Three female employees of the Beaufort County Probate Court filed sexual-harassment complaints against Probate Judge Frank M. Simon a month before he unexpectedly announced he was retiring.
Simon, who served as Beaufort County's probate judge for nearly 18 years, announced his retirement June 22 and left the office July 1, with two years left of his term. The complaints were filed between May 18 and 22 with the county's personnel office.
All three complaints refer to incidents between May 14 and 16 and alleged in sworn statements that Simon, 84, made lewd or offensive comments.
One of the women also filed a report with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and quit her job because she no longer could endure Simon's conduct, her complaint to the county said.
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Simon said by phone Thursday that he knows a "matter exists" but would not comment further.
"I am not permitted under the judicial code of conduct to comment," he said. "I stand on my record of 17 1/2 years of honorably serving in the Probate Court."
A state judicial official, however, said Simon is not prevented from speaking about the matter.
Simon also declined to comment when asked whether his retirement was related to the allegations.
He was first elected in 1994 and was re-elected five times, running unopposed in each election.
ACCUSATIONS OF HARASSMENT
The first employee who filed a complaint said she had worked for Simon for about a month when she went into his office May 14 to give him some information he had requested.
Her complaint said he began telling her about a sexual experience he had with a woman, and he talked in detail about his genitals.
She returned to work the next day but said in her report, "I went home that evening and was literally sick to my stomach" from the encounter. She appeared upset that day, the other two women noted in their complaints.
The following day, May 16, she called in sick.
Simon called her at home, her complaint said.
"Judge Simon phoned me and apologized for his behavior," the complaint said, and Simon said he realized the conversation "got out of control."
The woman's response to Simon's apology, according to her complaint: "I said everything was fine just to get him off the phone because I DID NOT want to talk to him."
On May 16, while the first complainant was out sick, Simon met individually with all 12 female employees in the office, the complaints said. At the time, the office had 14 employees other than Simon, and all but one -- the assistant probate judge -- were women.
"... Judge Simon pulled every woman into his office individually to apologize for the things he had said in the past," one complaint said. Simon told the women that the first complainant had instigated the inappropriate conversation. According to their complaints, Simon said he had been "trapped into the conversation."
After Simon called the first woman at home, she called the assistant probate judge, Ken Fulp, and said she planned to report Simon's conduct, her complaint stated. She provided a sworn statement May 18 to Beaufort County Employee Services.
She quit her job the following week and filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on June 7.
The second complaint by a female employee to county Employee Services was filed May 18. The woman said that during her meeting with Simon on May 16, he ended the conversation about the matter by saying, "But you still love me, right?"
"I was feeling embarrassed and that this was highly inappropriate considering what he had just been telling me," her complaint said, adding that Simon had made inappropriate comments of a sexual nature on previous occasions.
A third complaint to Employee Services was filed May 22.
"One day, I came to work wearing a sundress that was ankle length," she said in her complaint. "He then asked me if I was wearing panties, because I didn't have to in a dress like that."
Her complaint also said that soon after she was hired, "He told me, 'I am an elected official, and you work at my pleasure. I can let you go any time I want.' "
Each of the women said Simon had told them that same thing.
In all three complaints, the women said they kept quiet about inappropriate comments because they feared losing their jobs. They also said other women in the office tried to make sure certain female employees he targeted weren't left alone with him in the office during lunch.
One complaint said that co-workers would try to find excuses to interrupt Simon when he was alone with certain employees.
"If any of us saw that he was up by her desk, we would go up and pretend to be writing on the calendar and would stay long enough that he would leave," a complaint said.
On May 17, Fulp told Suzanne Gregory, director of county Employee Services, that he needed to speak to her about an urgent matter, that one or two probate employees planned to complain about Simon, according to a memo May 23 from Gregory to county attorney Josh Gruber.
Fulp said he had heard rumors about an offensive conversation May 14 involving Simon, and he talked to Simon about it. Simon told him the matter had been resolved. The employee, however, told Fulp the matter was not resolved and that she planned to file a formal complaint, the memo said.
Later that day, Gregory contacted county administrator Gary Kubic after she had heard from two employees who wanted to file complaints, which they did May 18, the memo said.
Gregory then gave those statements to Kubic, and he asked Gregory to set up a meeting with him the following week, on May 22.
Kubic said the sensitive nature of the complaints caused him to forward the documents to the S.C. Judicial Department. He said he told Simon what he'd done as a courtesy.
Two of the complaints were sent that day to the Judicial Department, Gruber said. The third was received later in the day, Kubic said, but was sent within the same week.
The county's Employee Services department handled the women's complaints because the Probate Court doesn't have a personnel office of its own, Gruber said. The probate judge, not the county, has the power to hire and fire employees in his office.
The Judicial Department only can respond when a formal complaint is filed. It can't confirm whether an investigation is being conducted, but in general, accusations of sexual harassment are investigated, according to Lee Coggiola of the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which determines whether a complaint against a judge should be dismissed or investigated.
If an investigation is launched, the judge is notified, given a copy of the complaint and required to submit a response.
Simon said judiciary rules do not allow him to say whether the Office of Disciplinary Counsel has contacted him.
"The only people limited to confidentiality are us," Coggiola said, referring to her office. Complainants and those who have allegations against them are free to respond.
Coggiola said judges and lawyers used to be barred from speaking about allegations but said that rule was abandoned "a long, long time ago."
Retired judges, such as Simon, still are subject to investigations regarding any conduct that occurred while they were on the bench, according to the Judicial Department website.
Coggiola said if a judge agrees with the office's finding of misconduct, an agreement is drawn up that recommends a range of possible sanctions, such as a public reprimand. If a judge disagrees with the results of the investigation, a public hearing could be held.
Either way, the counsel's findings are sent to the Commission on Judicial Conduct, then to the state Supreme Court. Those panels can accept or reject the counsel's agreement and choose the consequence outlined in the agreement.
NEW JUDGE IN PLACE
Simon left his judge post July 1. Fulp, the office's associate probate judge hired by Simon in 1999, was appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley to serve as the county's probate judge until Simon's term ends in December 2014.
Fulp confirmed he was aware of the May 14 incident and spoke with county Employee Services officials about it, but he would not elaborate.
"I can say I won't tolerate harassment of any kind," he said.
Two of the women who filed complaints against Simon said they do not plan to pursue legal action over the alleged sexual harassment. Attempts to reach the third for comment were unsuccessful.
The women, who would only comment if they could remain anonymous, said they were satisfied because Simon has left the office.
Copies of their complaints to the county were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Follow reporter Anne Christnovich at twitter.com/IPBG_CrimeNOB.