Editorial: Protecting a sexual harasser in Kansas

How did a KDADS commissioner get away with sexual harassment for so long?

Brandt Haehn, testifying earlier this year before the Kansas Legislature in his role as commissioner of home and community services for the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, is accused of offering a state government job in exchange for sex to a woman employed by a Topeka-based company working with people with disabilities. (File photo/The Capital-Journal)

When Brandt Haehn was a high-ranking administrator the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, Jennifer Gill says he sexually harassed her for four months. Gill was working in the Newton office of Equi-Venture Farms at the time — a company that provides disability services through the state’s privatized Medicaid system. After Equi-Venture asked for KDADS’ help with a regulatory issue, Haehn allegedly started sending Gill messages that were “graphic and sexual in nature, ranging from words to pictures to video.”

 

These messages included a picture of his penis, a video of him masturbating and repeated solicitations for sex. Gill says Haehn also offered her a managerial job at KDADS if she would agree to have sex with him several times a week.

When Gill alerted Equi-Venture executive director Ben Swinnen to Haehn’s behavior, he didn’t take action because he believed “none was necessary or requested,” according to a report from the Kansas Human Rights Commission. Really? It wasn’t “necessary” to determine if one of Equi-Venture’s employees had been bombarded with sexually predatory messages from a top state official? The report says Swinnen also violated Equi-Venture policy by refusing to immediately investigate Gill’s claims — perhaps he didn’t think it was “necessary” to follow his own company’s rules on allegations of harassment, either.

And Swinnen is being accused of more than negligence — shortly after Gill reported what had been going on with Haehn, she was fired. While Swinnen insists that he “did not engage in any unlawful action with Ms. Gill,” the Human Rights Commission argues that there are reasons to believe she wasn’t fired for “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons,” pointing out that there’s “insufficient evidence to corroborate the reasons for her termination.” In other words, there are reasons to believe Gill was fired in retaliation for reporting Haehn.

There may not have been good reasons to fire Gill, but KDADS had plenty of reasons to fire Haehn. However, when KDADS was informed about what happened, the agency decided that a brief suspension was enough of a punishment. Here’s what Secretary Tim Keck had to say: “As soon as we became aware of these allegations, KDADS put the employee in question on administrative leave.” A few weeks later, he was back on the job, and he remained there until he accepted a job at Amerigroup — one of three insurance companies that manage KanCare.

After The Topeka Capital-Journal published Gill’s allegations about Haehn’s behavior, he was fired from Amerigroup. But as Sen. Anthony Hensley put it, this is “what Keck should have done in the first place. He should have fired the guy.” With the release of the Human Rights Commission’s report, it’s time for Keck to answer a few questions about why this didn’t happen. How much did the agency know when it suspended Haehn? Why wasn’t a more extensive investigation launched? Did Keck really think a suspension was acceptable given the severity of the allegations? How will the state ensure that contractors like Equi-Venture don’t mistreat their employees in the future?

This entire ugly episode is a reminder that some men feel entitled to abuse their power and treat women however they want in the workplace. But the problem is often much larger than the harassers — it encompasses the individuals and systems that work to shield them. Kansans shouldn’t be satisfied until these individuals are punished and these systems are torn down.

Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.

 

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