Complaint about banana toy, sexual jokes started turmoil at Iowa’s workplace safety agency

Complaint about banana toy, sexual jokes started turmoil at Iowa’s workplace safety agency
Kim Reynolds THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A complaint alleging that employees at Iowa’s workplace safety agency used a toy banana to make sexual jokes triggered an investigation that led to the removal of two top officials, according to a copy obtained by the Associated Press.

The complaint, sent anonymously in July to Gov. Kim Reynolds and the state’s human resources agency, the Department of Administrative Services, threatened that the information would be released to the media if the “disgusting” behavior wasn’t addressed.

Both of the accused employees say that the allegation was false, that the toy was actually a stress ball and that it was never used for sexual innuendo. But the complaint triggered a Department of Administrative Services investigation that cast a harsh light on the work environment inside the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health enforcement unit, leading to a management shake-up.

Supervisor Deborah Babb retired after the investigation concluded in October. The same day, Labor Commissioner Michael Mauro terminated Babb’s boss, OSHA director Jens Nissen, the state’s top investigator of workplace deaths and injuries.

The complaint alleged that office assistant Dawn Chamberlain and OSHA consultant Ben Brightman routinely passed around a child’s banana toy made of soft, stretchy material that they pretended was a penis and waved at passing employees. Uncomfortable colleagues couldn’t complain because Babb joined in the horseplay, it alleged.

Chamberlain and Brightman said investigators ultimately deemed the allegation was unfounded.

“I had a hard time defending myself because the allegations were so absurd, so ludicrous,” Brightman told the AP on Monday. “It throttles me that it’s gone this far. I can’t believe the allegations of one person can have this much effect.”

Chamberlain confirmed she brought the banana to the office but said it was never used in horseplay.

The governor’s press secretary declined comment on the handling of the complaint, which said it expected quick action, given Reynolds’ goal of making state workplaces harassment-free. A lawyer for Babb had no immediate comment.

The complaint was lodged during a hard-fought campaign in which Democrats were accusing Reynolds of mishandling sexual harassment cases inside state government. Reynolds, a Republican, won a four-year term last month.

The letter also alleged that several of Babb’s subordinates had quit or transferred due to her management style, which included intimidating employees and playing favorites. It alleged that Nissen said he couldn’t take action because Babb was protected politically by Mauro and Deputy Commissioner Pam Conner.

In a whistleblower complaint last month, Nissen wrote that two subordinates complained to him about Babb’s management in July and that he reported their concerns and his own to Mauro. Nissen said Mauro told him that he had spoken with Babb and that everything would be OK. He said Mauro was later upset when he learned about the Department of Administrative Services investigation.

Nissen alleges he was fired for speaking out about the unprofessional and hostile environment.

An Iowa law passed in 2017 requires agencies to release the “documented reasons and rationale” when public workers are fired, demoted or resign in lieu of termination. But a lawyer for Iowa Workforce Development said it doesn’t have to provide the reasons for Nissen’s termination and Babb’s departure because Nissen was an at-will employee and Babb technically retired.

Mauro, one of the few high-ranking Democrats in Iowa’s Republican-dominated state government, has said that he can’t comment on personnel matters. The Iowa Senate last year reconfirmed Mauro, 70, as commissioner for a six-year appointment that runs until 2023.

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