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NC Dem chairman defends handling of sex harassment complaint

Posted April 19, 2012 1:05 p.m. EDT
Updated April 20, 2012 5:37 a.m. EDT

— North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman David Parker said Thursday that he merely followed legal advice in settling a sexual harassment complaint filed last year against the party's former executive director by a junior staffer.

Jay Parmley resigned his post Sunday after news of the complaint became public, but he has denied wrongdoing.

"I did not want to settle the case," Parker said at a news conference. "I had no choice but to follow (the party lawyer's) advice and signed what I was told to sign."

He said he risked personal liability in any lawsuit over the complaint if he had rejected the advice provided by Democratic Party lawyer John Wallace.

"I got good legal advice, but I didn't get really good political advice," Parker said, noting the mounting pressure he has faced in recent days to step down of his handling of the issue.

State officials, including Gov. Beverly Perdue, said they have lost confidence in his ability to lead the party, and party activists said the non-disclosure agreement Parker signed to settle the complaint went against party values of openness and transparency.

"I chose to do what was right rather than what was easy," Parker said. "I am fine with (the decision) because that's who I am."

He reiterated Thursday that he wouldn't resign, but he said he would call a special meeting next month to name a new party chairman and wouldn't run for re-election.

"I am not going to change the standards by which I have lived my life and by which I have practiced law in order to succumb to political pressure. I'm simply not going to do that," he said. "Most of my fellow Democrats are asking me to stay on and fight this and not resign and hunker down, as it were, and continue to lead this party."

"Every single one of the people who called for my resignation, I will vote for each and every one of them proudly," he said.

Perdue expressed relief that Parker plans to leave his post in a few weeks.

"We've been distracted all week," she said. "At the end of the day, it's resolved. We're moving on forward."

Patrick Gaspard, executive director of the Democratic National Committee, called Parker's move "in the best interest of the party."

Still, Democratic consultant Brad Crone said Parker will remain a distraction for the party until he's replaced.

"The Democrats just want this story to go away," Crone said.

Republican National Committee spokesman Matt Connelly noted the lingering effects of the issue when he predicted in a statement that President Barack Obama would have to address it next week during a visit to the Triangle.

"I think chairman Parker wants it to be more about him than the good and the future and the welfare of the Democratic Party, and that's sad," Crone said.

The conservative Civitas Institute has requested the State Board of Elections to investigate whether any taxpayer money was used in the settlement. The state gave more than $331,000 to the Democratic Party last year through the check-off included on income tax returns.

Wallace said that the Democratic Party has a legal defense fund, which doesn't include any taxpayer money, but he declined to say whether it was used to pay the settlement. He said $11,000 had been paid into the fund and $10,000 paid out.

In a letter to Parmley dated Dec. 8, the junior staffer lays out specific behaviors he said constituted sexual harassment:

  • "The Executive Director often solicited my opinion on his clothes. He would point both hands to his crotch and ask me how his crotch looked in those pants."
  • "The Executive Director would frequently pretend to punch my crotch and make a popping noise with his mouth."
  • "The Executive Director frequently gave me unwanted shoulder rubs despite my verbal objections."
  • "On July 28, 2011, the Executive Director discussed, in detail, his sexual activities."
  • "On July 29, 2011, the Executive Director showed me a picture of a penis."

The staffer was fired from the party on Nov. 21 and stated in the letter that he thought it was in retaliation for his complaints against Parmley.

"Quite frankly, to me, the letter smacked of extortion," said Parker, who rebutted each of the allegations point by point during his news conference.

He explained the shoulder rubs by noting that Parmley was a "close talker" who breached people's personal space when meeting with them.

"Political people tend to put their hands on your shoulder," he said. "I noticed this behavior in Jay Parmley but didn't see anything sexual or unwanted in it."

Clothing opinions aren't sexual in nature, he said, noting the staffer who filed the complaint often commented on Parker's bow ties. Likewise, someone pretending to punch a body part isn't usually construed with any sexual intention, he said.

Parker noted that some items mentioned in the letter, such as the alleged July 28 conversation about sexual activities and the July 29 photo – Parker said the photo was described to him as a man with little clothing standing in a San Francisco street – weren't included in a complaint the former staffer filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The EEOC complaint, which Parker said is filed under oath, doesn't list any action prior to Sept. 6.

"None of the stuff that was salacious in the 12/8 letter was included (in the EEOC complaint). We're down to a whack on the leg to wake him up on Sept. 6 and unwanted shoulder rubs," he said. "That doesn't amount to a hostile environment."