Public Safety

Lawsuit describes sex harassment in Marion Police Department

City denies allegations involving former deputy chief and others

The Marion Police uniform badge.
The Marion Police uniform badge.

A former Marion city employee is suing former Deputy Police Chief Douglas Slagle, a city employee and the city, asserting that Slagle sexually harassed her for months while officials failed to act and instead sought to intimidate her.

The allegations, which the city denies, could shed light on a secretive city-ordered personnel investigation earlier this year at the department and the resignations of its top leaders.

Both Slagle and police Chief Joseph McHale resigned June 3, although the city said their departures were not related to a review conducted by an independent lawyer who specializes in harassment and bias cases.

In her lawsuit, filed Sept. 27 in Linn County District Court, former part-time police department custodian Valerie Rheeder claims Slagle sexually harassed her on the job from about August 2018 to May 2019. The suit says the city ignored her complaints, and department administrative manager Shellene Gray threatened her.

In a statement released Tuesday, the city denied the claims.

“It is unfortunate that, despite the city’s best efforts to resolve Ms. Rheeder’s complaints, she has instead chosen to litigate this matter,” the statement said. “The city denies the allegations outlined in the lawsuit and states that it took all steps required under its policies and the law to address Ms. Rheeder’s concerns, including promptly investigating her claims and putting remedial measures in place.”

The statement also said that Rheeder’s job is available for her to return to at any time.

Rheeder began working for the department on Aug. 6, 2018. Slagle began harassing her a month later, her suit asserted — seeking her phone number, asking her to come to his office alone, standing too close and making her feel uncomfortable.

In one incident described in the suit, Slagle asked Rheeder to speak with him Jan. 8 in his office. He said had been thinking about her “too much” and said, according to the suit, “You tell me what you want to do with me, and I will tell you what I want to do with you. I want to know if it’s the same thing. I want to know if what I want is what you want.”

The next day, Slagle began sending Rheeder text messages and asked her to send him a photo of herself. She spoke with Slagle Jan. 11, telling him she was not interested in a romantic relationship, the suit said.

Rheeder said she complained to an internal affairs investigator and provided him with copies of the text messages.

On Jan. 21, she met with the investigator and Chief McHale, she said. During the meeting, according to the suit, McHale said he preferred to handle the complaint without launching a formal investigation. Then the next day, the chief told her Slagle had not sexually harassed her. In making the determination, the suit asserts, McHale did not ask Rheeder any questions about the conduct.

McHale issued a written warning to Rheeder, saying she would be fired if she communicated with Slagle “outside the course of normal duties.”

The lawsuit asserts that Gray threatened Rheeder twice — on Jan. 23 and again Jan. 24. The first time, Gray grabbed her by the shoulders and told her, “You will never speak about this again,” the lawsuit alleges.

The city announced April 23 that it had hired Fran Haas, an attorney with Nyemaster Goode, to oversee a personnel investigation. According to the firm’s website, Hass specializes in cases of “discrimination, harassment and retaliation based on race, sex, age, national origin, disability and veteran status.”

On May 9, Rheeder told McHale she was not comfortable working with or reporting to Gray because of her “threatening behavior,” according to the lawsuit. Rheeder took an unpaid leave of absence May 16.

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In her suit, which cited emotional distress as well as lost wages, Rheeder requested a trial by jury. The lawsuit was filed by Cedar Rapids lawyer Ann Brown.

Comments: (319) 368-8664; grace.king@thegazette.com

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