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Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2006 05:06 am

Unfriendly persuasion

ISP veteran forced to restart career after becoming the target of sexual harassment

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What I’m about to tell you doesn’t matter. I mean, if it were important, the Illinois State Police would have punished the guy who did it, right? Instead, ISP director Larry Trent allowed this guy to retire with the maximum pension, plus paperwork showing that he resigned in good standing.

You might want to keep reading, though, because a federal jury last week took all of 90 minutes — counting their lunch break — to reach the opposite conclusion.

The plaintiff in this case was Belinda Storey. Assigned to ISP Zone 7, some 200 miles southeast of here on the Indiana border, Storey was a respected sergeant whose career was arcing upward. In 2000, she had worked with the FBI on a major drug-conspiracy case that resulted in the convictions of 14 people in the Harrisburg, Ill., area. Her immediate supervisor, a master sergeant who was planning to retire, started talking to her about taking over his post.

But in February 2001 something happened that derailed Storey’s professional life. The new commander of Zone 7, Capt. Phil Sylvester — three ranks above her — began pestering Storey for a date. She agreed to dinner and a movie “as friends” but rejected all subsequent invitations.

The captain resorted to showing up at Storey’s residence uninvited, even using ISP info to track her down when she was staying at a hotel after the sale of her home. She testified that on three occasions she allowed him to kiss her but pushed him away when he tried to touch her breasts and thighs.

Over the next year, Sylvester continued to pursue Storey, orchestrating organizational changes that would bring her closer to his office and having a mutual friend suggest a double date. In July 2002, when Sylvester learned that Storey was involved with another man, he called her into his office and said he wanted to marry her. She told him he had just said “the worst possible thing.” Soon after, she was given the lowest “rating” of her career.

At the ISP, a rating is a detailed annual evaluation, tallied with a cumulative score, used to determine assignments and promotions. In 2001, Storey scored a 79; in 2002, she was given a score in the low 60s. At the same time, another sergeant with a history of disciplinary problems received the highest rating of his career (his 2001 score was 41) and was promoted to the position of acting master sergeant — as Storey’s immediate boss. A few months later, he confided to her that Sylvester had told him to look for reasons to discipline her.

Storey contacted the ISP’s Equal Employment Opportunity officer and filed a complaint. At the same time, she asked for a transfer.

Storey was sent to the ISP’s Public Integrity Unit, an office charged with investigating allegations against other law-enforcement agencies and public officials. The lone trooper already in the PIU told Storey there weren’t enough cases to keep him busy (I could go off on a whole other tangent here, couldn’t I?), and, sure enough, Storey found herself with nothing to do. When the PIU disbanded, Storey moved to the general criminal unit but again discovered that no one would assign her cases. She got a call from an FBI buddy inviting her to join a new task force, but the ISP altered the job description in a way that made it off-limits to Storey.

Meanwhile (and, I’m sure, purely coincidentally), her complaint was wending its way through the ISP system. Two separate offices — EEO and the Division of Internal Investigation — explored Storey’s allegations of sexual harassment.

The EEO investigation found that Storey’s claims were at least partially substantiated. The DII, addressing only the mistakes Sylvester “admitted” during his interview, found that the captain had (1) had a personal relationship with a subordinate, thereby creating a conflict of interest with his official duties, and (2) talked to other employees about the investigation, even though he had been told not to do so.

DII issued its findings on June 24, 2003 (the day after Sylvester turned 50 and became eligible to retire), and the EEO reached its determination on July 14 (after a pay raise took effect). The ISP Disciplinary Board recommended that Sylvester be suspended without pay for 60 days.

Storey didn’t find out what happened until a month later, when she received a letter from Trent. “I have determined there is evidence to suggest you may have been subjected to conduct in violation of ISP PER-032 and PER-033,” he wrote, referring to policies against discrimination and harassment.

But by that time Sylvester was gone. He had taken his pension, his unblemished-resignation documents, and his retirement plaque and ridden off into the sunset.

A few months later, Trent sent Storey another letter, offering her a promotion plus about $7,500 in back pay and medical expenses. On Aug. 31, a federal jury in Benton pegged her compensatory damages at $146,000 instead.

Still employed by ISP, Storey isn’t allowed to talk about her case. Her St. Louis attorney, Mary Anne Sedey, who describes her client as “a very high-performing individual,” says Storey chose to start her career again from scratch, requesting a transfer to the midnight patrol shift. Over the past two years, Storey has worked her way back up and is now an acting master sergeant over a methadone-response team in southern Illinois.

Not that it matters.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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