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Lansing — A top staffer for Michigan Senate Democrats filed a gender discrimination claim against a superior in 2017 after three other women quit, but her claims were dismissed after an investigation by an outside attorney.

Sarah Studley, former legal counsel and senior policy adviser for Senate Democrats, filed a discriminatory harassment complaint in February 2016 against John Mulcrone, who remains chief of staff to Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint.

The complaint, published Tuesday by the liberal website Eclectablog, alleged a “toxic” work environment for women in the Senate Democratic central staff under Mulcrone, who assumed the post in mid-2016. Other female colleagues have since defended his leadership. 

In a statement to The Detroit News, Studley this week criticized the outside investigation as doing “the bare minimum” to avoid legal liability and failing to fix the problem. The Michigan Legislature is not subject to public records requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

“The Senate Democratic staff suffers from a culture where smart, outspoken women are dismissed, excluded and undermined,” Studley said in the Feb. 3, 2017, complaint, alleging she was “systematically” excluded from strategy discussions and denied a promotion promised under Mulcrone’s predecessor.

“I believe I am being treated this way because I am a woman,” Studley wrote.

The News has learned that a second staffer, former Ananich press secretary Angela Wittrock, also filed two discrimination complaints shortly before quitting in 2016. One was a gender discrimination claim against colleague Michael Zukas and another against a female superior, current Communications Director Lisa Keith.

Wittrock, who confirmed she filed the complaints but declined additional comment, said in one accompanying narrative that she had brought hostile workplace concerns to Mulcrone, who told her she needed to just “learn to eat a little s---.”

She was one of three women who left their jobs with Senate Democrats that year prior to the complaint from Studley, who cited the turnover as evidence of wider problems and officially left her own post in July 2017. 

The complaints were filed with the Senate Business Office, which oversees human resources for both political party caucuses. The business office then hired outside counsel to investigate allegations after Studley’s complaint, said Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for majority Senate Republicans.

 “And the investigations concluded the complaints had no merit,” McCann said, telling The News that the probe included interviews with “multiple parties.”

Ananich said in a statement he values a “safe, productive work environment” and takes “seriously any complaint of discrimination or harassment.”

“I referred this matter to the non-partisan Senate Business Office when it came to my attention, and they hired independent counsel to thoroughly investigate the complaint,” he said. “I was prepared to act in accordance with whatever the investigation found, and they ultimately found that there was no evidence of gender-based discrimination.”

But the depth of that investigation is unknown, and Studley criticized it.

"Too often when women and minorities sound the alarm about discriminatory, demeaning treatment in the workplace, they end up getting forced out and nothing gets fixed,” Studley told The News.

“Employers should focus on doing the right thing and addressing the problems rather than doing the bare minimum to avoid being sued."

The Senate paid $7,500 for the investigation, which was conducted by Evans Law Group, P.C. of Rochester, according to Business Office Director Jordan Hankwitz.

The Senate typically does not comment on personnel issues because “we would always want to protect their privacy,” McCann said, “but this has been outside the normal circumstances of any personnel issue as there is more information out in the public than we would expect.”

Deputy Chief of Staff Nancy Green, who previously worked with Mulcrone under former leaders and rejoined Senate Democrats in September 2017, defended her boss and longtime colleague.

“He’s always been fair,” she said. “He’s the kind of supervisor, and frankly the kind of employee, who tries to help other employees. He’s always lifted people up and given people opportunities.”

Green noted that she’s earned a promotion, a pay increase and been given additional responsibilities working under Mulcrone during the past two years. She is one of several women who currently hold senior staff positions in Ananich's office.

“I don’t have anything negative to say about him, and I’m frankly surprised to see other people criticize him.”

In her complaint, Studley indicated she had brought general concerns about workplace conditions to Ananich on multiple occasions, including a Sept. 9, 2016, discussion, and a phone chat and subsequent email later that same month.

She also alleged Zukas, another male staffer who was the subject of a separate complaint from Wittrock, had a “history of making sexist remarks and provoking” female colleagues but was only reprimanded when he made “racially insensitive comments, not sexist ones.”

The 2017 discrimination complaint and material allegations were made public by Chris Savage, chairman of the Washtenaw County Democratic Party, who published Studley’s complaint on his Eclectablog website.

“I don’t like to do friendly fire, but we have to be better than this,” Savage told The News on Wednesday, suggesting Democratic efforts to regain a majority in the upper chamber “don’t stand a chance” if talented female staffers leave because of poor treatment by male superiors.

Savage cast doubt on the thoroughness of the Senate Business Office investigation that found the claims without merit.

“My hope is this spurs a change, and this is largely going to have to be on Jim Ananich,” Savage said. “He’s the boss of it. People tell me he’s a super nice guy, but very conflict averse, and that seems to be showing itself right now.”

Green praised Ananich and questioned why the complaint was published since the investigation had found no fault. 

"I feel like they're all about lifting people up and helping people do their best," she said about Mulcrone and Ananich. "So I’m really kind of sad to see this is a story."

joosting@detroitnews.com

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