TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – Good ol’ boys at the top levels of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce habitually get drunk on the job and sexually harass women who work for them, and when a new president, a woman, fired one of the chief harassers, the boys got together and found him “a plum and prestigious position in Governor Chris Christie’s Office,” then fired the president, and a vice president who complained of the harassment, the former VP says.
Carol Gabel sued the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and four of its top officers in a discrimination and harassment complaint in Mercer County Court. The individual defendants are senior vice president Dana Egreckzy, president Thomas Bracken, Chairman of the Board Jeffrey Scheininger, and former Chairman of the Board Dennis Bone.
Gabel says she worked at the Chamber from 199 until she was fired on March 16 this year.
“The sexual harassment of plaintiff grew out of the ‘Old Boy’ network and ‘culture of intoxication’ that existed at the Chamber,” Gabel says. She says she was supervised primarily by male department heads, and that “her male department heads and managers regularly left work for lengthy lunches and other outings in which heavy drinking and other inappropriate conduct was commonplace and accepted, and, unfortunately, spilled into the Chamber’s workplace environment, all to plaintiff’s detriment.”
She cites by name three other high-ranking Chamber officials, who are not named as defendants, whose drunken, sexist antics made her “shocked and embarrassed,” but says she did not complain because one was her direct supervisor “and she legitimately feared retaliation.”
The complaint continues: “Not only was plaintiff subject to a sexually hostile workplace at the Chamber, but the Chamber took no action to protect her from sexual harassment she suffered outside the Chamber to which she was exposed as part of her job responsibilities for fear of risking its relationships with important governmental figures. For example, at the Chamber’s 2001 annual congressional dinner, a former New Jersey governor made a sexual comment to plaintiff about the necklace she was wearing, stating, ‘nice beads,’ while openly ogling her breasts. The obvious implication of his comment was ‘nice breasts.’ Plaintiff’s supervisor, James Leonard, witnessed this offensive comment but took no action to reprimand or correct the former governor.
“Shortly thereafter, Leonard sent plaintiff to deliver some papers to the New Jersey State House where she again encountered the former governor. The former governor firmly grabbed plaintiff’s coat collar and aggressively asked her when they were having dinner. Though threatened and unnerved by such a powerful person in New Jersey politics, plaintiff declined. Fearful and anxious, plaintiff ran back to the Chamber where she immediately informed Egenton of the incident. Egenton then informed plaintiff’s direct supervisor, Leonard, of what had occurred, but he took no action to address plaintiff’s legitimate concerns about this inappropriate conduct and future interactions with the former governor. Instead, Leonard continuously teased plaintiff about him. At one point, plaintiff walked into her office and found photographs of the former governor papering her phone, desk and walls. By these actions, Leonard effectively endorsed the former governor’s offensive conduct and continued to contribute to the sexually hostile environment at the Chamber.”
Gabel says she was not the only woman who was sexually harassed by bosses, and that they harassed another woman “so aggressively that their harassment contributed to her ultimate resignation.”
She says that good ol’ boys at the Chamber joked openly about their sexual harassment and called it “going to the dark side.”
The harassment was so bad, she says, that she transferred away from Leonard’s control into another department, under vice president Kevin Friedlander. But he too, went “to the dark side,” and “turned against plaintiff because of her sex,” she says.
Gabel says she complained repeatedly about the harassment, but “Friedlander, however, refused to address her complaint and in fact warned her not to complain to anyone else and to never confront Leonard, cautioning her that she ‘would pay for it.'”
After the Chamber 2008 Congressional Dinner in Washington, D.C., Gabel says, she was awakened by a phone call in her hotel room at 2 a.m. “On the line was John Maxwell, a colleague from the Petroleum Council and another member of the ‘Boys Drinking Club.’ Maxwell drunkenly asked plaintiff to come to Friedlander’s presidential suite and dance on his piano for them. Plaintiff was shocked by Maxwell’s suggestion that she act like a stripper and asked him to put Friedlander on the phone.” She says she talked to Friedlander and Egenton, and “told Egenton in no uncertain terms” that she resented the call “in the middle of the night for her to ‘dance on the piano.’ …
“Following this incident, plaintiff understood that her workplace was entirely abusive and hostile, that their unprofessional behavior would continue unchecked, that her complaints would continue to go unanswered, and that she had no choice but to leave the Chamber.”
She found a new job and “notified then Chamber President Verplanck of her resignation” in May 2008. But she says Verplanck, a woman, had heard of the good ol’ boys’ “excessive drinking,” and asked if Gabel was resigning because of it. Gabel says she “explicitly told Ms. Verplanck that the unprofessional conduct of Leonard, Friedlander and Egenton and the ‘culture of intoxication’ was only one reason she had resigned. She also informed Verplanck that her disparate pay and the sexually hostile work environment she was suffering were equal motivation to resign.”
Gabel says Verplanck asked her to “reconsider he resignation,” offered to move her away from Leonard and Friedlander, to promote her to vice president of business development, and to raise her salary to $85,000, so she stayed.
But she says the only “direct action” Verplanck took against the good ol’ boys was to send an email to Chamber employees “informing them of a new Chamber policy in which alcohol consumption during ‘work hours’ was prohibited.”
Gabel says her promotion, and pay raise, were delayed for 7 months, during which time “Friedlander continued to undermine her performance and to act abusively toward her.”
When she finally did become a vice president, she says, she learned that her predecessor, Lawrence Krompier, had been paid $100,000. “When plaintiff confronted Ms. Verplanck about the salary differential, Ms. Verplanck’s only response was that Krompier was ‘overpaid.'”
Gabel says Verplanck fired Leonard “on other grounds” in March 2010, but that “several Board members, and defendant Bone in particular, sought to find an appropriate replacement position for Leonard before his termination. Defendant Bone and defendant Jeffrey Scheininger, the current board chairman, finally secured Leonard a plum and prestigious position in Governor Chris Christie’s Office. Leonard also received a large cash severance package. By its inaction on plaintiff’s complaints and active support of Leonard, the Chamber has clearly sent the message that harassment and other inappropriate conduct was acceptable, condoned and would even be rewarded.
“Shortly after she terminated Leonard, the Chamber forced Ms. Verplanck to resign in or around June 2010 due to her disfavor with Governor Christie, with whom the Board wanted to curry favor.”
Also at the time, Gabel says, Chairman of the Board Scheininger threatened to fire her “because of her association with Ms. Verplanck, telling plaintiff that she was ‘just a minnow swimming with the sharks,’ and that she ‘would be fired when the new president came in.’ Indeed, defendant Scheininger had previously been deaf to plaintiff’s direct complaints to him about the ‘Boys Club,’ responding, ‘that’s what f-cking male lobbyists do, Carol.’ Plaintiff then asked, ‘Well, what are female lobbyists supposed to do?’ Defendant Scheininger had no answer to that question.”
Gabel says she finally was able to force the Chamber to investigate itself for the allegations of sexual harassment and disparate pay, but that it took “multiple adverse employment actions against her in retaliation”. She says she had to take disability leave because of the stress and the depression it induced, and that while she was on leave, the Chamber fired her, on the pretext that her job “was being ‘eliminated.'”
She seeks back pay and front pay, restoration of seniority and benefits, and punitive damages for discrimination, harassment, retaliation, tortious interference, damage to reputation, emotional distress and conspiracy.
She is represented by Gina Mendola Longarzo of Chatham.
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