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.

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.

When it was Hamilton's turn to meet with the committee, he initially denied having a knife, then changed his story and told the committee his pocketknife must have fallen out of his pants when he reached in to pull out some breath mints. After Hamilton was finished, the committee began summoning witnesses to the conference room, paging them one by one over the PA system. Notes from the meeting show that committee members were mainly interested in learning what they could about Carlton's sex life, not Hamilton's on-the-job performance.

Angela Walker* -- one of the women Carlton had identified as a witness and someone who could verify her version of the events -- waited to be summoned by the committee but wasn't called. Nor would the committee agree to hear from Angie Guthrie, who could describe Hamilton's behavior toward Carlton, as well as the harassment Guthrie herself endured by Hamilton. The committee refused to hear from Guthrie because she was fired the day Carlton submitted her grievance. Judy Weilepp also would not be heard from -- two days after she told Hairston about Carlton, Weilepp received a certified letter, informing her her employment had been terminated.

The official minutes show the committee concluded that Carlton had given two different versions of the events, that the witnesses did not substantiate her claims, that Carlton was not "well liked" and that without a "face-to-face confrontation, it would be impossible to validate the incident." According to the minutes, the team "drew the conclusion that either the situation was blown out of proportion, or that some type of relationship and/or situation had taken place outside the workplace, or that this was a vendetta attack, or that [she] has had some outside experience that has affected her personally to force her to be overly intimidated."

The group's decision: Carlton was sent to mandatory counseling for 30 days and, in order to minimize her time around Hamilton, transferred to the Youth at Risk program. Hamilton was written up for "excessive playful behavior" and also sent to counseling.

Carlton was outraged by the decision and decided to take the complaint to STEP's board of directors. As a federally funded community-action agency, STEP is required to have 15 directors -- five drawn from the public sector, five from the private sector and five from the community the agency serves. According to STEP's personnel policy, employees are allowed to appeal grievance decisions to the board. Carlton asked Anderson's assistant for a list of directors and their addresses. When Anderson heard the request, she told Carlton no, that the proper procedure would be to submit the appeal to Anderson, who would then give it to the board. But Carlton balked and asked whether she would be fired for sending a letter to the board. Anderson told Carlton she would not. Later, Carlton found the names and addresses in the materials she had received when she was hired. Using the list, Carlton sent a letter to each and every member.

In a certified letter dated Nov. 12, 1998, Carlton was informed that members of the board's personnel committee had reviewed her complaint and were satisfied with the outcome of the grievance hearing. They reached their decision without ever contacting Carlton. The letter was signed by Anderson, and copies of the letter were sent to Richard Hughes, a lawyer who at the time was chairman of the personnel committee, and Nancy Jones, then-chairwoman of the STEP board.

That may have ended the matter for STEP managers and board members, but for Carlton, things went from bad to worse. When her birthday arrived in mid-November, a note was left on her desk referring to her as a "birthday slut." One evening, Donahue asked Carlton to leave all of her files and agency cell phone with her. Carlton claims Donahue even went through her gym bag to make sure she didn't take anything home and confiscated a notebook. Carlton said she asked whether she was being fired, but Donahue said no.

The next day, Donahue asked Carlton to come to her office, and she told Carlton that she was worried about her. Donahue said that when she read through Carlton's notebook, she found statements accusing Anderson of embezzlement. Anderson walked into the office, and Donahue also told her about the passage. Stunned, Carlton asked to see her personal notebook. Donahue retrieved the notebook from a safe and pointed to the reference. When Carlton looked at it, she knew exactly where it had come from. The notes were from a staff meeting. Carlton and a few others were given the hypothetical problem of deciding how workers would continue running the agency if Anderson were accused of embezzling funds. While Carlton was with Donahue and Anderson in the office, she complained that the grievance committee had never interviewed the people she had named as witnesses; in particular, they never talked to Angela Walker. Upset, Carlton took a sick day and went home. It was Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving. As she was leaving the building, she ran into Walker, who was coming in, but the two did not have much time to talk.

That same day, Anderson directed the preparation of two letters. The first letter notified Carlton that she was being fired, effective Nov. 30. Her position, she was told, had "been terminated." The second letter was for Walker. STEP fired her as well, claiming that her position was being eliminated as a result of a lack of funding. But instead of providing the 10- to 30-day notice mandated in the personnel manual, Walker was given just 20 minutes to gather her things and get out of the building.

