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They claimed harassment. Then they lost their jobs.

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Park Rapids, 56470
Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

Twenty months after two female St. Louis County employees brought sexual harassment charges against a couple of county commissioners, the women no longer work for the county.

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The boss who notified one of the women that she would no longer be paid was the same man -- Alan Mitchell -- who legally represented one of the commissioners accused of harassment.

A watchdog group formed in the wake of the sexual harassment complaints said it is concerned that justice hasn't been done in the case.

Ellen Quinn, who brought sexual harassment charges against Commissioner Steve Raukar, said she has been unable to work because of lingering effects from the stressful situation, an assessment confirmed by a Duluth psychologist Quinn saw at the behest of county officials. Quinn said she has been on an extended medical leave from her job as the county's public relations officer.

Betsy Sislo, who brought sexual harassment charges against Commissioner Dennis Fink, "separated" from the county on July 26 after more than 19 years of employment with the county, said employee relations director Martha Watson. Watson said she could provide no further information. Data privacy laws prevent county officials from releasing private information about how and why people leave county employment.

Sislo has filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against Fink and other county employees, Watson and Fink have confirmed.

Quinn and Sislo were nonunion employees who could be fired at will.

Mitchell, former St. Louis County attorney, served as Raukar's attorney when the complaints were investigated. When the County Board hired Mitchell in February as interim county administrator, he became the direct supervisor of Quinn and Sislo.

Quinn was still actively working at the time, while Sislo was on medical leave.

The situation prompts concern from the "We Are Watching" group, which formed in 2007 to urge more civility and accountability among board members.

"The 'We Are Watching' campaign continues to have great concern for the outcome of the sexual harassment investigation, the non-action by the majority of the board, and the subsequent EEOC proceedings that seem to be pending," said Kevin Skwira-Brown, one of the group's organizers. "There's a concern that given the current administration, and the majority on the board, justice might not be served in this case."

When there is a potential conflict between a lawyer's private practice and government employment, this guideline from the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct at least should be discussed, said Martin Cole, director of the state Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility:

"Except as law may otherwise expressly permit, a lawyer currently serving as a public officer or employee ... shall not ... participate in a matter in which the lawyer participated personally and substantially while in private practice or nongovernmental employment, unless the appropriate government agency gives its informed consent, confirmed in writing."

County Attorney Melanie Ford said Friday she's not aware that county officials ever discussed Mitchell's dual role in connection with the two women.

no longer paid

Quinn received a letter from Mitchell dated Oct. 15, informing her that she would no longer be paid by the county and would remain on unpaid leave until Nov. 28. In the letter, Mitchell asked that Quinn provide medical documentation on her ability to return to work by Nov. 26 "so that I have adequate time to review it and make a further determination on your future employment status."

The county has two types of medical leave, Mitchell said. An employee can accrue up to 1,900 hours of paid medical leave, which carries full benefits; employees can also take up to one year of unpaid leave, which does not carry benefits.

Asked if Quinn was still being paid, Mitchell said: "She is an employee of St. Louis County. If she works, she gets paid."

But, said Quinn, "I consider myself fired."

Quinn has approached county administration about a possible settlement agreement, a request that Mitchell said "the county is not in a position to respond at this time," according to the Oct. 15 letter.

Quinn filed a complaint against Raukar in March 2007 following an early morning phone call he allegedly made to her during an out-of-town trip in February. A subsequent investigation found that Raukar "engaged in sexual harassment in the form of verbal contact by telephone including sexual advances or propositions."

In April 2007, Sislo initiated a complaint against Fink, alleging that Fink engaged in harassing behavior, including verbal comments of a sexual nature and overly personal comments regarding personal appearance.

The county's former civil service and personnel director, Anthony Bruno, and independent investigator Elizabeth Storaasli found in both cases that the county's policy prohibiting discrimination, harassment and retaliation had been violated.

However, because the policy at that time did not apply to elected officials, it was left to the County Board itself to decide whether to censure Raukar and Fink. On two split votes in August 2007, the board declined to censure the commissioners.

Though each man did not vote in his own case, each voted against censuring the other. In each case, the motions failed by one vote.

Both women continued to work for the county, though Quinn requested that her office be moved farther from the county commissioners' offices.

Quinn has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression and said she has a difficult time leaving her home, according to an August psychological assessment by Raymone Kral, a Duluth psychologist.

Kral found that Quinn "presented as someone who was afraid of everything, and with poor coping skills," according to her assessment. Quinn "was physically trembling during the intake and first part of the interview."

Kral's assessment recommended that "Ms. Quinn will not be able to return to any work environment associated with St. Louis County."

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