Sunday, November 18, 2012

Woman alleges sexual harassment at DAI

An exchange between Heather Rome and DAI lawyer Kathleen Williams
A former employee for a major U.S. government contractor in Venezuela said her male boss harassed and screamed at female subordinates and complained that their office was "as inefficient as a brothel."
Employee Heather Rome sued Development Alternatives Inc., or DAI, in 2011 and is asking for $600,000 in damages. A discovery hearing in the case is scheduled for Dec. 17, 2012.
DAI had been managing a multimillion-dollar contract aimed at undermining the government of Hugo Chavez.
Rome accused the head of DAI's Venezuela project, Eduardo Fernandez, of maintaining a hostile work environment, according to the lawsuit, filed on Oct. 18, 2011 (see lawsuit and 300-plus pages of court documents). The suit alleges:
...DAI took minimal actions to stop the abusive and and inappropriate behavior.
On Dec. 21, 2011, DAI denied Rome's accusation and said the company took prompt remedial action after Rome complained about Fernandez.
DAI grants. Source:
The U.S. Agency for International Development has awarded $4,194,371,589 in contracts to DAI since 2000 for work in far-flung spots around the globe, including Cuba.
Rome said after she reported Fernandez's conduct, DAI retaliated and fired her.
DAI said Rome resigned voluntarily.
In the lawsuit, Rome cited the following examples of harassment, taken verbatim from court documents:

  • Fernandez complained to his staff "If you would just keep the pill between your knees I wouldn't have to waste money paying for maternity insurance." Office staff was offended that their boss was inquiring about their sexual activity in a manner that "even their fathers did not do."
  • One staff member wore a knee length skirt with a slit. Uncomfortable with Fernandez's wandering eyes, she put butterfly binder clips on her skirt to close the slit. A few days later Fernandez asked her when she would be wearing the butterfly skirt again. Many staff members refuse to wear skirts to the office for this reason.
  • Fernandez constantly referred to women by placing his hands in front of his chest to indicate breasts.
  • Fernandez complained that "This office is as inefficient as a brothel."
  • Rather than tell his four female staff members that they were taking too long of a lunch, his proposed solution was to "tell them they are getting fat - that way they won't take lunch at all."
  • Fernandez continued to publicly scream at will.
  • Fernandez informed staff that they are inadequate and that is why they will forever live in a developing country.
  • Fernandez boldly told staff he could fire them if they contacted Human Resources again to complain about him.
The employee discrimination lawsuit contends that Rome's complaints did not improve the work environment in Caracas and Fernandez was left in place as the project's chief of party. Company managers reportedly told her to consider it a "learning experience" and "cope with it."

Rome's lawyer, Donald J. Walsh, of Ownings Mills, Md., wrote:
Ms. Rome was labeled a problem employee for having brought this to their attention, told she needed to undergo a major attitude change and that she needed to work on creating 'kumbaya' in the office.
The lawsuit said Fernandez's behavior then grew worse. He reportedly told staff, "I am who I am and I am not going to change" so you better get used to it.
Fernandez also called Rome to his office, the lawsuit said, and accused her of "stabbing him in the back and throwing him to the dogs."
The lawsuit paraphrased him as saying:

  • What right did she have in speaking with HR anyway?
  • Actually, what right did anybody in the project office have in speaking with HR?
  • Ms. Rome caused him a heart attack which required a trip to the ER.
  • If Ms. Rome didn't send a letter to HR right away essentially apologizing for all this nonsense, they were going to come down here and fire both of them.
The suit said: 
DAI's alleged commitment to integrity and a workplace full of fairness and honesty were a sham.
The lawsuit said one company official, Bernadette Channer, wrote Rome a message of support, but said she had no power to make changes. Channer wrote:
I want to assure you that I feel the same way and that I had very little influence at the end.
In a memo cited in the lawsuit, Channer said she worried the office environment would not improve as long as Fernandez was there. She wrote:
It is however very apparent that Eduardo demonstrates unacceptable behaviors that are in conflict with DAI norms and values. His behavior also puts DAI at risk of having a discrimination and or harassment charge brought against the organization ... After looking at all the facts that were presented to me by current and past employees, I find the following:
Eduardo demonstrated behaviors that are unacceptable and by his own admission would be difficult to alter (he made it clear to me directly that he is who he is and that he would not change). This confirms my concern that if he was able to alter any of his behaviors, how long would be be able to keep it up and are we not just delaying the inevitable by allowing him to continue. The risk is that any one of the employees may decide to take action against DAI, if we allow him to continue as the COP (Chief Of Party).
Email from court files
Rome left Venezuela in 2008. The lawsuit said:
After she left, Fernandez continued to belittle women in the office and retaliate against Ms. Rome for having come forward about his behavior. He fabricated many lies and made many false statements about her such as she stole money from DAI, that she did not want to pay the staff in dollars despite Fernandez's efforts, that she was bipolar and "went crazy," that her family treated Latinos like white trash, and that she was incompetent at her job. These comments were made to DAI personnel as well as to employees at the State Department and in DC.
Rome later expressed her frustration in a court deposition:
Several people said how do we - what do we do about this? What their - the sentiment was, we're proud to be working on this project. We print the checks; we know how much money is being spent. The U.S. government is working so hard to - and DAI - to help us change the democratic situation of our country, and to help make it more democratic than Chavez is willing. And yet, we don't understand how they can create a civil society when we have our only (own) little mini Chavez here in the office, and they don't care about us.
Rome added that office productivity dropped because female employees "were crying in my office a lot."
She asked for compensatory and general damages of $300,000 and punitive damages of $300,000.

A Wikileaks memo that quotes an Eduardo Fernandez as saying "all these people" - the anti-Chavez protesters - were DAI grantees.

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