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Lawsuit Alleging Sexual Harassment, Retaliation Has Cost Madison County Taxpayers $320,000

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

A federal lawsuit alleging Madison County fired a former employee after she accused a county board member of sexual harassment has cost taxpayers more than $320,000, and there could be more to come.

In March 2019, Kristen Poshard filed suit against the county, alleging she was fired for complaining that board member Philip Chapman, of Highland, had repeatedly sexually harassed her in 2017 and that county administrators did nothing to stop it.

Since then, the county has spent $328,425 in legal fees as of Dec. 8, according to county Safety & Risk Management Director Annette Schoeberle. The case is still in its discovery phase, during which each party investigates the facts of the case as preparation for trial.

Schoeberle, whose department manages liability risks for the county, said if the cost of the lawsuit were to exceed $1 million, the county’s insurance would cover any legal fees and other costs stemming from the lawsuit. Until then, the county’s tort fund and personnel budget have covered the cost.

The fees have been paid to Sandberg Phoenix law firm, which represents the county board; Wagner & Clayborne, which represents Chapman; attorneys David Schott and Kim Sneed, who represent Prenzler; and Greensfelder Law Firm, which is representing former County Administrator Doug Hulme.

Both the personnel budget and tort fund are funded by taxpayers. A tax levy is set each year for the tort fund specifically, Schoeberle said.

Poshard was hired as the county’s chief deputy administrator in December 2016 before being promoted to administrator of the Community Development Department in March 2017.

According to previous reporting by the BND, she was placed on leave Aug. 2017 for “violations of the county’s personnel policy,” and in October of that year, her employment was terminated by the county board in a nearly unanimous vote.

In her suit, Poshard alleges she complained about the sexual harassment to County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler in June 2017 after complaints to her immediate supervisor were ignored.

Prenzler declined to comment on the lawsuit and Chapman did not return a request for comment on the lawsuit.

In the lawsuit, which names Madison County, Chapman, Prenzler and former County Administrator Doug Hulme, Poshard goes into detail about the alleged sexual harassment, including multiple inappropriate text messages. During one meeting set up at Chapman’s request, the suit states, Chapman told her he felt “tingly” and “excited” to hug her.

At the time Prenzler stated in a news release that Poshard refused to return to work, resulting in the County Board unanimously voting to terminate her employment..

In that same release, Prenzler wrote that he’d asked Chapman to resign from the board, but that Chapman had refused.

“Sexual harassment has no place in my administration and I take every complaint of sexual harassment very seriously,” Prenzler said at the time.

Both Chapman and Prenzler are registered Republicans.

Ferne Wolf, a lawyer at Silvertein Wolf Attorneys at Law, who is representing Poshard in the lawsuit, said after a long period of inactivity in the case due to the COVID-19 pandemic and “several” procedural battles, there has been a “flurry” of activity related to discovery in the case.

A trial date for the case is set for July 12, 2021, nearly four years after Poshard was put on administrative leave. But Wolfe said COVID-19 could further delay the case, which has been ongoing through depositions on the conferencing platform Zoom.

She said, for her client, resolving the matter is long overdue.

“Unfortunately, way back when in 2017 this terrible thing happened, and it’s several years later and we’d love to have this resolved,” Wolf said.

Kavahn Mansouri is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Kavahn Mansouri | Belleville News-Democrat