while continuing to hug with the one arm, and shook hands with the two ladies seated across from the Complainant."

"At some point the Chairman also leaned down and 'kissed' the top of the Complainant's head before moving on," Smith went on to say in the memo.

Smith said the county has followed recommendations made by the independent counsel regarding the matter. The recommendations included reviewing the employee's complaint with Bell, and ensuring his understanding of it. Attorney Kimberly Martin also advised that county officials "confirm that Chairman Bell has attended the county's sexual harassment training at some point during his employment with the county," according to documents provided by the county.

Smith stated in the memo to Cohilas that Bell has been trained on the county's employee policies, and has received training from the Association County Commissioners of Georgia regarding personnel, human resources, EEO and liability issues.

Smith could not be reached for comment regarding whether Bell received the training before or after the employee made the complaint. Board of Commissioners Public Relations Officer Jamie Carlington also could not be reached for comment.

"I'm very disappointed that, once again, Clayton County will not protect its employees, and this woman is a 21-year employee of Clayton County, Georgia," said Attorney Keith Martin, who is representing the employee who lodged the complaint against Bell.

"We were assured by the human resources director that the Chairman would never do this again," said Martin. "My question is, if there is no policy violation, why would anybody refrain from doing it, if it's appropriate conduct?" he said.

"In a meeting, the human resources director and the staff attorney assured us that there was no policy violation, and my response was: Do you have a policy that allows the crime of simple battery?" Martin said.

Martin said simple battery is defined as having "actual physical contact of an insulting and provoking nature with the person of another."

Martin said he could not yet say whether the complainant plans to take further action in the matter. "She's exploring her possible actions against the county and, or, against the Chairman individually," Martin said.

Bell could not be reached for comment, Wednesday, regarding the county's decision on the sexual harassment allegation.

After the complaint was first made, Bell released a statement on Aug. 4, saying: "I am deeply saddened and disheartened by the complaint. As Chairman of the Clayton County Board of Commissioners, I have made it clear that inappropriate conduct of any nature will not be tolerated."

Bell went on to say, "For me, this is more than a managerial obligation, but is also a moral one. Employees should be able to come to work and know the environment will be comfortable and free of any inappropriate conduct of any kind. It is my hope that the public will see from the results of this investigation that my actual actions in this case have held true to what I believe."