Milwaukee city attorney addresses harassment allegations, issues facing office

NOW: Milwaukee city attorney addresses harassment allegations, issues facing office

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- City Attorney Tearman Spencer says change is a reason why a number of employees have left his office. 

"Had it not been for COVID, I think we would have seen exiting much sooner, right after the election," he said, "But for one reason or another, they couldn’t exit, so they had to get to a place where folks were now hiring, so that was expected."

The Association of Municipal Attorneys of Milwaukee, which is an association of assistant city attorneys in the Milwaukee City Attorney's Office, has retained a law firm regarding ongoing concerns about the work environment in the city attorney's office. 

When asked why some attorneys would hire an outside law firm if there wasn't an issue, Spencer said, "You asking me to talk to you about what somebody else is thinking and I can’t pinpoint for them as I can't pinpoint for you, and again, of course the environment is going to be hostile if you’re not getting your way," he said. 

This week, Mayor Barrett signed a resolution to directing the Department of Employee Relations to prepare recommendations to the Common Council intended to ensure that all city elected officials are governed by city policies regulating sexual harassment and other forms of intimidation. This comes after allegations were made against Spencer. 

"We did however find that his actions were inappropriate and unbecoming of his position as the city attorney, so I want to make sure that is clear because he continues to say that they were unfounded," Makda Fessahaye, director of City of Milwaukee Employee Relations, told the Common Council's Finance and Personnel Committee last month

"Again, it’s totally unfounded, I don’t know what the Director of Employee Relations agenda is, but now let's go back to the timeline. I’m in this office, within three weeks these allegations were mounted and they start putting them together. Three weeks with a guy coming in sick, still coming in with COVID, you connect the dots," Spencer said. 

He said he did call someone "sweetie" and made a comment about a runner's legs. 

"I did call someone 'sweetie', not sweetheart and I apologized immediately," said Spencer, "And the way that transpired was we were in a meeting and I did not remember her name and I said 'I’m sorry sweetie I do not remember your name.'"

He also addressed what he said were allegations of him wanting to put cameras in the office to spy on people. 

"Let’s get rid of the misnomer, there are cameras here that my predecessor had in his office," he said. 

He said he did not know how many there are, where they are or who was monitoring them. 

"I think it’s very prudent, if folks are concerned about someone making any inappropriate actions against them I need to afford them some kind of security for that. I myself don’t want anyone coming to my office unless I can protect myself, so I think that’s very prudent, but for someone to say I want to spy on people, that’s on the contrary."

The Milwaukee Police Association has also expressed concerns about Spencer. An 11-page complaint to the Wisconsin Office of Lawyer Regulations says in part that MPA believes Spencer's actions have been "grossly unethical and merit immediate investigation."

I don’t fault the MPA for what they’re doing, it’s a union," said Spencer, "They’re trying to stand up for all of their employees and all of their union members. Me, I want what’s best for the city. I want you to come to work and to function within the confines of what your job is not to go outside of that."

The Director of the Office of Lawyer Regulations told CBS 58, "The Supreme Court requires the Office of Lawyer Regulation to keep grievance matters confidential. As a result, it is not appropriate for me to provide information in response to your inquiry."

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