Six women file sexual harassment lawsuit against KHP

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Six former and current employees of the Kansas Highway Patrol on Friday filed a federal lawsuit against top officers at the agency, accusing them of creating a hostile work environment marked by sexual harassment, gender discrimination and retaliation.

The 79-page lawsuit names 11 officers at the Highway Patrol, including Superintendent Herman Jones and Assistant Superintendent Jason De Vore as well as Kraig Knowlton, director of personnel services for the Department of Administration.

The lawsuit alleges 32 counts of violating federal anti-discrimination law, the First Amendment and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

The governor’s office and the Highway Patrol did not respond to emails seeking comment on the lawsuit.

The lawsuit accuses Jones of repeatedly touching and hugging female employees against their wishes in an environment where men were treated differently from women, and it says De Vore was known to “openly have the opinion that women do not belong in law enforcement.”

At one point, a former KHP female employee said Jones and De Vore made “her feel like she should be in the kitchen,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit comes almost two months after a pair of former Highway Patrol officers took the state to court, contending they were retaliated against for helping female employees defend themselves against sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

The two officers — former Majs. Scott Harrington and Joshua Kellerman — were forced out last summer. It is believed to be the first time in at least 25 years that a Highway Patrol major has been dismissed.

The latest lawsuit accuses Jones of openly making offensive sexual jokes in the presence of female KHP employees, including one instance at the agency’s academy in Salina where he said he needed to “check his flow” while making sexual gestures.

In another instance, he is accused of telling a female employee that she sounded like a “phone sex operator.”

And on another occasion, the lawsuit accuses Jones of commenting on a hotel ad with bikini-clad women that was on a female employee’s computer screen, saying the hotel “had the best view.”

The plaintiffs include Susan Pfannenstiel, the KHP’s former human resources director who accused Jones of sending her instant messages that were sexual in nature.

The lawsuit accuses Jones and De Vore of retaliating against her for reporting complaints of discrimination and sexual harassment of other employees to her supervisers at the Department of Administration as well as a private law firm investigating the allegations.

By June 2020, the lawsuit says Pfannenstiel’s decision-making authority as the agency’s human resources director, was reduced and her recommendations about the department were ignored.

“Col. Jones and Lt. Col. De Vore made policy changes, without the consultation or review
of Pfannenstiel, which directly impacted her staff’s ability to properly execute their
responsibilities,” the lawsuit says.

“Col. Jones and Lt. Col. De Vore undermined Pfannenstiel’s authority and prevented her
from effectively performing her job duties,” the lawsuit states.

“These employment actions are retaliatory as they are a direct result of Pfannenstiel’s
actions in opposition to KHP’s discrimination and harassment.”

Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration hired a private law firm to examine the complaints against Jones in addition to a separate investigation done by the Department of Administration.

The governor’s office released summaries of those two investigations last summer.

The summaries said the complaints generally alleged the superintendent “greeted employees by slapping their backs, shaking their hands, patting their shoulders, hugging, standing close to the employee, and sometimes making awkward comments that were not of a sexual nature.”

“The employees did not allege that the physical contact or comments were of a sexual nature,” the summary said.

“Col. Jones was interviewed and indicated that he did not know the physical nature of the greetings made the employees uncomfortable and would avoid such contact in the future.”

But Kimberly Meader, a senior administrative specialist at the Kansas Highway Patrol until October 2020, questioned whether the attorneys from the private firm took the allegations seriously.

The lawsuit accuses Jones of touching Meader and then verbally sexually harassing her when she was eating lunch with another female employee.

Jones stood behind Meader, placed his hands on her shoulders and began shaking her, the lawsuit states.

“Col. Jones then asked her why she always ‘shakes it’ for him when he is around,” the lawsuit states.

“Col. Jones walked away from Meader singing loudly and repeatedly, ‘shake it for me!'”

After working remotely during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Meader returned to the office in late May.

Upon her return, the lawsuit said, Meader was harassed by Jones.

Jones slid his hand down her arm, touched her across her legs, grabbed her hand,
made a statement that he welcomed her back to the office, and then proceeded to rub
her shoulders, the lawsuit said.

“Meader was in distress over this incident,” the lawsuit said.

Meader told Harrington that “she was scared of Col. Jones, she did not want him to put his hands on her, and that he made unwelcome sexual comments to her nearly every time he saw her,” the lawsuit said.

During her interview with the attorneys from the law firm doing the investigation, the lawsuit said Meader thought the lawyers made fun of her and blamed her for Jones’ conduct.

“Meader was told by the attorneys that the reason people were concerned about her was
because of her own personal life, which was also to blame for Col. Jones’s actions toward
her,” the lawsuit said.

“Meader did not believe that the investigation was taken seriously, nor would positive
results occur from it.”

Knowlton — the personnel services director at the Department of Administration — reported the discrimination and harassment allegations to the governor’s chief of staff and deputy chief of staff in March 2020, the lawsuit states.

KHP brass put a target on Pfannenstiel when Knowlton specifically named her as the “initiator” of the discriminaton investigation, according to the lawsuit.

“Knowlton’s identification of Pfannenstiel and her involvement regarding reporting
discrimination placed a target on Pfannenstiel for retaliation by KHP’s chain of command,” the lawsuit stated.