Wednesday, May 9, 2007
By KIBRET MARKOS
A Bergen County employee alleged Tuesday that nepotism in the office of County Clerk Kathleen Donovan left her at the mercy of an abusive boss who sexually harassed her for nearly two years.
Suher Khatib, a clerk in the county records bureau, claims that her supervisor, Robert Bradford, slapped her on the buttocks, poked her in the breasts with a pencil and taunted her with sexual remarks two to three times a week.
Khatib, 25, said that protesting to higher-ups was not an option: Bradford's mother is former Deputy Clerk Nancy Bradford, who is a close friend of Donovan's and was her longtime assistant when Donovan was a lawyer in private practice.
"His mom was the one who hired me," Khatib said in an interview at the office of her lawyer, Rosemarie Arnold. "I was afraid she would fire me if I said anything to her about her son."
On Tuesday, Khatib's attorney sent a notice of claim to Donovan and to Nancy and Robert Bradford. Under state law, a plaintiff must send the notice and wait at least six months before filing a lawsuit against a public entity.
Khatib filed a complaint to Donovan in February, after Nancy Bradford retired. Khatib said she was then transferred to another department and later chastised by Donovan for dressing inappropriately for work.
"People I work with are dressed like this all the time," she said, referring to Capris and T-shirts, which are acceptable under the dress code for county clerk employees.
Donovan referred questions to the county clerk's attorney, John Carbone.
"Matters of personnel we cannot comment on," Carbone said.
Brian Hague, a spokesman for County Executive Dennis McNerney, also declined to comment.
Robert Bradford was out of the office on Tuesday. He did not return a call to his home in Lyndhurst.
Khatib, a graduate of Garfield High School, said she started working at the records bureau in July 2005 as a clerk who helped with deed and title searches. Almost as soon as she started, Robert Bradford began harassing her, she said.
Several of Khatib's colleagues said in an April 30 statement to personnel director Ralph Kornfeld, released Tuesday by Arnold, that they saw the 38- year-old Robert Bradford smacking Khatib on her buttocks on many occasions. They also said they heard a phone conversation in which Khatib called Bradford to let him know she was caught up in traffic. The employees quoted Bradford as telling Khatib to pull over and masturbate.
One employee told the personnel director that he saw Bradford unzip his fly in front of Khatib.
They also said they heard Bradford verbally abusing Khatib with profanities.
Khatib filed the complaint to Donovan on Feb. 15, a day before leaving for vacation. Donovan told her the complaint would be taken care of, but Khatib returned from a 10-day vacation to find herself still working for Bradford, who continued to harass her, she said. Khatib said she was transferred a few weeks later to the passport department.
"This is dealing with the problem by removing the victim instead of removing the aggressor," said Arnold, Khatib's attorney. "That's just wrong."
Arnold said Khatib was transferred on the pretext that her Arabic skills were needed in the passport department. But she was never asked to do translations or use her language skills in any way because the department already has an Arabic-speaking employee, she said.
Late last month, Donovan called Khatib into her office and spoke to her about her manner of dress.
"I felt that Sue was dressed inappropriately for the office in which she is now working ... and she needed to be told," Donovan said in an April 27 letter to Kornfeld describing the meeting, which was copied to Khatib. "She had on very tight fitting Capri pants, very tight fitting shirt, a T-shirt underneath and slide-on sandals."
Donovan added in the letter: "It was a cordial meeting where Sue was also made to understand that this conversation had absolutely nothing to do with her previous allegations and investigation."
Khatib, however, said the meeting was retaliatory.
"I have never been addressed about my attire at work," she said. "I always dress like this because it's not against the dress code."
Payroll records show that Robert Bradford has worked for the county since January 1992.
He is currently the supervisor of records at a salary of $50,133 a year. His mother was hired by the county in 1989 and retired last year at an annual salary of $89,651.
Khatib also sent the notice of claim to Kornfeld, McNerney and Deputy County Clerk Maryann McSweeney.
The six-month waiting period is meant to give the public entity an opportunity to investigate and possibly address the issue that gave rise to the com- plaint.