County to pay $1 million to 3 detectives in sex-harassment case

By Steve Miletich | The Seattle Times

King County has agreed to pay $1 million to three veteran detectives in the sheriff’s office Special Assault Unit who alleged they were victims of rampant acts of sexual harassment and verbal abuse over many years.

The detectives, Marylisa Priebe-Olson, Janette Luitgaarden and Belinda Ferguson, alleged in a lawsuit filed in January they were subjected to a litany of boorish conduct, inappropriate remarks and belittling behavior from two sergeants.

A settlement in the case was reached Wednesday night, according to the attorneys for the women, Julie Kays and Lincoln Beauregard of Connelly Law Offices of Tacoma and Seattle.

The women, who have worked for the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) for decades, will split the payment evenly.

As part of the settlement, the county admitted no liability.

“Our clients are veteran, tough detectives, who investigate the worst kinds of cases: the sexual abuse of children and women,” Kays said in a statement Wednesday night.

“This lawsuit was always about shining the light of truth on the culture of the KCSO that makes it OK to sexually harass and degrade women in the workplace,” she added. “For years their complaints were ignored or dismissed. It took filing a lawsuit to get the attention of the KCSO leadership.”

King County Sheriff John Urquhart confirmed the settlement Wednesday night, saying it was “good to get this behind us.”

He said the agreement resulted from an all-day mediation that started with a demand for $6 million.

The lawsuit, filed in Pierce County Superior Court, was accompanied by sworn declarations of six current and former King County sheriff’s employees.

They described a difficult work environment where two sergeants in the Special Assault Unit — Anthony Provenzo and Paul Mahlum — routinely made lewd personal comments to and about the detectives and treated them more harshly than their male counterparts.

Just before the suit was filed, the newly elected Urquhart transferred Mahlum to patrol duties after learning of some allegations. Provenzo earlier had been transferred to Metro transit police after an internal investigation.

The suit alleged Provenzo routinely boasted about his sexual prowess and the size of his penis, and at one point strapped a fake phallus to his ankle in the office so it protruded from the bottom of his trousers.

It also alleged the sergeants would routinely ridicule two of the three detectives over the sizes of their breasts and buttocks.

The suit further alleged the sergeants mocked the statements of sexual-assault victims.

In her statement, Kays said, “The harassment that our clients faced was breathtaking in its nature,” marked by crude remarks about women, overt sexualization of women in the workplace and “disgustingly, the offending sergeants made these remarks about sexual-assault victims as well.”

Kays’ statement said the settlement amount is for the emotional distress, humiliation and psychological distress that each detective endured.

“Usually employment-discrimination and hostile-work-environment cases involve lost wages, but here the settlement is solely for the obvious emotional trauma our clients endured after years of harassment,” the statement said.

In addition to the payment, the women demanded and received an agreement that the Sheriff’s Office will be required to provide annual training on sexual harassment.

“This was an important part of the settlement for our clients because it is going to help change the status quo at the KCSO,” Kays wrote. “The frat-party atmosphere at the KCSO needs to stop, and requiring this type of training is a critical tool to eradicating sexual harassment in the KCSO.”

Urquhart said the training is already being done and will continue.

The women also demanded an apology, which Urquhart will issue through a departmentwide email.


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