Ms. Step

Merline Anderson let Leslie Hamilton prey on STEP's female employees and clients. The social-services agency had to settle a bruising lawsuit, but Anderson's still in charge.

Sometimes it seemed as though Leslie Hamilton could get away with anything. Former co-workers say Hamilton, a staff employee at Services Toward Empowering People Inc., referred to a co-worker's children as "halfbreeds and zebra kids." They say he called another co-worker a "maggot"; rubbed up against women's breasts, then blamed his lame leg; asked women why their "ass was so close to the ground." In staff meetings, they say, Hamilton was often disruptive and even seemed disrespectful to executive director Merline Anderson, but he wasn't disciplined for that misbehavior. If anything, he and Anderson appeared to have a close relationship -- employees saw him in Anderson's office, cutting her hair.

To Anderson and members of the clique that seemed to be in charge at the St. Louis County social-services agency, 54-year-old Hamilton was just playful. They found Hamilton's obnoxious behavior funny and appeared to encourage it.

To those outside the clique, Hamilton was an asshole.

Jennifer Silverberg
Former STEP employees don't understand why the agency's managers tolerated Leslie Hamilton for so long.
Former STEP employees don't understand why the agency's managers tolerated Leslie Hamilton for so long.

Leanne Carlton* was one of those workers on the outside, someone who just wanted to do her job without having to endure Hamilton's taunts. She tried to steer clear of him, but on Oct. 15, 1998, Hamilton was impossible to ignore.

That Thursday, Carlton was on the phone with a Missouri Division of Family Services caseworker, trying to complete a report that was due in court the next day. Her cubicle was located near a conference table, which doubled as the lunchroom table. Although lunchtime was over, Hamilton remained at the table, boisterously holding court. Carlton peered over the cubicle wall and asked the group to quiet down so that she could talk to the DFS worker. Carlton says she looked directly at Hamilton and asked him to quiet down. Instead, he got louder, making it impossible for Carlton to complete the call.

Frustrated, Carlton asked her supervisor, Judy Weilepp, to transfer the call to another area. As the call was transferred, Carlton huffed out of the area and slammed the door behind her. When she returned, she recalls, Hamilton said, "Who do you think you are, slamming doors around here? You're gonna make me jump on top of those cabinets."

"You feel like you wanna jump up on top of the cabinets, then jump," Carlton retorted. Still angry, she sought advice from Weilepp, who suggested that Carlton write a formal complaint and submit it to Anderson. Weilepp, in a conversation later that day with STEP finance director Arbon Hairston, mentioned the advice she'd given Carlton.

When Carlton returned to work on Friday, she ran into Hamilton. He wanted to talk.

"Are you still mad about the phone yesterday?" she recalls him saying.

"Leslie, leave me alone," Carlton said. "I'll talk to you at a later date."

"Oh, you can talk to me now," she claims he said. Then he began leaning toward her, using his body to push hers into the copy room.

"Get off me -- I'll talk to you at a later date," she remembers saying, but it didn't seem to have any effect on him. "You know what? If my voice is not serious enough for you, if my face is not serious enough for you, I'm telling you, I'm serious. Just leave me alone!"

Hamilton reached down into his pants pocket, pulled out a knife and opened it.

Carlton says she yelled, "Mr. Hamilton, is that a pocketknife, and what is it you plan to do with it?" -- but apparently not loudly enough to bring any curious co-workers to the copy room. Then, she says, Hamilton closed the knife and put it away.

Shaken, Carlton went back to her desk and called her sister to tell her what had just happened. Then she went home.

Carlton worried all weekend about Hamilton. She was scared -- afraid he'd confront her if she complained, afraid his harassment would continue if she didn't. She decided to take her supervisor's advice and prepared a written complaint. On Monday, she dropped a copy of her grievance, recounting the lunchtime dispute and the knife incident, on Weilepp's desk. She also left copies with Anderson and Georgie Donahue, STEP's second-in-command.

To hear Carlton's grievance, Anderson decided to schedule a "conflict-resolution conference." The committee, which met on Oct. 22, three days after Anderson received the grievance, included Anderson, Donahue, STEP lawyer Bob Jones Jr. and contract-compliance director Rick Reinbott. Although Anderson wanted Carlton and Hamilton to have what she termed a "confrontation" during the meeting, Carlton refused to be in the same room with him, so the committee allowed Carlton to come in alone to make a statement. Carlton says she asked Anderson whether she could bring someone to the meeting for support but that Anderson said no. And when she asked whether she could tape-record the meeting, Carlton claims, STEP's attorney told her that taping the meeting was neither possible nor necessary.

At first, Carlton says, the committee asked her to describe her grievance "in her own words" and not read from her statement. But soon it became apparent to Carlton that the committee members were more interested in her behavior than in Hamilton's. Before the hearing, STEP management had solicited statements from several employees, including friends of Hamilton's, who denied seeing him harass Carlton or pull out a knife. Those employees also volunteered information about Carlton's sexual behavior -- allegations that factored in the committee's questions. Carlton says the committee asked her whether it was true that she had invited Hamilton to come over to her house and "sand her hardwood floors," whether she had sat on the lap of a co-worker's son, whether she had asked a male co-worker to DJ a "'dirty 30' party in a thong." Carlton says she told the committee that all the allegations were untrue.

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