More complaints added to harassment lawsuit against elections director

2012-07-17T03:30:00Z 2012-10-30T11:40:22Z More complaints added to harassment lawsuit against elections directorBY MARK SCHLINKMANN mschlinkmann@post-dispatch.com > 636-255-7203 stltoday.com

ST. CHARLES COUNTY • Three employees of County Elections Director Rich Chrismer allege that he gave them substandard job evaluations and blocked pay raises in retaliation for corroborating a former employee's sexual harassment claim against him.

The accusations, which Chrismer denies, were added earlier this month to the harassment suit filed in October by Mary Railean Benefield, a former program specialist in his office.

The allegations of retaliation were made by Benefield's husband, Christopher Benefield, a voting systems supervisor; her sister, Catherine Fry, an election assistant; and Mary Widaman, a program specialist.

A fourth employee — Margaret Muffler, an accountant — made a similar complaint in the case filed in St. Charles County Circuit Court. She said Chrismer gave her a poor evaluation in retaliation for a disability and age discrimination complaint she filed against him. None of the employees had received previous below-standard appraisals in their tenures ranging from seven to 32 years, the suit alleges.

Each "is required to live in constant concern and worry of continued employment because of his retaliatory behavior," the suit says.

Mary Benefield, 45, also accused Chrismer, 66, of punishing her with a poor performance evaluation after filing her suit; she later transferred to a job in the county prosecutor's office.

In another new allegation, Chrismer's former assistant director, Charlene Lohman, said Chrismer since 2008 has overcharged local governments by more than $500,000 for their share of the cost of running elections. Certain fees he began adding aren't allowed under state law, Lohman alleged.

"Everything they're suggesting I totally deny," Chrismer, who is in his third four-year term as elections director, said Monday. "None of it is true. It must be a money motivation."

In her suit, Mary Benefield alleged that Chrismer created a sexually hostile work environment by stalking her, groping her as she handed paperwork to him, and making "unwanted and offensive" comments about her clothing and body.

The revised suit seeks more than $5 million in damages for what are now eight plaintiffs. The county also is a defendant.

The job evaluations issued in January, the suit says, would have resulted in a denial of a 2 to 3 percent merit pay increase. The five appealed to Chuck Gross, the county director of administration, who reversed the decision.

Chrismer on Monday said he merely signed off on evaluations of the five by their immediate supervisor, assistant director Melanie Stilson.

Chrismer said Gross issued the reversal because they weren't given a chance to first improve their performance. Gross declined to comment about the evaluations.

The accusations by Muffler involve a walking-related disability, the suit says. Since the Election Authority moved to a new building in St. Peters in 2008, the suit says, she has had to work in a second-floor office despite having difficulty using stairs. The suit says Chrismer rejected requests to move Muffler to the first floor.

The suit also says that while the county has budgeted $12,000 in each of the past three years to install an elevator, the work has never been done.

Chrismer said he never was asked by Muffler to move. He said he agrees that an elevator is needed but said the county administration is responsible. Gross said "the money was budgeted and decisions were made every year whether the timing was right to spend that money."

In a complaint filed in November with the state Human Rights Commission, Muffler, 66, said Chrismer constantly asked her when she was going to retire.

Chrismer said he asked her why she didn't consider retiring only once, in a conversation when she was "disgruntled about something."

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