In an extraordinary act of political theater, North Carolina's Democratic chairman described and dismissed outright the sexual harassment claims against the party’s former top official and refused to immediately relinquish his post Thursday, despite intense national political pressure.
David Parker, defiant and assured in his first public comments on the week-old controversy, announced he would step aside only after a special election by the party’s executive committee tentatively scheduled for May 12.
Parker defended his decisions and condemned what he called the “bubble, rush-to-judgment world where political decisions are made instead of deciding what is right.”
“Most of my fellow Democrats are asking me to stay on and fight this and not resign and hunker down and continue to lead this party,” he said. He declined to name supporters.
The controversy leaves the Democratic Party in disarray with no clear successor as it is poised to play a major role in the presidential election and serve as host of the Democratic National Convention. President Barack Obama, who is pinning his re-election hopes on a victory in North Carolina, is expected to visit the Triangle on Tuesday.
Republicans are trying to draw the president into the controversy. A spokesman for the Republican National Committee said Obama “will be forced to address this continuing scandal when he arrives in Raleigh,” and contended it would hurt his re-election bid. Democrats rejected the assertion.
More than a dozen top N.C. Democrats – including Gov. Bev Perdue – have repeatedly called for Parker to resign in recent days, saying he handled the situation with poor judgment and without transparency by not consulting the party’s governing board. The political embarrassment also prompted calls for the party to find new leadership.
A national Democratic official called Parker “a man without a party” and Democratic convention organizers in Charlotte removed Parker from the host committee.
In a statement, Perdue said she was satisfied that Parker would step aside. But other Democrats wanted to see him exit promptly.
“I think that people would have preferred if the resignation would have been immediate,” said Jerry Meek, a former Democratic Party chairman. “It would have showed a clearer change in direction.”
The controversy became public Wednesday when documents obtained by The News & Observer detailed sexual harassment allegations against former Executive Director Jay Parmley, 41, made by Adriadn Ortega, a 26-year-old former staffer who was fired in November.
In a Dec. 8 letter to Parmley and subsequent federal discrimination filing with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Ortega claimed he was fired in retaliation for his sexual harassment complaint. He listed six allegations in the letter, saying Parmley showed him a picture of male genitals, caressed his leg and discussed his sexual exploits in detail. The letter also sought a financial settlement equal to one year’s pay and health care coverage.
Parmley resigned Sunday but denied harassing any party employee.
In a rambling press conference at Democratic Party headquarters in Raleigh, Parker went point by point through the letter belittling or disputing the claims, citing his own investigation. He said Ortega’s letter “smacked of extortion.”
He stood behind a podium, pale in the TV lights, speaking for 35 minutes using prepared notes and pausing long enough before answering questions to allow the laughter of children on the school playground next door to fill the cavernous room.
Parker, a veteran activist and Statesville attorney, emphasized that the federal complaint Ortega filed under oath in January did not include most of the accusations he made against Parmley in the December letter. The complaint said the harassment started Sept. 6, but the letter lists two allegations that date to late July. Parker said the discrepancy called those claims into question. The EEOC complaint did not detail the harassment.
The Sept. 6 incident described in the letter stated Parmley caressed Ortega’s leg several times during a ride back from a Democratic convention event in Charlotte. Parker said his investigation determined that others were in the car and that Parmley had “whacked” Ortega’s leg to awaken him. But Parker presented no evidence and refused to release his internal investigation.
Parker disputed the implications of Ortega’s claim of “unwanted shoulder rubs,” calling Parmley “friendly” and a close talker. “I did not see anything sexual or unwanted in it,” he said.
The chairman dismissed the genital photo referenced in the letter as being a picture of a “nearly naked man on the streets of San Francisco.” He also suggested Parmley’s fake punches to Ortega’s crotch – something Ortega’s letter claimed happened frequently – were not untoward behavior. “Some men like to pretend they are going to whack you in a particularly painful place,” he said. “There is nothing sexual about that.”
Ortega declined to answer questions about Parker’s statements. He signed a confidentiality agreement as part of the settlement.
But former party administrator Sallie Leslie, who resigned in February citing “unethical actions by party leadership,” said she witnessed Parmley’s shoulder rubs on one occasion. “I am surprised that Chairman Parker would dismiss the allegations made in the complaint as if he were an eyewitness,” she said in a statement. “Jay’s constant presence in the complainant’s workspace and unsolicited attention made for an awkward and uncomfortable work environment.”
In defending his role, Parker said he followed the advice of the party’s attorney, John Wallace, who determined the complaints didn’t amount to cause to fire Parmley. Parker said he didn’t want to settle the complaint with Ortega but the attorney did. It remains unclear how much money Ortega was paid and where the money came from. He asked for a year’s pay; campaign finance reports show he made about $20,000.
The conservative Civitas Institute filed a complaint with the state elections board Thursday asking for an investigation into the money used for the settlement.
One possible source for the money is a legal defense fund the party has maintained since 2011. The party does not have to disclose the fund’s existence or its contributions or expenditures. Party officials wouldn’t say whether the settlement money came from the fund.
Parker expedited the process to find his replacement by moving a June 17 party executive committee meeting forward a month. He also dropped his call for a referendum on his job. He now says he will not seek re-election to the unpaid, volunteer position.
No prominent Democrats immediately stepped forward to openly seek the party chairmanship. A number of likely choices, including Meek and former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, suggested they were not interested, and others deferred to Perdue and party insiders to select a front runner.
“I’m disgusted with what I’ve seen go down in the last few days,” Cunningham said. “But I’m glad to see we will be hitting the reset button and finding new leadership.”
Staff writer Craig Jarvis contributed to this report.
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