Politics & Government

Former Beaufort County clerk accuses county councilman of sexual harassment in lawsuit

Sex charges in South Carolina: How do the numbers add up?

Sex charges, including harassment and discrimination, are not just issues in Hollywood. We took a look at the numbers here in South Carolina.
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Sex charges, including harassment and discrimination, are not just issues in Hollywood. We took a look at the numbers here in South Carolina.

A Beaufort County councilman is being accused of sexual harassment by a former county employee in a lawsuit filed Friday in federal court.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the state of South Carolina by Ashley Bennett, the former clerk of council, names Beaufort County and the county council as the plaintiffs.

In the lawsuit, Bennett accuses District 1 Councilman Gerald Dawson of harassment and alleged that she experienced “unwelcomed touching and was subjected to harassing comments related to (her) sex.”

Dawson represents the Sheldon, Dale, Lobeco and Burton communities, according to the county’s website. He is a native of the county and has worked as a paramedic with county EMS. He is also a retired U.S. Postal Service letter carrier and an associate minister at Mount Carmel Baptist Church of Dale.

Bennett names Dawson specifically in the lawsuit, claiming he “made repeated unwelcomed sexual comments to (Bennett) and touched (her) inappropriately on multiple occasions.”

Dawson denied the allegations Tuesday morning.

“Being as an investigation is ongoing, I would only say that the allegations are not true,” he told The Island Packet. “There are fabrications, and it’s all for monetary gain.”

Bennett took the council clerk job on Sept. 1, 2016.

She claims in the lawsuit that she made Dawson aware his behavior was “unwelcome and inappropriate” and that she “feared that reporting the actions would lead to retaliation, especially in the form of her termination, so she initially attempted to deflect and repel the advances and comments of Dawson without making management aware of the issues.”

Bennett claims she received several calls from Dawson on her cellphone both during and after work hours.

She says in the lawsuit that Dawson “asked her to step out of the building to discuss private matters with him that were not within (her) scope of duties in her position” and that that he hugged her without her consent and attempted to kiss her on the lips “on at least two occasions.”

Bennett also alleges that Dawson made comments “often” about her appearance and clothing that “were highly suggestive in nature.”

Bennett resigned from her position April 5, 2018, and reported to former interim administrator Josh Gruber that her departure was because of harassment, the lawsuit says.

An investigation was conducted following Bennett’s complaints but found that “nothing could be done about Dawson because he was an elected official,” the lawsuit says.

It is unclear from the lawsuit who conducted the investigation.

A call to Bennett’s attorney, Allan Holmes in Charleston, to inquire about the investigation and seek comment from Bennett was not immediately successful Tuesday.

An attempt to reach County Administrator Ashley Jacobs by phone about the allegations and alleged investigation Tuesday morning was also not successful.

A lawsuit represents only one side of a legal argument. Based on court documents, the county has not yet responded to the allegations.

Bennett filed the lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and claims that she suffered lost wages and benefits, bonuses and other compensation along with incurring attorney fees. She also alleges that she “endured humiliation, damage to her reputation, loss of esteem in the community and is entitled to compensatory damages.”

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

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