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Woman fired from Bay Pines health center calls it retaliation for complaints of harassment

Chalea Weekes fumes every time she sees another entertainer, politician or public figure stand accused of sexual harassment.

Fired from her job in the social work department at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System, Weekes says in federal complaints that she and other female employees were bullied and harassed by supervisors there and calls her case an example of a problem long ignored before the recent disclosures captured national attention.

"It’s nauseating to know that other women are going through what I have been going through for the last four years," said Weekes, 40, of St. Pete Beach. "And how many times and how many years have those voices been ignored, stifled and buried."

She names two male supervisors in what she describes as a pattern of behavior that included threats to harm her boyfriend, suggestions on her attire that made her feel like "a personal sexual pet," a disproportionate workload for her and other female employees and retaliation for complaints.

Two other women were listed with Weekes as complainants but have since withdrawn from the case. The Tampa Bay Times is withholding their names due to the nature of the allegations.

Working relations deteriorated to the point that a supervisor called in Bay Pines VA police on Aug. 16 to investigate Weekes. But a police report validated many of her complaints, saying the supervisor "creates a workplace violence."

Still, Bay Pines stands by its decision to fire Weekes, saying in documents that she was disruptive, disrespectful and belligerent. Her claims of sexual harassment "are outrageous and not supported by facts," said Bay Pines spokesman Jason Dangel.

During her final two years as a Bay Pines employee, Weekes, a military veteran who was raped in the service and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, was arrested on charges of domestic battery against her boyfriend and driving under the influence, and was taken into custody for her own protection under the state’s Baker Act.

She blames the stress from intimidation by her supervisors.

"They are educated and trained to know how to alleviate those stressors," Weekes said. "But they also know how to use them against you. It felt like psychological warfare to me all the time."

Weekes, now unemployed, is awaiting the results of two Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigations of complaints she filed against Bay Pines.

• • •

Bay Pines police launched their investigation after Robert Larson, a supervisor in the social work department, complained that Weekes was threatening and harassing him.

The investigation found it was Larson who acted aggressively and unprofessionally toward his employees, according to a non-criminal information report filed by Officer Darren Malanik and obtained by the Times. Three witnesses said Larson treated his employees "in a way that he breaks down the person and he acts unprofessional to staff members that work under him which creates a workplace violence," according to the report.

On Aug. 17, the day after Larson accused Weekes of harassing him, she was committed by Bay Pines emergency medical personnel to a mental health center under the Baker Act. She was having suicidal thoughts as a result of stress, a doctor wrote in an evaluation.

On Sept. 21, she was arrested by St. Petersburg police on a misdemeanor charge of DUI involving property damage.

In a memo to a supervisor, Weekes wrote she was "Baker Acted by the Bay Pines VA .?.?. due to the constant meritless harassment and badgering."

As a result, she asked for protections under the VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, saying in a complaint that another supervisor, Harrison Reeder, harassed her and other employees.

"I watched as he continued with the same behavior and threats" toward two other women, Weekes said, both of whom she described as "pretty female Veterans with PTSD due to Military Sexual Trauma."

Hospital officials declined to allow interviews with Larson or Reeder for this story.

Reeder hired Weekes in 2013 and later promoted her. Her first performance review said her work was mostly exceptional and lauded her for excellent customer service, taking on new responsibilities and getting along with coworkers.

The work relationship soured around May 2015, Weekes said.

"Harrison would always want to have personal conversations about my life," she wrote in a March 2017 memo accompanying a complaint to the EEOC. "He commented on my dress and made suggestions as to how I should wear my hair or comment on my nails. He made me feel like his ‘personal sexual pet.’?"

Reeder, she said, also began to make disparaging comments about her boyfriend.

"He told me he would get rid of my boyfriend," Weekes wrote, "and went into great detail about how he would do it. He said he would use hydrochloric acid to dissolve the body."

Weekes was arrested on the domestic battery charge in August 2015. Prosecutors dismissed the case after she entered pretrial intervention.

• • •

On April 26, attorneys David Cory and Richard Hurley filed a notice with the EEOC that they intended to file sexual discrimination and harassment complaints against Reeder on behalf of Weekes and two other women in the Bay Pines social services department.

The two other women decided against filing a formal complaint, Hurley said. One, who has left Bay Pines, declined to comment for this report. The other woman, who still works there, could not be reached for comment.

On Aug. 29, Bay Pines moved to fire Weekes, accusing her of eight instances of disruptive behavior that included cursing at Larson, being argumentative and using "disrespectful and counterproductive" language in email communications.

A union representative called her punishment "significantly different compared to other employees with the same or similar charges." The comment came from Tatishka Musgrove, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 548, in a letter to medical center director Suzanne Klinker.

Dangel defended the firing and noted that Reeder and Larson still work with the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System.

"Considering the former employee’s recent work history and public arrest record, it is clear that Ms. Weekes’ priorities do not align with the VA’s Core Values," Dangel said in an email to the Times. "Our leaders made the right move by holding Ms. Weekes accountable for her actions, and terminating her from employment."

Weekes’ attorney Hurley called the firing "horrific."

"The people taking advantage of her and the anxiety it caused aggravated what happened to her in the military," Hurley said. "She will be in counseling for a very long time, if not the rest of her life."

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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Woman fired from Bay Pines health center calls it retaliation for complaints of harassment