Walking on the Ledge
Notes on a Scandal
Five years ago today I walked into Charles J. Carlsen’s office with a reporter’s notebook, recorder, and a folder full of documents. I ask the then president of Johnson County Community College if he sexually harassed an employee.
I wasn’t scared. I passed scared 13 months earlier when I first learned of the allegations. I was terrified — terrified, but focused.
At some point I may post the audio recording of my meeting that included Carlsen; Susan Lindahl, vice president of College Relations and Strategic Initiatives; and Anne Chrisitansen-Bullers, adviser of The Campus Ledger.
I kept a log of that time just in case I found myself in court. On this fifth anniversary of that meeting, I want to share an edited version of that day’s entry. I edited it because during my 13-month investigation into the allegations, I spoke with many brave JCCC employees. Because of their bravery, I promised to hold certain information private.
This edited version is not an attempt to reframe history but rather an attempt to continue honoring my promise.
April 4, 2006
I had the meeting today.
I just came from HR to talk with Dorothy Freidrich [director of Human Resources], but she wasn’t there. I’m sure that she was called down to Carlsen’s office immediately when Anne and I left.
The meeting took place at 3 p.m. with Anne, Susan Lindahl, Dr. Carlsen and myself. Josh [Seiden, a Ledger correspondent] begged out of the meeting because he didn’t feel he’d have anything to contribute, plus he started a new job at The Kansas City Kansan and couldn’t get away.
I started off asking about institutional intimidation for Josh’s story. Carlsen turned it back on me, as is his technique, asking me what it means. I told him that to me it means that it is an abuse of power and a way to subjugate others.
He didn’t give me much on that saying he’d have to defer to Dorothy about policy, which is also another Carlsen tactic for not answering the question.
I then said looking at policy; I noticed the sexual harassment policy hasn’t been updated since 1997. I asked if there were any plans to update it. Carlsen said the college periodically looks into updating various policies. I was gracefully trying to get from point A to point B and using policy allowed me to go do so.
I also mentioned my research through The Ledger archives and The Kansas City Star Newsbank archives about former employees accused of sexual harassment. He asked how many and I said I had so far noted about 5 individuals in the 30 years of the college. I mentioned the women’s basketball coach and how the board took decisive action against a philosophy instructor. I also said that there is someone still working on campus accused of sexual harassment and that he was only suspended for a week. I said that Andrea Evans [a former employee in the Housekeeping department], after filing a sexual harassment complaint, was terminated from the college about a month later despite her excellent work performance and having won the college’s Excel award. If we our retaliation policy worked, I asked, what happened in this case?
Susan said they couldn’t comment on a personnel matter, which again is the we-won’t-answer answer.
Then I said its time to get to the real reason for the meeting. I brought up Teresa’s name. I mentioned her allegations of sexual harassment against Carlsen and that I have documentation. I said the documents said she was dissuaded from filing a complaint by Dorothy Freidrich, Susan Lindahl and Elaine Perilla [JCCC Board of Trustees chair]. I said it is my understanding that interfering that way is illegal. But I also said I wanted to focus on the truth of the story whatever it may be. If the allegations are true, we need to get to that truth. I said I was committed to printing the story and that I would use their names. I said they had control over how I would use their names by their comments.
At some point, maybe earlier, Carlsen denied the allegations.
I also acknowledged my adversarial relationship with the president’s office in regards to policy or buildings but that this situation was very different. I needed to hear his side.
I talked more than I probably should have but it was clear by Susan’s constant interruptions and Carlsen’s deferment to her, that
I just had a visit from the college’s lawyer, Mark Ferguson and from Susan Lindahl. They came to the [Billington] library [where I work] and asked me what the story was about, about [The Ledger’s] production deadline and about the pub board [that governs The Ledger]. They also said Teresa is not a willing source and that she didn’t give me permission. I mistakenly offered them information saying that she is a willing source and that she is ready to move ahead.
Here’s the e-mail I just sent Anne:
From: Michael Morales
Sent: Tue 04-Apr-06 6:42 PM
To: Anne Christiansen-Bullers
Subject: College lawyer
I was going to send this over my private e-mail but there’s nothing here that they don’t already know.
I just had a visit from the college’s lawyer.
Susan Lindahl and Mark Ferguson (the lawyer) came to the library and asked me what the story is about, and what they can expect. They tried to bait me. I offered up the information that I have a willing source and documentation.
