Complaint leaves cloud over Tarrant district attorney's office

Posted Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Serious allegations have been leveled against Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon by a former employee. Accusations of sexual harassment in any workplace, especially one with key public responsibilities, can't be taken lightly.

But does the information that's known so far mean he should resign as some of his detractors claim? No.

Disgusting as some of the allegations are, they are still allegations. The legal matters surrounding them have been settled out of court, and both sides have signed a confidentiality agreement. Shannon has denied that he sexually harassed Sabrina Sabin, 44, a former assistant district attorney who worked primarily in the economic crimes unit.

No one's version has been tested under oath.

What's left is a lot of "she said-he said," with emphasis on the sordid details of what she said he did. It's difficult for outsiders to determine what happened, what's to be believed and what response is required.

Limited as the known facts are, they don't at this point form a convincing body of evidence sufficient to force an elected official from office. Shannon faces election again in 2014 should he decide to run for another four-year term.

What is documented is that last spring Sabin filed complaints against the DA's office with the county, the Fort Worth Human Relations Commission and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. At about the same time, she was assigned to a different job in the DA's office.

The county hired the Jackson Walker law firm and the Whitney Smith consulting firm to investigate her complaint. After Sabin, Shannon and an undisclosed number of witnesses were interviewed, the parties went to mediation. On Sept. 25, Tarrant County commissioners approved a $375,000 settlement with Sabin, and she left her county job at the end of the year.

Last week, the county released records sought by the Star-Telegram and other news media. Those documents detailed some of Sabin's allegations and contained emails in which some of her supervisors (not including Shannon) raised concerns about her attendance and job performance, as well as questions about behavior possibly influenced by medications.

At some point, apparently close to when she decided to formally complain, Sabin wrote about incidents when she said Shannon made inappropriate comments about her body, touched her and once in "so-called joking fashion" called her and a co-worker "ladies of the evening" while checking into a hotel for a legal seminar.

Most of the events took place in 2008 and 2009, according to her account. Shannon, 72 and a lawyer for almost 50 years, headed the economic crimes unit until 2009, when he was appointed district attorney. He won election in 2010.

Sabin wrote that the situation was "uncomfortable and at times unbearable." She didn't indicate that she ever told Shannon she was offended or wanted him to stop what she has said he was doing.

In a statement, Shannon "vigorously denied and disputed" Sabin's claims and "denied that anyone intended to or did harass or retaliate against anyone else."

The settlement makes impossible a full public exploration of what either side has said.

But if Sabin's account is accurate, it depicts at best poor judgment and unprofessional behavior.

During a meeting with the Editorial Board on Tuesday, county officials said they had found no other sexual harassment complaints against the DA's office during the past five years.

County Judge Glen Whitley said commissioners decided to settle the case after a lawyer hired to investigate the allegations gave them "some details about all sides" and estimated that litigating the case could cost $800,000 or more because of its complexities. Whitley said, "We feel like the matter's been put to rest."

Shannon has asked the EEOC to conduct mandatory training for the DA's office on how to recognize and prevent sexual harassment. Of the office's more than 300 employees, 60 percent are women, including 86 of the 162 lawyers.

County offices are bound by federal and county policies against sexual harassment. Attendance at twice-a-year training sessions on those policies has been voluntary.

County Administrator G.K. Maenius said he now will require training for department heads who report to him and for their senior supervisors. That doesn't include elected officials.

This episode has left a cloud hanging over the DA's office. Shannon told the Editorial Board by telephone that he will "continue to run the office in an efficient manner."

That should be possible. Voters can decide whether he's doing that to their satisfaction.

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