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Sexual harassment case expense exceeded $280,000 in Franklin County, records show

Sexual harassment case expense exceeded $280,000 in Franklin County, records show

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Franklin County and its insurance company spent more than $280,000 to resolve a sexual harassment claim filed against the county’s former top building official, newly available insurance records show.

County taxpayers and an insurance pool funded by local governments picked up the tab last year. Part of the money went to former building inspector Jennifer Owen, who accused Robert “Andy” Morris of pursuing her sexually while on the job. A portion also went to attorneys hired to represent Morris and the county, according to the records.

The Roanoke Times obtained a claim report from the county’s insurance company, VACORP, after county officials refused to discuss the settlement and said they didn’t have any public records to explain it.

Owen received $200,000, and attorneys hired to defend Morris and the county received $86,028, according to the insurer’s report.

The report does not address pay for Owen’s legal representatives. The settlement agreement, which might address that issue, has not been made public.

Owen, 43, said in a recent statement that “the harassment I experienced at the Franklin County Building Code Office was a nightmare. Then to be fired for coming forward and reporting the harassment was wrong. But if one person finds the courage to come forward because of my story, it will have been worth it.”

Members of the Franklin County Board of Supervisors did not responded to a request for comment, except one official who referred a reporter to the county attorney. The county attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment last week. Leland Mitchell, chairman of the board, did not respond to phone messages left at his home last week seeking comment.

Owen worked as a building inspector from 2014 to 2016. In a 2017 lawsuit, she claimed that she had been subjected to assault and battery by Morris. She testified in a deposition that Morris made numerous sexual comments and grabbed her breasts in one instance.

Her suit included legal claims that said she endured a sexually hostile work environment and was fired for complaining about the harassment and work environment. In 2019, she, Morris and county representatives reached an out-of-court settlement and the trial was called off.

Throughout the case, the county denied all allegations of wrongdoing. In addition, Morris denied the allegations against him, both in his deposition testimony and in legal filings.

Following the settlement in spring 2019, Morris, then 55, retired from his county post, a decision that his attorney said was based on a desire to spend more time with his family.

VACORP released the claim report Feb. 25 in response to a request under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. It did not respond to a request for clarification of the report’s technical language. The newspaper then reviewed the report earlier this month with a Roanoke insurance broker not involved in the case.

Last week, the county released records showing that it paid $20,000 of the total expense of $286,028 out of its general fund.

The county’s coverage with VACORP includes protection for public official liability arising from allegations of sexual harassment or other misconduct. VACORP is a municipal risk pool funded by premiums paid by Virginia government agencies.

Franklin County’s annual insurance premium did not increase in 2019 for any reason related to the settlement, officials have said.

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