I believe the meeting was more to see if I am someone they can mess with rather than “opening the lines of communication” as he put it.
He asked about when the story is scheduled to run and our publication day. He also asked about the pub board so be ready to be contacted on that front.
I also asked him if he was my lawyer. He said that he represents employees and that if someone acted out of their scope, then he couldn’t represent them. I said my actions are covered by the scope of my job so does that mean he’s my lawyer? He couldn’t answer but it was clear that he’s not. He said he was under the impression that we had legal representation and I said I contacted SPLC [Student Press Law Center] but that they were by no means our legal representatives.
He said they are going to meet with the board tonight about the situation.
I’m ready for anything.
I’ll stop by The Ledger on my way home and get those two back issues that have documentation [of sexual harassment in the past] I need for the story.
Oh well, back to the meeting story. The final stages had Susan answering for Carlsen and the answer was that they need to meet with Teresa to hear if she’s willing to delve into the issue. They said they would schedule a meeting for next week so we can all sit down and discuss the matter.
Anne reminded them of our publication date and that having a meeting beyond April 11 would not fit into this issue and would mean we push the story to the final issue in May. But then it would look like we are dropping a bomb and not staying for the fallout. “Dumping and running,” she put it.
They all agreed that another meeting would happen – which I don’t think it will.
After returning to the [Ledger] office, I told Anne I had planned to go talk to Dorothy Freidrich. So Anne said let’s go. We walked into HR and were told that Dorothy was “downstairs.” From this I took it that she was in the president’s office on the first floor. I asked to have her call me when she returned – she didn’t, of course.
[My log notes that I called my sources saying that I had the meeting with Carlsen.]
I don’t really know what to make of the situation now. So much has happened today and I still have to follow up Andrea’s story.
[My log notes that a source says the college has been pressuring them to reveal how I came across my information about Andrea’s case. The source says the college has accused them of giving it to me. I make a point of documenting in my log that Andrea gave me her own information and no one else.]
Part of me hopes the unscheduled board meeting tonight will result in [Carlsen’s] resignation. But part of me wants to report the allegations first and then have him resign. However, I have to be prepared for neither to happen. The board meeting could be to dissolve the paper, or institute prior review, or terminate Anne and everyone on [The Ledger] staff.
I feel good about what I’ve done because it’s been in the pursuit of the truth. I can stand in my integrity and that’s what this story is really about.
8:59 p.m. – Anne called me at the library to inform me that the board is having a closed-door session. I had to tell her that I already knew. One of the city’s biggest spin-doctors was invited to the session.
[My log notes I get a call saying The Kansas City Star editors want to know what’s going on at JCCC. They are told that they need to get to campus ASAP for the board meeting.]
Things are moving quickly. I know this story is going to beat our production schedule. However, that does not lessen the importance of the story or my year of work on it.
I feel confident that he will resign. I will move ahead with the story. If the board is in session when I get out of work, I’ll go over there and wait them out.
I should be doing my Photoshop [homework] but, this is really important.
11:56 p.m. – Well after getting out of work at the library, I went to The Ledger office to check if we still had access. I also went to pick up the two bound copies of the paper containing information about former employees dismissed amid sexual harassment charges.
[My log notes receiving a call from a source saying I should be on guard because the college’s lawyer is looking for me. I describe the incident in the library. The person says the college’s next move will be to try to identify all of my sources and get them to recant.]
I’ll call the SPLC tomorrow and recount my day’s events. I am also considering filing a grievance against the college for harassment since the college’s lawyer and Susan came to the library, pulled me away from my job and talked to me alone without me having someone along to verify the conversation. Any conversation I have from this point on will be recorded.
The board decided not to take action during their meeting. They’re just waiting for the shit to hit the fan.
I’m glad I’ve been keeping [trusted] people apprised of this story in its various stages to attest to the fact that I didn’t make this up or failed to investigate this story properly. Now that the word is out, I need to start keeping these contacts in the loop and even develop new contacts who can attest to the harassment that is surely going to follow.
Perhaps I should be more scared because [my sources, my family and my friends] are very scared for me. I am skeptical and wary, but I’m not scared. I believe there is nothing they can do to me that will make this story go away. I’ve done things in my life I’m not proud of but my discomfort or embarrassment means nothing when it’s stacked up against the corruption I’ve uncovered.
[In the last line for this day’s entry I note that I don’t pray often but I’m going to pray for God to keep my sources safe and I’m going to pray for JCCC.]