On Dec. 18, 1998, Anderson sent a letter to Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, claiming she had uncovered evidence that Carlton had submitted "false records of service for clients of STEP" and believed that Carlton had "forged clients' signatures." In May 1999, Anderson would repeat those allegations to the head of the Community Block Service Program, which provides funds for STEP.

Merline Anderson began working at STEP in 1990 and took over as executive director in 1995. The nonprofit, which employs about 35, operates on an annual budget of about $3 million and serves about 10,000 mostly low-income clients in St. Louis County each year. Its services include drug- and alcohol-abuse counseling, weatherization assistance for homeowners and gang-prevention programs. It also operates a food pantry. STEP's purpose, according to its mission statement, is "to empower individuals and families to maximize their potential and have the opportunity to be productive and contributing citizens." Clients, according to the mission statement, are to be treated with "dignity and respect."

Former STEP employees say that under Anderson, "dignity and respect" seemed to be in short supply -- at least in the workplace. They describe Anderson as a "terrible administrator" who relied heavily on Donahue to act as her "enforcer." They say Anderson placed a premium on loyalty, letting her agency career "out of control," giving employees like Leslie Hamilton free rein.

Of course, among Anderson's sharpest critics are the employees who were fired -- the women who had complained about Hamilton. But if Anderson thought she was solving her agency's problems by firing Leanne Carlton, Judy Weilepp, Angela Walker and Angie Guthrie, she was wrong. The four women hired attorneys Gary Burger and Paul Slocumb, and they filed an employment-discrimination and retaliatory-discharge suit in federal court on Sept. 10, 1999, seeking damages for lost wages and emotional distress. The case was assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Mummert. Burger, the lead attorney for the women, was relentless in his investigation of the agency, and what emerged was a troubling account of just how badly Anderson and the STEP board handled this matter -- and clear evidence that was in Anderson's possession showing that Hamilton had no business being employed at the agency.

The most damaging piece of evidence Burger uncovered was a tape recording of an interview between STEP management and Ruth Smyth*, a drug-counseling client, made in 1997 while Hamilton was working as a drug counselor for the agency.

Smyth had developed an insatiable hunger for heroin. Her slide into addiction included some prostitution on the city's South Side, selling her body to get the drugs it so desperately craved. In 1996, St. Louis Circuit Judge Julian Bush imposed a seven-year sentence for morphine possession but placed her on probation with the proviso that she attend drug counseling. Hoping to stay clean, Smyth moved to the county because she didn't know any drug dealers there. STEP's drug counseling took place in the county and it was free, an attractive feature for a woman without a job. Smyth would attend the once-a-week evening class led by Leslie Hamilton. Several weeks into the 12-week program, Smyth went to STEP and recorded a statement for its management, leveling serious charges against her counselor.

In the recording, Smyth tells then-finance director Gerald Goerger and Vern Johannes, head of STEP's drug-counseling program, that Hamilton called her at home one Saturday in May 1997 and asked her whether she could meet him that evening at 6 p.m. because he had something important to tell her. She already had plans, so he suggested that she arrive a half-hour early for her next class. Even though Hamilton didn't tell her what he wanted, she assumed he had job news for her. Smyth had mentioned previously to the class that she needed a job because being at home with nothing to do was dangerous.

When she arrived early for class, Smyth claimed, Hamilton led her back to his office and shut the door. He told her that he knew heroin was her "drug of choice," he told her that he could get it and he said that when he had called on the previous Saturday, he had had a gram of it in his pocket for her. Smyth claimed that Hamilton asked her how she could pay for it. Smyth replied, "Well, I'm trying to get a job. Surely something will come up soon and I just ain't got one yet."

Smyth described what happened next: "And he said, 'Well, I want some of that pussy.' And I said, 'Oh yeah.' He said, 'Yeah, turn around.' And as I turned around, he lifted up my shirt and said I had a nice ass and that he wanted that."

The two agreed to meet the next day. Hamilton said he'd pick her up and bring the heroin. But, Smyth said, on the next day, she stayed away from her home. When class rolled around the next week, Smyth asked a friend to go with her. Once again, Hamilton asked Smyth to come back to his office. This time, Smyth said, her drug counselor claimed to have heroin. The two agreed that after class, they would meet at 8:30 p.m at the Steak 'n Shake on Page Avenue. According to Smyth, Hamilton also pulled a lot of money out of his pocket and said, "I have like $500 here. I'm gonna take this home because it is too much to be carrying around."

