Gov. Tony Evers and his allies are pointing to sexual harassment lawsuits against Tim Michels’ company as proof that his Republican challenger is unfit for office, noting, in the words of an Evers campaign television ad, that “the culture comes from the top. “
Asked for more detail, the Evers campaign provided the Wisconsin State Journal with documents from each of three women’s sexual harassment lawsuits — one filed in 1998 in Wisconsin, one from 2012 in Pennsylvania, and another from 2012 in Wyoming.
During the candidates’ one debate this election season, held Friday, Michels pushed back against Evers’ attack by saying there had been “five sexual allegations over the 62-year history of our company and zero of them have been found to be true.”
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Among other things, the suits provided by the Evers campaign allege repeated sexual and verbal abuse and retaliation for reporting it by a total of seven named then-Michels Corp. employees, none of it specifically by Tim Michels, who since at least 1998 has been in a leadership position with the company his parents co-founded.
Each suit is filed against the Michels Corp. All were dismissed at the request of the parties “with prejudice” — legal speak meaning the plaintiff is effectively barred from refiling the suit because the issues in the case are considered resolved.
Only one of the dismissal orders indicates that the associated case was settled, but two attorneys with experience litigating such cases said such dismissals are common in cases in which the parties have reached a settlement. The “vast majority” of such cases are settled before they reach trial, said Madison attorney Bob Kasieta. He and New Berlin attorney Maxwell Livingston also said the settlements are typically not filed in court and the parties sued do not admit any wrongdoing as a part of the settlements.
Livingston said such cases are “very difficult to prove” because they require that the behavior at issue was “so offensive as to make it impossible to do your job.”
Robert Mihelich, an attorney for the woman in the 1998 case, said the case “did not involve” Tim Michels. But Mihelich, who also defends employers in sex-harassment cases, was critical of how hard the Michels Corp. fought what he said were straightforward and factual allegations.
His client was the only woman on a Michels Corp. road crew and was subjected to repeated verbal harassment and sexual touching, as well as denied bathroom access, the complaint alleges.
“That one, it was bad,” he said of the case. “My conclusion was this company did not take it seriously, from the top down, at that time.”
Colleen Ramage, the attorney for the plaintiff in the Pennsylvania case, also said Tim Michels was not the subject of any of her client’s allegations, which included that a supervisor had given the woman a sex toy and made multiple sexually explicit comments to her. The case was settled, Ramage said, but a confidentiality agreement prohibited her from sharing further details. She said the case “shows a lack of sexual harassment training,” at least at that particular Michels Corp. worksite at that time.
In a statement, candidate Michels’ spokesperson Anna Kelly said: “Tim Michels understands that harassment has no place in the workplace, nor should it be tolerated anywhere. In none of the few cases in the 60-plus year history of the company founded by his mother and father were any allegations proven. The smears from Tony Evers — who’s never run as much as a lemonade stand in the private sector — shows he will stop at nothing to maintain his grip on power, even going so far as to defame a great Wisconsin family-owned company. He should be ashamed of himself.”
Attempts to reach the Michels Corp. for comment were not successful.
Michels Corp. has about 8,000 employees. Neither Kasieta nor Mihelich were able to estimate how many sex-harassment complaints companies of that size typically see. Some Wisconsin companies see dozens, Kasieta said, some none at all.
So what’s the rest of the story?
Tim Michels was not named as having committed any wrongdoing in three sexual harassment complaints filed against Michels Corp. At the same time, he was a highly placed executive with the company at the time the suits were settled.
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