The former second-in-command of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs resigned last year after an internal investigation into his allegations that he sexually harassed female employees and used racial slurs to target Black employees, according to a report released Wednesday by the Office of the Executive Inspector General.
Harry Sawyer, who resigned in May 2018, was found in a subsequent investigation by the state’s executive inspector general to have violated the agency’s employee handbook — but not the state’s Ethics Act — for his alleged comments that employees characterized as sexual harassment. Sawyer also was found to have violated Illinois Code of Personal Conduct for his alleged use of “highly offensive race-based language,” including the N-word, toward employees.
But according to the report, completed in February but released on Wednesday, Sawyer was allowed to resign — instead of being fired — from his position after former Veterans’ Affairs Director Erica Jeffries interceded on his behalf, citing his 37 years of service in state government and his service in the Vietnam War.
Both Jeffries and Sawyer’s positions are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Illinois Senate. Jeffries accepted a job in the private sector in April 2018 after a tumultuous few years under former Gov. Bruce Rauner, in which the agency was blamed for the Legionnaires’ deaths of 13 residents at the Quincy Veterans’ Home in 2015, and the sickening of dozens more.
In a memo to staff in late April last year, employees were told Jeffries’ last day would be May 18, 2018, and that Sawyer would take over as interim director. But according to the report, Jeffries heard about the allegations against Sawyer weeks before that, meaning Sawyer’s promotion was announced after officials launched a preliminary investigation into Sawyer’s behavior.
IDVA Equal Employment Opportunity Officer Greg Dooley opened an internal investigation after he overheard agency employees talking amongst themselves about Sawyer’s behavior. Dooley brought it up the agency’s chief of staff, who instructed him to conduct the investigation. Jeffries also asked Dooley to gather witness statements, according to the report.
After a few weeks of investigating, the matter was passed along to the inspector general, which began its months-long investigation.
In early May 2018, Jeffries met with Sawyer about Dooley’s report, and while Jeffries said he called the allegations “B.S.,” Sawyer submitted his resignation effective May 31, 2018.
Sawyer did not participate in the OEIG’s investigation, declining to be interviewed.
A new agency director was announced on Jeffries’ last day in state government, and Sawyer was never actually made acting director as planned. An October 2018 agency newsletter refers to Sawyer as having retired from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, where he worked since 1982. State records show Sawyer made $98,500 in 2017, his last full year of employment with the agency.
The inspector general’s investigation focused on a period of time from November 2017 through the end of Sawyer’s employment with the agency, but many of the comments interpreted as sexual harassment allegedly occurred in March 2018.
In mid-March last year, according to the report, an employee reported that Sawyer had referred to her rear end while she was bent down to pick something up or adjusting her shoe. Employees had apparently been talking about lunch plans, and Sawyer allegedly said “speaking of lunch,” regarding the employee’s backside.
A number of sexual comments were also reported on the same day later that month. During one meeting about how donated paintings should be displayed at the DuQuoin State Fair, Sawyer allegedly suggested women walk around holding up the paintings.
When a woman in the meeting asked: “Do you mean like boxing ring girls?” Sawyer allegedly nodded and “demonstrated a ‘ring girl pose’ while making his suggestion.”
That same day, an employee was eating a piece of birthday cake from which she’d removed the frosting. Sawyer allegedly asked if the employee was going to eat the frosting, and when she said no, “he replied with something like, ‘I wanted to watch you lick the spoon,’” according to the employee’s account in the report.
In a third alleged incident on that same day, while Sawyer and employees were discussing plans for the Illinois State Fair Twilight Parade, an employee said she was willing to ride a horse. To that, Sawyer allegedly referenced Lady Godiva, who rode a horse naked, according to Anglo-Saxon myth.
While the watchdog determined that complaints that Sawyer’s comments violated the agency’s employee handbook were founded, investigators ultimately determined that the allegation that Sawyer’s comments violated the state’s Ethics Act were unfounded.
Investigators reached that conclusion because Sawyer’s comments and innuendo “do not appear to have been either pervasive enough or severe enough to alter conditions of employment,” investigators wrote, and ultimately did not create a hostile work environment.”
“While Mr. Sawyer’s comments were sexual in nature, and entirely inappropriate for the workplace, they didn’t to appear to have been threatening or particularly severe, nor did they appear to interfere with anyone’s ability to do his or her job,” according to the report.
The report also details instances of Sawyer’s alleged use of racial slurs and racially insensitive language.
In August 2017, Sawyer allegedly had been upset with an employee’s job performance, which he described as being inadequate.
“All n—–s stick together,” Sawyer allegedly said, also referring to what he allegedly called a “‘sisterhood’ of African American women within IDVA protecting each other.”
On another occasion in late 2017 or early 2018, Sawyer allegedly referred to an employee with the N-word while he berated her for not being able to fill out a travel reimbursement voucher for Sawyer “in a correct and timely manner.”
Other employees interviewed during the investigation said they had not heard Sawyer use racial slurs.
The woman whose rear end had allegedly been referred to as “lunch” by Sawyer, and who Sawyer had also allegedly called the N-word told OEIG investigators that while she found his comments inappropriate, “she stated that she felt she could ‘hold her own’ with Mr. Sawyer,” the report said.
A footnote in the report recounts an incident recalled by an employee — during which she and Sawyer were “discussing compensation matters” — when Sawyer allegedly told the employee that “he could fire her ‘for the way [her] hair looks,’” according to the employee, whose hair was being worn naturally.
“She thought it was inappropriate for a white man like Mr. Sawyer to comment on that,” the footnote said.
But another employee told investigators that Sawyer’s behavior “was especially inappropriate,” since he was high up in the agency’s chain of command.
“She characterized him as a ‘creepy old man’ who simply needed to be made aware of the inappropriate nature of some of his conduct,” according to the report.
At least two employees interviewed by investigators said they wouldn’t have felt comfortable confronting Sawyer about his comments.
“[Employee 3] told investigators that Mr. Sawyer had power and authority as the Assistant Director, and indicated that he felt Mr. Sawyer could hinder his career if he spoke up about Mr. Sawyer’s conduct,” according to the report.
Another employee echoed those comments, telling investigators that he never confronted Sawyer because “you should know your place and stay in your lane.”
Investigators suggest the agency place a copy of their report in Sawyer’s employment file, but note he already left state employment. The report also recommends the agency consider revising its handbook to incorporate provisions to its policy against racial discrimination and harassment similar to its policy against sexual harassment.
“Doing so would strengthen IDVA’s ability to respond to the use of inappropriate and offensive race-based language/conduct that, while perhaps not actionable under Title VII and/or related to Illinois laws, should not go unaddressed,” according to the report.
The report was released one day after the blockbuster conclusions made in another investigation into workplace conditions in House Speaker Mike Madigan’s (D-Chicago) office, where employees described a culture of bullying and sexual harassment as the norm under former Madigan chief of staff Tim Mapes.”