The sordid drama of county government 

Did Jim, after being spurned as a would-be suitor, turn against his target of attention with a jealous vengeance?

Did Imad, also snubbed, react with hostility after his advances were rejected?

Did Tom inappropriately befriend and counsel an unwitting underling?

Did Terry protect his pals by ignoring the whole episode until it reached critical mass?

And the woman at the heart of this sordid tale: Was she an innocent victim fending off unwelcome advances from her bosses, or a money-grubbing opportunist trying to get even?

These are not steamy passages from Peyton Place, or even snippets from the CU football scandal in Boulder.

This is the gossip and innuendo that has gripped El Paso County's government and Republican Party offices for the past few weeks.

The sordid drama actually began last summer, when County Commissioner Tom Huffman said he noticed that Shyla Tulley, the county's intergovernmental affairs officer, was going about her duties looking glum. He inquired; eventually the young woman confided to him that she was feeling the pressure of being the victim of unwanted sexual advances by a handful of men in the office. Huffman says he continued to counsel Tulley and she eventually resolved her problems with all but two -- elected County Commissioner Jim Bensberg and Imad Karaki, a top manager in the planning department.

Huffman says that over the course of a couple of months, Bensberg went from praising Tulley in various meetings -- and even asked she be assigned as his personal aide -- to offering up nothing but criticism of her, which Huffman found inappropriate. "She does a good job on everything she does," he said.

In addition, says Huffman, Tulley claimed Karaki became hostile after she rejected his advances. Huffman says he spoke with Terry Harris, the administrator who oversees the operations of county government. "I talked to Terry repeatedly about the problem," Huffman said. "I just believe that because Terry is not all that familiar with gender issues he didn't realize the gravity of what was happening."

Meanwhile, rumors began circulating that Huffman, who is married, was having an inappropriate relationship with Tulley. Huffman categorically denies this, and blames Bensberg, who is single, as the source of the slander.

Bensberg did not respond to phone calls seeking comment. But last week, Tulley filed a grievance against both Bensberg and Karaki, accusing them of harassing her. Through her attorney, Ian Kalmanowitz, Tulley extended an offer for a settlement with the county. Last Thursday, commissioners -- with Bensberg recused due to his conflict of interest -- rejected the proposal and ordered an independent investigation be conducted.

But rather than allow the investigation to quietly proceed, Bensberg has come out swinging. At the Cheyenne Mountain Republican Forum on Monday, the commissioner vowed to fight the charge. And, at the campaign kickoff for commissioner candidate Bernie Herpin on Saturday, Bensberg reportedly referred to his fellow commissioner, Wayne Williams, as a "son of a bitch" because Williams supported an investigation into the matter. Bensberg has reportedly urged his friends to write letters to the editor in his defense.

In the meantime, commissioners agreed that while the investigation is underway, Tulley would continue working at the county -- alongside Karaki and Bensberg.

And, instead of reporting to her boss, Harris, Tulley has been instructed to work directly with Jeri Howells, the only female county commissioner. In the midst of the crisis, Howells is out of the office all week dealing with a family emergency of her own.

Howells says that she and Tulley are in daily phone contact, but concedes the situation is not ideal.

"The county's an absolute rumor mill right now," she said.

On Tuesday, Harris described the mood of the workplace: "Tense," he said. "We're trying to stay focused on the job."

The county administrator referred questions about the investigation to Human Resources Director Mark Bell and county attorney Bill Louis. When pressed to detail the county's policy related to sexual harassment, Harris said, "I don't know; ask [Bell]. It's very complicated, very legal; I can't talk intelligently about it."

Actually, the county's harassment policy is not all that complex: Harassment is not allowed, period. In addition, the policy stipulates that "To the extent possible, all complaints will remain confidential" -- a stipulation Tulley's attorney had initially hoped the county would honor.

"It was never our intent for this to be made public," Kalmanowitz said. "I can't stress enough our intent was, and still is, to remain as private as possible."

And Huffman? Well, he's disgusted. "In my opinion we're doing just about everything we could wrong about this," he said. "To me, we've really failed this employee."

-- degette@csindy.com


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