After class, Smyth took her friend home, then drove over to the Steak 'n Shake. Hamilton pulled up about 15 minutes late, and Smyth said she locked up her car and got into his truck. Hamilton allegedly told her that he didn't actually have the heroin, so they would have to go to the Talayna's at Forest Park Parkway and Skinker Boulevard to score the drug. As they approached Talayna's, Hamilton made Smyth get out of the truck; then he drove to an alley. Ten or 15 minutes later, Smyth said, Hamilton picked her up and showed her the "pure tar" heroin, which she described as more than she had ever seen.

Smyth said that Hamilton drove to a Walgreens, went in and emerged with a package of 10 syringes after telling a pharmacist that the needles were for his diabetic mother. Then Hamilton drove her to a Motel 6 near Lambert Field, where he rented a room using his credit card. Although a heavy heroin user, Smyth had always preferred heroin tablets cut with Dormin, a sedative. She didn't know how to cook black-tar heroin, but Hamilton did. By putting heroin and water in a soda can and heating it with a lighter, Hamilton was able to melt the drug and fill a syringe for her. As she was shooting up, Hamilton called his girlfriend from his cell phone. After the call, Smyth said, she and Hamilton talked for a while. Then, according to her taped account, she said, "He performed oral sex on me and then we had intercourse. And then he gave me another shot of heroin."

As they prepared to leave the hotel, Hamilton told Smyth to stop by STEP the next day to pick up more heroin. In the meantime, he gave her two syringes full of it as a present. But as they went back to the truck, Hamilton couldn't find the leftover heroin. Smyth said he started accusing her of taking the drugs and took her back to the room, where she removed all of her clothes and handed each item to him, piece by piece, to search. When the strip search revealed nothing, Smyth said, she tried to walk out of the room, but Hamilton grabbed her by the wrists and tried to pull her back in. She wrenched herself away and fled to a nearby restaurant parking lot, hiding under a semi trailer for a while and then hitching a ride back to Steak 'n Shake to get her car.

A week later, Smyth called Judge Bush and told him what had happened. She also told him that she didn't want to go back to class. Smyth called her probation officer and then went down to STEP's headquarters to make a formal complaint. Anderson was out of the office that day, but the audiotape of Smyth's complaint was given to her when she returned. In addition, either the probation officer or the judge contacted the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney's office about the allegations. The prosecutor's office turned the matter over to the Woodson Terrace police because the hotel was located in that municipality.

On June 11, 1997, Anderson met with Hamilton and his supervisor and told him of the allegations. He denied the accusations and subsequently gave Anderson a written statement in which he called Smyth's claims a "bold-face-lie!" In the statement, he not only denied calling Smyth on a Saturday but denied having a conversation about sex with her or meeting her after class. Instead, Hamilton recounted an elaborate "fish tale." He said that after class on June 5, he washed his boat and cleaned fish. Included in his statement were the names and telephone numbers of six people who could back up his story.

He also provided a motive for Smyth's accusations. Hamilton had announced early in the course that he had an '85 Chevy Nova for sale for $450. Smyth told him after class that she had received a $450 income-tax refund and wanted the car. Hamilton sold it to her, but as she drove the car home, the clutch went out. She had a new clutch put in the car, but it was junked within a month. The night of June 5, Smyth was driving her brother's car, and she wasn't happy about losing the $450. She was also angry because Hamilton claimed she had missed two classes and would have to restart the counseling sessions.

Hamilton claimed that Smyth had yet another motive. She had recently been arrested once again for prostitution and was upset because he had invited the male members of the class to hurl insults at her as part of therapy, which many did by saying, "Hey, I got a crack rock, how about a head job?"

But five days later, on June 16, Hamilton came back to Anderson with a new story. The Woodson Terrace police had discovered the receipt for the Motel 6 rental on June 5. This time, Hamilton told Anderson he had in fact gone to the hotel with Smyth but that nothing had happened. And when Smyth mentioned drugs to him, Hamilton said, he came to his senses and left. He explained to the executive director that the incident was "the aftermath of domestic problems and weakness." In fact, when Anderson recounted her meeting with Hamilton during her deposition, she said she was aware that he had had "some type of spat or altercation ... and the weakness probably was his ego...." Hamilton also told Anderson that Smyth had been propositioning the men in her counseling group for sex.

