The Insider

Devolution
There were plenty of heads shaking after the funeral and memorial services for Barbara Jordan, and most of them were set in motion by the grandstanding of Sheila Jackson Lee, the current holder of Jordan's old congressional seat. Not only did Lee seize the occasion of Jordan's death to ramble on about her favorite subject -- herself -- she also, according to one knowledgeable black political type, "left a bad taste in everyone's mouth" by trying to maintain strict control of the activities, including access to President Clinton. Apparently Chronicle gossipist Maxine Mesinger was unaware of Lee's performance when she offered her metaphysical musings on Jordan's death: "I often think when someone as beloved as Jordan dies," ruminated Miss Moonlight, "it's a shame she can't see and hear her accolades. But then again, maybe she can." And then again, if it was Lee doing the talking, B.J. probably just tuned out.

They Must Have Missed This Story
The Chronicle likes to congratulate itself for its efforts to uphold the Open Records Act and its fight for the right to shed light on secret grand jury deliberations. Yet the Hearst-owned paper has shown no desire to publicize its own highly unusual battle to quash subpoenas the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed seeking access to the Chronicle's ad department files and the right to take depositions from advertising personnel.

The subpoenas are part of a probe of sexual harassment claims against a since-resigned Chronicle executive. The complainants are Joyce Waddell, a former Chronicle advertising manager, and another woman who is still employed by the paper. They accuse then-vice president of sales and marketing John Laird of approaching them in separate incidents during an advertising department "breakout session" at a Galveston motel in 1994. Both say Laird made sexual overtures to them that were linked to their advancement at the paper. Laird's attorney, William Bruckner, calls the women's charges "frivolous and specious" and says they arise from their insecurity over a reorganization of the advertising department. Laird, he says, is the real victim in the case.

Harriet Ehrlich, the EEOC's local director, describes the paper's fight to withhold documents and witnesses as "outrageous." She says the subpoenas are a routine exercise of her agency's authority. U.S. District Judge Ken Hoyt agreed and upheld the subpoenas earlier this month. Hearst lawyers are appealing to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, a rare maneuver that one local EEOC lawyer says has not occurred during his seven years of investigating complaints. (As we went to press, Hoyt had refused to stay the subpoenas pending the appeal.) Complicating the case is the fact that Waddell and her colleague originally filed harassment complaints with the EEOC, which gave them approval to sue the paper in federal court. They chose, however, to file suit in a Galveston state court under the Texas Human Rights Act, and the Chronicle is now arguing that the federal agency has no jurisdiction in the case.

Mike Kerensky is the lawyer who originally represented the two women before passing the case on to a Texas City attorney. "The experience I had before I got out of the case," Kerensky says of the Hearst lawyers, "is that these guys are really Rambo litigators, and they are very frightened of this case. It's a good story." Maybe so, but the paper isn't talking. Chronicle spokeswoman Lainie Gordon didn't respond to our request to speak with the Chronicle's brass. But in court documents, Hearst lawyer Michael Zinser argues that the EEOC subpoenas are a fishing expedition for the feds, who are really looking for other alleged instances of sexual harassment at the paper. Zinser also claims that since the women have no corroborating witnesses for their accounts, it's just their word against Laird's, who has since left the paper "for other entrepreneurial opportunities."

Yet Waddell's deposition seems to put Chronicle human resources director Ann Turnbach at the scene. According to Waddell, Turnbach sat down with her and Laird at a table in the hotel lounge after the alleged harassment had begun. Waddell recalled leaving the table, with Turnbach following, to go the ladies room, where she tearfully told Turnbach she couldn't understand why Laird had hardly said a word to her for nine years, "and now he wants to get to know me."

Of course, the atmosphere's probably gotten even more impersonal of late. According to Hearst lawyer Zinser, the EEOC is just out to "disrupt and create turmoil in a very busy workplace that is now even busier, as the Houston Chronicle absorbs additional business due to the recent closing of the Houston Post."

Exercise your First Amendment right to tattle by calling The Insider at 624-1483, or fax all incriminating papers to 624-1496.

 
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