Embattled Providence Housing Director: I’m the Victim of a Smear Campaign
Wednesday, August 08, 2012
The board for the Providence Housing Authority (PHA) on Tuesday again delayed a vote on the future of executive director Stephen O’Rourke while a settlement offer is negotiated, but that didn’t stop O’Rourke from continuing to deny the majority of sexual harassment and mismanagement claims levied against him earlier this year.
A six-figure severance fee that those close to the negotiations would only say is worth less than $330,000 is currently on the table for O’Rourke, who was the target of a massive 37-page complaint a whistleblower employee filed early this year.
But in a nearly 3,000-word statement delivered to the board during a due process hearing last month (and released by him Tuesday), O’Rourke claimed he has been the victim of a vicious, contrived attack by several disgruntled employees.
“I believe I have been a victim of a planned, concerted effort (read smear campaign) to discredit me and my closest staff members because of petty contrived slights,” O’Rourke said in the statement. “The allegations made against me were serious and purposefully made public for maximum impact damaging my reputation and career and the reputation of this housing authority. These charges were not true, or were exaggerated beyond reasonableness.”
Accuser: “Gross Misconduct”
O’Rourke, who has been on paid administrative leave since April and is still owed at least $400,000 from his current contract, claims an investigation conducted by an outside lawyer hired all but cleared him of any wrongdoing, although the lawyer’s findings have not yet been made public.
Still, that hasn’t stopped board members from moving to sever ties with him. For the last month, the group, which is comprised of several Mayoral appointees, Council members and resident members, has been discussing whether to terminate O’Rourke with cause, without cause or to negotiate his resignation.
Removing O’Rourke with cause would likely result in a costly legal battle and doing so without cause would come with a hefty payout that would likely be embarrassing for the city. That’s why the board has agreed to negotiate a resignation settlement.
Herosy, the whistleblower, has accused O’Rourke of “gross misconduct” including sexual and other types of harassment as well as discrimination that resulted in her not receiving promotions. She also claims the director routinely made inappropriate comments and even touched several employees, including once bending a woman over a desk in the office.
Herosy also claims O’Rourke keep pornography on his computer, a charge he half-admitted in an interview with GoLocalProv earlier this year. He claims pictures were sent to him over e-mail and that he never distributed them to anyone in the office.
“Allegations against me were made by 3-4 disgruntled employees who were either denied promotions or were reprimanded,” O’Rourke said in his statement. “One of them told a department director that he was going to ‘take Steve O'Rourke down.’”
O’Rourke on Specific Charges
O’Rourke goes into great detail describing how during his 25-year tenure at the helm of the PHA, he helped turn a troubled agency that had Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) officials threatening to place it in receivership ago into a high performing $45 million operation that has earned nationwide recognition.
In his statement, O’Rourke addressed three specific charges.
On the pornographic images: “I believe Attorney Ray Marcaccio's report makes it clear that I did not download or save any of these images from the Internet. They were sent to me by a third party along with the one hundred or so emails I received daily. Most of the images provided to me by Attorney McNamara I never saw before he gave them to me. That's because I did not open many of these emails; I was usually too busy. Even Attorney Marcaccio's report claims they were infrequent and sent over several years. I am not responsible for incoming emails that are not from restricted sites.
On inappropriate comments to employees: “I have never seen a guide about what inappropriate remarks are. However, like Justice Potter Stewart, who stated he ‘couldn’t define pornography but I know when I see it,’ I, too, know an inappropriate remark when I hear one. I do not believe I have crossed that line. Every person has a different tolerance level. I have never said anything that someone wouldn't hear on prime time television.”
On taking staff to long lunches: “Like I mentioned, most of the lunches were with my personal staff, usually from the Special Projects Office. These lunches were always used to discuss work issues. They were not taken every week. They did frequently last longer than an hour, but they were with staff members who do not take two fifteen minute breaks during the day and frequently worked late and sometimes on weekends. I personally paid for the lunches most of the time, not the PHA. When I got lucky, another staff member paid, but not frequently enough.”
Vote Next Thursday
But while O’Rourke has maintained his innocence throughout the process, he has confirmed that a negotiation to leave his position is underway.
He has also admitted to being upset that he hasn’t received more support from Mayor Angel Taveras, who immediately returned $500 in campaign contributions upon learning about the accusations and has been unwilling to meet with O’Rourke during the investigation.
A vote on O’Rourke’s future will take place next Thursday, according to board chairman Tom Ryan.
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