TOPEKA — The executive director of a Topeka-based company serving disabled people said Monday that allegations by one of his former employees of sexual harassment by an official in the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services appeared to have merit.
Ben Swinnen, who manages Equi-Venture Farms, said one of his staff members complained last year of persistent harassment by Brandt Haehn, who was a KDADS commissioner responsible for delivery of home and community services to people on Medicaid. Swinnen said he believed allegations from Jennifer Gill but maintained he didn’t fire her last December for complaining about Haehn, whom he called a “social acquaintance.”
Gill has a pending discrimination complaint against Equi-Venture with the Kansas Human Rights Commission. She worked at a Newton facility owned by Equi-Venture.
“I deny absolutely any wrongdoing and any retaliation,” Swinnen said. “It will be handled through the courts. I did not engage in any unlawful action with Ms. Gill.”
The Topeka Capital-Journal published a story Sunday detailing Gill’s assertion that Haehn sought a sexual relationship with her starting in September 2016. Gill said Haehn sent her graphic texts and images. She said he offered her a KDADS job in exchange for weekly sex with him.
Gill said she was dismissed by Swinnen soon after reporting Haehn’s behavior. In an interview, Swinnen said he wouldn’t have fired Gill to protect his business relationship with officials overseeing the Medicaid program called KanCare. He said he dispatched Gill for performance shortcomings, including showing up to work in an “altered state of mind.”
In early 2017, KDADS placed Haehn on administrative leave for a period of weeks after Gill disclosed to the agency evidence of Haehn’s solicitation of sex. Haehn declined to comment, but a document from the Kansas Human Rights Commission indicated Haehn confirmed to Swinnen that he sent inappropriate video to Gill.
Haehn was allowed to resume work at KDADS before resigning in June to join Amerigroup, one of three insurance companies selected to operate KanCare by the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback.
“When the administration tolerates this kind of behavior, they are saying to all employees that this is OK,” said Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican. “That alone creates a hostile work environment for everybody.”
Gill said she struggled to provide for her family, fight for unemployment benefits, meet requests of KDADS’ attorneys and press a complaint at the Kansas Human Rights Commission. The bureaucracy and complexity of it all is daunting, she said.
“This system is not set up to help people,” Gill said. “I didn’t know where to start on sexual harassment.”
“I don’t have a paycheck,” she said, recalling her desperation in early 2017. “I don’t have unemployment. I’ve got to survive and you have to be able to send in information. I spent $40 on faxes to the Department of Labor and it about killed me. I don’t know where my next paycheck is going to come from. So, the little bit of money I have, I’m trying to hold on to.”
Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, said no one was held sufficiently accountable after Gill brought the situation to the attention of Equi-Venture and KDADS. Haehn should be removed from his job at Amerigroup pending an independent investigation, said Carl Brewer, a former Wichita mayor who is running for Kansas governor.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Svaty said the experience described by Gill pointed to a convoluted system poised to disadvantage people filing complaints.
“Kansans deserve to learn about the corrupt conspiracy between KDADS and private contractors to protect the perpetrator and themselves at the victim’s expense,” Svaty said.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said lawmakers ought to establish an independent office to assess reports of impropriety involving Kansas government. He questioned KDADS Secretary Tim Keck’s decision to suspend Haehn.
“They should have fired Haehn,” Hensley said. “I don’t think Keck’s response was adequate.”