On June 17, the Woodson Terrace police met with Anderson and presented her with yet another version that Hamilton had given to explain the incident. This time, he told the police, he had agreed to have sex with Smyth after she propositioned him. After he took her to Talayna's to buy drugs, they went to Motel 6, where Smyth cooked the heroin and injected it, then started slobbering and drooling and underwent a personality transformation. Hamilton claims he was suddenly jolted to his senses and left the hotel before they could have sex.

When the police reported the third version, and confirmed some of Smyth's story, such as the fact that the pair had been in the Motel 6 on June 5, they also informed Anderson that Hamilton had a criminal history. But she didn't bother to ask for details. If she had, Anderson would have discovered that between 1969 and 1989, Hamilton had amassed a total of nine felony convictions for forgery or stealing in the city and county and had served time for some of the crimes.

Later, Anderson would tell lawyers representing her fired employees that she could only recall a mention of Hamilton's having an arrest record and a "domestic-situation arrest."

After they spoke with Anderson, the Woodson Terrace police went to the county prosecutor's office, but Robert McCulloch's staff decided not to go after Hamilton, concluding there was not enough evidence to get a conviction.

Not only did Hamilton dodge prosecution, he got little more than a slap on the wrist from Anderson -- even after admitting to police that he had taken a drug-counseling client to Talayna's so she could buy heroin and then took her to a hotel with the intention of having sex with her. The head of an agency that's supposed to treat clients with "dignity and respect" suspended Hamilton for three days without pay and transferred him out of the drug-counseling program and into the Social Security program. Even then, the transfer may have been largely motivated by the fact that referrals to the drug program from the Missouri Division of Probation and Parole had dramatically dropped off after the incident with Leslie Hamilton. Thanks to the damage Hamilton did to the credibility of STEP's drug-counseling program, referrals plummeted from 30-35 per month to three or four as a result of Smyth's complaint. To repair the damage, STEP sent letters to the state probation-and-parole office, advising that Hamilton had been suspended without pay and that STEP had instituted a "strict agency policy regarding staff and client association."

But although she didn't know it, Ruth Smyth would exact her revenge.

The audiotape that Smyth, a woman struggling to break a drug addiction, had recorded in 1997 was played in the courtroom of Judge Mummert, where Carlton and her three co-workers were pressing their case against Merline Anderson and STEP.

After the jury heard Smyth's devastating allegations, Mummert called the lawyers to his chambers. What was said is not part of the court record, but afterward, STEP's lawyers threw in the towel. STEP agreed to pay a total of $400,000 to the four plaintiffs -- women who, at most, earned $22,000 a year.

The settlement involved more than money. Merline Anderson had to write another letter, one that "completely and unequivocally" retracted her fraud and forgery allegations against Carlton.

After Leanne Carlton was fired, she tried to get a job at other Missouri social-service agencies but found she had been blackballed. It took her about a year to finally land a position at a job in another state. Angela Walker chose to stay at home with her children. Judy Weilepp found a position at a battered-women's shelter two weeks after she was fired but said that she didn't fit in with the organization and left at the end of her probationary period. Since then, she has applied at several social-service agencies, but three years later, the only employment she has found was a temporary job with the Census Bureau. Angie Guthrie was able to get a job with a tax-preparation company about three months after she was fired.

Almost four months after Hamilton's confrontation with Carlton, his luck would finally run out. A female client in the Social Security management program complained about Hamilton. The agency managed funds for Social Security recipients who had problems that might lead them to spend the federal money on drugs or alcohol or who had family members who might steal the checks from them. The woman claimed that she was supposed to meet Hamilton at a liquor store after she picked up a $300 check from STEP and cashed it. She claimed he was going to take her to look at a house she could rent. When they met up, he took all but $25 of her money but told her he didn't have time to look at the house. Later, she claimed, Hamilton asked her to meet him at a local store. Thinking they would look at the house, the client got a ride from a relative. But when she got into Hamilton's truck, he told her that she wasn't going to get to see the house. Then, she claimed, he propositioned her for sex, and when she got out of the truck, he asked her to raise her coat so he could see her behind.

Anderson had no choice but to investigate. Once again, Hamilton denied the accusations, claiming the woman was a drug addict. Ultimately, Anderson decided to give the woman a check for $300 out of the agency's general account. Hamilton would be suspended for three days. As part of the last entry in an internal-investigation memo dated Feb. 4, 1999, Anderson noted that the client had been found to be a "possible schizophrenic." Then on Feb. 8, Georgie Donahue sent an internal memo to STEP's staff, informing them that Hamilton had resigned. She added, "We wish Leslie well in his new endeavors."

