Since his hiring at the beginning of 2020, Durham County Department of Public Health Director Rodney Jenkins has been a calm, reassuring presence in the Bull City’s fight against COVID-19.
In late April, Jenkins may be subjected to a jury trial in Cumberland County following accusations that a female subordinate, Marlene Harris, endured sexual harassment from him, and retaliation from officials at the Cumberland County Department of Public Health where Jenkins formerly served as the agency’s deputy director.
Harris claims the retaliation took place after she reported that Jenkins asked her personal questions and made statements that made her feel “uncomfortable.”
Harris has also accused Jenkins of asking her if anyone “had ever been “obsessed with her,” and “continually” purchasing gifts for her.
Harris says Jenkins sent her a photo of himself “in which he appeared shirtless,” according to a five-page lawsuit filed last spring in Cumberland County Superior Court (see below).
Harris’s case has garnered support and funding from the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, an organization that provides legal and media support to individuals who have been subjected to workplace sexual discrimination, including sexual harassment, the agency stated in a press release this week.
The legal defense fund is housed and administered by the nonprofit National Women’s Law Center in Washington, DC.
“This is a matter of public interest because the same culture still exists at the department and possibly others across the state,” Harris said in a press release. “I’m speaking up because I don’t want my situation to happen to anyone else.”
Jenkins had been at the forefront of Durham County’s pandemic response for nearly a year and a half when, on May 10, Raleigh attorney Charles Monteith filed a lawsuit that claims Harris was sexually harassed by Jenkins and the Cumberland County Department of Public Health retaliated when she reported what was going on.
“We believe that the ineffective employment policies of the Cumberland County Department of Public Health allowed this sexual harassment and retaliation to occur,” Monteith said in the release. “Our goal is for the department to recognize these faults and address them, so no one else is harmed.”
Willie Darby, Durham County’s acting attorney, on Friday told the INDY that the county will not be issuing a public statement about the allegations.
“Not at this point,” Darby said. “[Durham County] is not named as a defendant, first of all.”
Monteith states in the lawsuit that Harris began working with the Cumberland County public health department in early November 2015 as a processing assistant.
Six months later Harris was promoted to an administrative position in the public health department’s executive management suite, where she reported directly to Jenkins, according to the complaint.
“Not long after he became [Harris’s] supervisor, Jenkins began to ask [her] personal questions and statements that made her feel uncomfortable,” Montieth states in the complaint.
Harris claims that Jenkins also asked questions about her husband, and told her “she never talked about her husband,” according to the complaint.
“Jenkins’s comments and actions made [Harris] reasonably believe that [the public health executive] was attempting to have a romantic and/or sexual relationship with [her],” Monteith, whose offices are in Raleigh, states in the complaint,
Harris says on February 10, 2017, she spoke with Buck Wilson, the former Cumberland County public health director, “and informed him that she was being sexually harassed by Jenkins,” according to the complaint.
Harris says it was about one week later when Wilson informed her that she would no longer report to Jenkins, but instead report to his office.
Media reports during that time period indicate that Wilson resigned as director in June at the onset of an investigation into claims that Cumberland County Health Department failed to alert women about abnormal results from breast and cervical cancer exams.
Media reports also indicate that Wilson’s resignation was effective on July 7, 2017. According to the complaint filed in Cumberland Superior Court, it was roughly the same time—“in or around July, 2017”—when Wilson told Harris that she would “thereafter report…to an administrative assistant… and that her “job responsibilities were substantially reduced” and she “suffered a loss of status among her co-workers.”
One month later, on August 21, Harris responded by filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charging that the Cumberland County public health department had retaliated against her after she complained about being sexually harassed, according to the complaint.
Months later, on January 13, Harris says public health officials assigned her to work at a reception desk. As a consequence, Harris says she “could no longer accrue compensatory time.”
The complaint states that at least one of her co-workers was “reluctant to complain” to the county’s public health officials “about discrimination and other work issues because she feared she would lose her job or be treated like [Harris].”
The allegations against Jenkins comes one month after federal prosecutors filed a multi-count indictment accusing Anita L. Jackson, the Durham County public health department’s former medical director, of fraudulently billing Medicare for more than $46 million when she treated more than 700 patients who suffered from chronic sinus problems.
According to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, mediation of the complaint against Cumberland’s public health department and Jenkins will probably take place in March.
“If the case is not resolved at mediation, a jury trial is currently scheduled for the week of April 25,” according to the agency’s release.
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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to email@example.com.