Former high-ranking state Veterans’ Affairs official accused of sexually harassing workers, using racial slurs
There were also several witnesses who told investigators that Harry Sawyer used racial slurs or other “inappropriate race-based language when referring to African-American” employees.
The assistant director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs under former Gov. Bruce Rauner resigned days after finding out he was being investigated for allegations of sexual harassment and making racist comments, according to a report released Thursday by the state’s inspector general.
Harry Sawyer was investigated by the department’s equal employment opportunity officer, Greg Dooley, and then-Veterans Affairs Director Erica Jeffries before the Office of the Executive Inspector General was brought in.
Dooley completed his report in May 2018, submitted it to Jeffries and, a week later, the two confronted Sawyer. Days after that meeting Sawyer tendered his resignation letter, effective at the end of the month.
Sawyer had been a rising star in the department, serving in various roles over the course of his 30-plus years at the agency.
The inspector general report lays out much of the inappropriate behavior Dooley found. In one instance, Sawyer referenced a female employee’s “posterior,” saying “oh, that’s lunch” and that “it was eye candy,” according to one employee’s account which was recounted in the report.
On another occasion, a female employee removed the icing from a piece of birthday cake nabbed from an office celebration, though Sawyer didn’t witness the icing removal. Sawyer allegedly remarked “I wanted to watch you lick the spoon.”
There were also several witnesses who told investigators that Sawyer used racial slurs or other “inappropriate race-based language when referring to African-American” employees.
Those incidents include an August 2017 visit to the Du Quoin State Fair in which Sawyer allegedly complained about an employee’s job performance and said “n------ stick together” and that there was a “sisterhood” of African American women within the department protecting each other. Later, Sawyer allegedly called that same employee a “n-----” when she did not fill out her travel reimbursement voucher in a correct and timely manner.
Sawyer’s resignation came just as he was to take the reins of the agency.He was to be named interim director after Jeffries announced her resignation following stiff backlash over the department’s handling of the Legionnaires outbreak at a Veterans Home in Downstate Quincy. Sawyer resigned before he could take the top job, and general counsel Elisabeth Pennix, a Navy veteran, was appointed interim director May 17, 2018.
Veterans Affairs officials knew about the allegations against Sawyer when he was put in line for the department’s top job, as first reported by the Daily Line.
The inspector general’s report is the second look into harassment in state government released this week. On Tuesday, former state Inspector General Maggie Hickey issued a 201-page report detailing a troubling workplace culture within the Illinois House, including allegations that Speaker Mike Madigan’s chief of staff, Tim Mapes ran the office using “fear” as motivation and could “make or break” careers.
“The number of independently verified instances of Mr. Mapes’ derogatory behavior was overwhelming,” Hickey concluded. “Mr. Mapes had a reputation for denigrating workers and threatening their jobs.”