Published On: Fri, May 15th, 2020

Delray Beach: A Tale of Secrets, Power, Lies, Hypocrisy

Both reports can be seen here:

By: C. Ron Allen

What appears to be an inappropriate relationship gone awry triggered the abrupt resignation in March of the fire chief and a recommendation that the rest of the city employees sit through sexual harassment training.

This came after an independent investigation into allegations of sexual harassment by the city’s public information officer, Gina Carter, against Neal de Jesus while he served as interim city manager from March 2019 to January 2020. During that period they exchanged several salacious messages.

“Glad I’m gonna have my spooning partner at the EOC. No forking though!” wrote de Jesus to Carter on the eve of Hurricane Dorian in August. They were working and staying in the city’s Emergency Operations Center, which was housed at the Fairfield Inn hotel.

Carter, who was hired one month earlier in July, reminded de Jesus that they would be working on opposite shifts: “Ur alpha shift so you will have to spoon with [another female employee]. I didn’t make the rules.” 

De Jesus, who also worked with Carter at Broward Sheriff’s Office before he came to Delray Beach in 2016, responded, “I’m whatever [expletive] I want. I’ll spoon with both. I’ll go into a spooning frenzy (with a smiling emoticon).”

“Spooning” usually refers to a couple laying on their sides in bed in close physical contact. 

De Jesus did not respond to repeated calls and messages left on his cellphone seeking comments to the resignation. When asked for her response to the findings of the investigation, Carter initially said she was not aware of the details. 

However, when told of the specifics, she dismissed them as being a personal matter.

“I am the public information officer and I answer questions about the city,” she told me. “You are asking me about something personal and that’s unethical and not correct.”

The Boca Raton Tribune obtained the flirtatious messages dating back to August 2019 through a Public Records Request. Some of the language is too graphic for this story. 

De Jesus, who was working the opposite shift at the command center during the hurricane, had asked Carter to send him some pictures of herself. 

In another thread of messages – that included pictures that were altered – between de Jesus and Carter at the EOC, de Jesus wrote, “But since you went there, you can send me a couple of you. You bitch. Sexy bitch that is. Funny sexy bitch. Waiting for the pics.” 

Carter responded, “What? I sent you six pics. More would be too aggressive,” to which de Jesus replied, “Sex not six!”

Carter continued, “Auto correct is “ducking” with you. LMAO.”

De Jesus responded, “One.”

Four city employees, included some who were close to both parties, said the duo had a very “affable” relationship. One dismissed it as “office banter.”

What caused them to go sour on each other is still unclear but at some point, Carter filed a complaint about her boss’ behavior forcing the city to launch the investigation.

There are conflicting tales of what transpired and conflicting versions of how the complaint came to light.

According to the investigator’s report, on Feb. 27 Carter (whose name was redacted from the final report) called City Attorney Lynn Gelin to say that de Jesus had been making inappropriate sexual remarks to her.

“Carter alleged that while he was interim city manager, de Jesus frequently used sexual language towards her, called her a bitch, pulled her hair, and touched her inappropriately on more than one occasion,” wrote Suhaill M. Morales, an attorney with the Coral Gables law firm of Allen, Norton & Blue, which conducted the investigation. 

As Carter was complaining to Gelin on the phone, Assistant City Manager Suzanne Fisher walked into Carter’s office and overheard the conversation. Later in the investigation, Fisher told Morales “she witnessed one occasion where de Jesus touched Carter on the small of the back,” though Fisher did not report it at the time, as required by city policy. 

According to sources close to the matter who asked not to be identified: Carter showed the messages to Fisher, who urged her to report de Jesus’ actions. Carter resisted. Fisher then brought the allegation to Gelin, who then informed Human Resources Director Duane D’Andrea. D’Andrea declined to investigate the matter because of his friendship with de Jesus. Gelin went to City Manager George Gretsas, who directed Gelin to hire Allen, Norton & Blue to conduct an independent investigation.

Morales interviewed 11 city employees including four top level managers and one non-employee to investigate Carter’s allegations. The non-city employee told Morales she was at one of the events and saw de Jesus touch Carter on the back.

When Morales tried to interview de Jesus on March 10, he excused himself and called his attorney. Once de Jesus read the messages to his attorney, he told de Jesus he was doomed and de Jesus began crying, the source said. According to the report, he returned to his office, typed his memo and resigned.

In his 1 ¼ -page resignation memorandum to Gretsas, de Jesus made no mention of the allegations or the probe. Instead, he touted his accomplishments in the fire department during his four-year tenure and said that he was resigning to “focus more on my family.”

Morales’ report was a 1½ page conclusion but her notes of interviews that led to de Jesus’ resignation were not included and were not made available by the city upon request.

“Notes designed for one’s own personal use do not fall within the definition of “public record,” according to the missive from the city.

But experts on Florida’s public records law differ. Three attorneys who are familiar with the public records law said public agencies generally resort to such tactic to conceal information from the public.

Daniela B. Abratt, an attorney with the Fort Lauderdale firm of Thomas & LoCicero, said, generally, if a city contracts a private agency to do a job the city would normally do, the agency should be held to the same standards as the city, so the information would be public.

“Since the investigation is no longer active, they are required to release everything,” said Abratt, whose concentration is media and communications law. “You should be able to get it with some redactions.”

Emails and a call to Morales seeking more information about the investigation were not returned.