What Donahue didn't tell STEP staff was that Hamilton had requested a number of checks for his clients. Although STEP requires a department head and director to approve check requests, Donahue's administrative assistant had signed off on many of them. The assistant was one of the clique members and had also been one of the witnesses in Carlton's conflict resolution. In her deposition, Anderson was vague as to what exactly Hamilton did wrong, saying only that the transactions gave an "appearance of impropriety." However, STEP and Hamilton entered into an agreement: Hamilton resigned and agreed to repay the agency $700. The documents from the case show two receipts from Hamilton for $50 each, but no more. Asked whether Hamilton had paid back the entire amount, she refused to answer the question. But she did admit that Hamilton was never prosecuted.

Burger alleged that what was really happening was that Hamilton was shaking down his clients, telling them he would approve withdrawals from the account if they would give him a portion of the proceeds.

When the Riverfront Times caught up with Leslie Hamilton last week, he adamantly denied almost every allegation made against him by former STEP workers and clients. He never called co-workers names or referred to their bodies, he says. Carlton's account of the confrontation in the copy room? "It never happened." The Social Security client who claimed he propositioned her for sex and stole $300? "That is another damn lie." The heroin addict's story? "A blatant lie."

But Hamilton struggles to explain why he kept changing his account of what happened with Ruth Smyth. His first version of the story, he says, was designed to protect STEP. "I don't think it was so much a lie as wanting to involve them in what she was claiming because what she was claiming was totally untrue," Hamilton tells the RFT. So why did he change his story? "I then felt that the only way I would be able to salvage the credibility was to, you know, give them the real scoop of what transpired," Hamilton says. He doesn't mention that police blew holes through his made-up stories.

Hamilton also denies ever being required to repay $700 to STEP. When asked to explain the two receipts for $50 from the agency, Hamilton says the payments were reimbursements for overusing his STEP-provided phone.

What about Hamilton's relationship to his ex-boss? Did he ever cut Anderson's hair in the workplace? "I may have." Did he ever tell her about his criminal background? "I don't think these are questions I should be answering." As for what he's doing now, Hamilton says, "I don't really think that is any of your business."

Merline Anderson refuses to say why Hamilton was allowed to remain an employee despite evidence that he was preying on clients and other employees. In an interview, she replies to most questions about Hamilton with a terse "No comment." She insists that all she will talk about is her organization's mission, not "personnel matters."

She makes it clear she didn't want to settle the lawsuit brought by Carlton and the other women. Instead, she blames the insurance company for forcing the settlement -- even though STEP had to give its approval. As for the letter she had to write, retracting her allegations that Carlton had committed fraud and forgery, she says, "I'm making no comment about that."

Nearly a year after the case was settled, STEP's board of directors is essentially the same, with one key exception -- Richard Hughes, the lawyer who had headed the board's personnel committee. On Dec. 17, 1998, Hughes admitted to drinking alcohol and snorting cocaine, getting in his car and killing a Ferguson police officer and his wife, who left behind four children ranging in age from 7 to 14. He was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter and fined $10,000 by the judge. He did not get any jail time.

Because of this board, Anderson is still in charge -- something Gary Burger, one of the lawyers who represented Carlton and her former co-workers, says is unconscionable. "Every act that STEP has done shows a course of conduct to just dominate, intimidate and destroy my clients, who are just good people who just wanted a job," Burger says. "If you are on the board of directors of an organization, you have the obligation to guide the organization and to prevent the illegal conduct of the organization. How does that bode for the current structure of the entity or future for the entity? It bodes terrible."

Theresa Lynch, STEP's current board chairwoman, attended the trial in Judge Mummert's courtroom, but she won't talk about the lawsuit or the settlement. She even refuses to say whether she was present when Ruth Smyth's audiotape was played. She doesn't want to talk about Leslie Hamilton and his encounter with Smyth; she doesn't want to talk about Merline Anderson's writing a letter accusing an employee of fraud that later had to be retracted. "Those are obviously personnel issues that the agency has to deal with, and I'm not going to comment on personnel issues," she says.

No, Lynch would rather talk about the good work STEP is doing, helping poor people attain self-sufficiency. "The agency," she says, "is doing its best to serve our clients with the programs we offer, and we are always looking at ways to improve."