I also sent a letter on April 30 to Carter, the public information officer, asking:

  • How was the law firm of Allen, Norton & Blue selected?
  • Why wasn’t the city’s Human Resources department called in to do this inquiry?
  • How much did the city pay Allen, Norton & Blue to do the investigation?
  • City employees are required to do harassment training annually. Is this done in a classroom setting or is this done on the computer?
  • What measures are in place to prevent harassment in the workplace, especially at the leadership level?
  • What is the city’s policy on how employees should proceed after witnessing what’s considered harassment?

Carter, who earns $96,000, has not responded.

When city officials, who are paid by public dollars, choose not to return the press’ phone calls, respond to emails seeking answers and refuse to provide public documents requested, that creates several issues, including their suitability to hold that office. It also forces the press to rely on the account of insiders, oftentimes them speaking on background only.

The information from unnamed sources in this report came from at least two people.

Elected officials, as well as city employees, have questioned why de Jesus’ separation payment was a whopping $58,313.79 more than he was entitled.

De Jesus’ contract package specified that he shall receive pay for a maximum of 20 weeks which should have been $72,884.61. However, according to his separation letter, he received $131,198.40 of taxpayers’ money.

Some city leaders said it was cheaper to pay him out than to place him on leave while fighting a lawsuit, which he had grounds to do, considering the meticulously drawn contract.

Mayor Shelly Petrolia said she was “surprised” to learn how the taxpayers’ money was used and promised to look into it.

“Today’s day and age with the ‘#MeToo’ generation, what the heck? How is this even happening,” she told a WPTV News Channel 5 reporter.

The report said they could not reach a conclusion whether de Jesus’ conduct was harassment, since he resigned without speaking to investigators. However, legal experts said his conduct clearly was inappropriate.

A spokesperson for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in Harrisburg, PA., cautions against dispelling commonly-held myths that Carter’s interactions with her boss indicate approval.

“It’s important to understand that we cannot assume this was a consenting relationship,” said Laura Palumbo, communications director for the agency that empowers victims to come forward, and provides resources to get them help. “Consent is complicated when one part has the power to influence the actions and choices of others. When the person who acted inappropriately is a leader or supervisor, this is an abuse of power and the target often feels that they do not have a choice or will face consequences for refusing their advances or reporting them.”

Sixty percent of women say they have experienced unwanted sexual attention, sexual coercion, sexually crude conduct, or sexist comments in the workplace, according to a 2016 study done by Chai R. Feldblum and Victoria A. Lipnic for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

As a reporter who has covered and worked in this small oceanfront enclave for more than 30 years, I have seen some drama involving our leaders – elected officials lashing out on city managers and commissioners hurling insults at each other. However, none rose to the level of this scandal. 

This was “Peyton Place” going on in City Hall.

The question keeps rising, who is in charge? Someone other than de Jesus must be held accountable for this hot mess.

When our leaders fail to lead with integrity, their actions can have a devastating effect on morale, engagement and productivity.

Worse, when inappropriate behavior is dismissed as “office play” this creates the type of workplace culture where harassment thrives and employees fear reporting, Palumbo of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said. 

“When leaders at the top are not held accountable, it sends a message to all employees that they are above the rules regardless of what policies or practices may be written on paper,” she added. “This creates an unsafe environment for all employees.”

Some employees say they felt disappointed considering de Jesus presented himself as “a man of the cloth” who was “above reproach” as one employee puts it.

One city commissioner questioned de Jesus’ efforts during the search for his permanent replacement. Then Vice Mayor Shirley Johnson questioned why they were given a list of only three names from which to choose instead of a larger list. 

De Jesus bristled, demanding that Johnson cease and desist.

He wrote an email to her citing his history of public service and reputation.

“After over 37 years in public service, multiple terms as an elected official and thousands of hours of civic involvement on local, state and national boards and committees, I have earned a reputation that is above reproach and undeserving of your actions or words,” de Jesus wrote. “You are creating an environment that is unprofessional, uncomfortable, unacceptable, and working conditions that are uncomfortable and borderline hostile. I respectfully request that you immediately cease and desist creating this environment and allow me to fulfill my duties and responsibilities as interim city manager as I have been requested to do by unanimous decision of the city commission until we get a new city manager on board.”

Are Delray Beach’s leaders guilty of corruption? Are they guilty of mismanagement? Has the de Jesus – Carter “relationship” caused a conflict of interest or other ethical concerns because of personal loyalties by other managers in the city? Taxpayers deserve to know.

But from what has been revealed to date – the messy private lives of public people – the time has come for the residents to press reset on their leaders. The only way for the City of Delray Beach to rebound and recover quickly from this soap opera plot is to clean house – replace the leadership in the city manager and human resources departments.

There is no other way for this city to regain its prestige. 

C. Ron Allen can be reached at [email protected] or 561-665-0151.

Both reports can be seen here:

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  1. Ken MacNamee says:

    Thank you for your additional insight and information concerning the City’s ongoing attempted cover up of this tawdry affair. It was questionably handled by new CM Gretsas, especially with the illegal severance package payoff. As usual, the City Commission ducks and thereby approves of the CM’s actions with its silence. Just another in a long line of serious transgressions where accountability is mishandled and/or ignored so that malfeasance becomes business as usual. And we wonder what the next embarrassing City governance matter will be? Mr. Allen keep up the great reporting! We need you since the Sun Sentinel and Palm beach Post are worthless in reporting Delray governmental affairs.

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