Sexual harassment allegations rock Lansing consulting firm, spark backlash

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A Lansing political consulting firm is feeling the repercussions of sexual harassment allegations made against its owner, who was forced off the boards of two groups, and a backlash against a key employee championing women's rights who is leaving the firm.

Downtown Lansing Inc. announced Thursday that Vanguard Public Affairs Owner T.J. Bucholz "will no longer be serving on our board" after reports by young female employees that he sexually harassed them at his consulting firm. The Central Michigan chapter of the Public Relations Society of America said in a Thursday tweet that Bucholz was no longer on their board effective last Sunday.

"This leadership change was in response to disturbing allegations," the group said. "As PR professionals, we are all stewards of this profession and have pledged to act ethically in all manners of the trade."

Central Michigan University has launched an investigation into Vanguard's relationship with the university, but didn't make clear his relationship with the university. 

"We are aware of the allegations that have come to light against Vanguard Public Affairs, which include a connection to a current CMU faculty member," CMU spokesman John M. Veilleux said in an email. "We also received reports that a staff member may have been aware of the situation. We are taking immediate action to thoroughly investigate this matter, and both employees have been removed from all duties and any student contact."

Downtown Lansing said in a Thursday statement that part of its mission is "ensuring an equitable and welcoming space is our conviction that all victims should be believed and heard — and acting on that conviction when necessary."

Jen Eyer, an Ann Arbor city councilwoman and partner at Vanguard Public Affairs, announced Wednesday night that her last day with the firm would be Friday. Vanguard Public Affairs Vice President David Lossing also announced his resignation from the firm Thursday on Facebook.

T.J. Bucholz, owner of Vanguard Public Affairs in Lansing

By Thursday morning, large parts of the website were no longer accessible — including examples of its work, a podcast and a list of company team members. 

The allegations and leaders' departure cast a shadow over the firm that may result in lost clients or questions about clients who have remained with the firm over the years, said Dennis Darnoi, a Republican strategist and owner of Densar Consulting in Farmington Hills. 

"If it wasn’t such a well-known secret in Lansing and there were many people who were paying his consulting fee, then does this change anything?" Darnoi said.

Me too fallout

Several former female employees made allegations of sexual harassment against Bucholz to the Detroit Free Press and Eclectablog in articles posted Wednesday. The women alleged Bucholz talked to them about having a threesome with his wife, made inappropriate sexual jokes and innuendos, and commented inappropriately on the women's appearances. 

Bucholz, who primarily represents Democratic clients, did not return a message Wednesday seeking comment. He told the Free Press that he denied some allegations, was misunderstood or didn't recall other situations.

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor, who appointed Bucholz to the volunteer Downtown Lansing Inc. board, said he asked Bucholz to resign and "he did so immediately." 

"This behavior is completely unacceptable and these allegations need to be treated with the seriousness they deserve," Schor said. "It’s important that we listen to all of the courageous women who are telling their stories.” 

The controversy is Michigan's latest chapter in the #metoo movement, in which people break their silence and publicize allegations of sexual harassment or sex crimes. It also has put Eyer in the spotlight, as alleged victims of harassment accused her of enabling Bucholz. 

The criticism spilled onto Twitter on Wednesday, with former firm worker Megdi Abebe writing, "Jen did nothing while we were being harassed. She blamed some of my colleagues for the harassment when they came to her for help."

Eyer, through much of her career, has been an outspoken critic of enablers of harassment. She was a former journalist at MLive and director of communications for Gretchen Whitmer's gubernatorial campaign in 2017.

When former Wayne State University journalism program leader Jack Lessenberry was accused of a long history of questionable behavior toward women in 2018, Deadline Detroit quoted her Facebook post that, "Everyone knew. No one did anything. What will the response be now?" Lessenberry resigned his post the following month.

Eyer told The Detroit News on Thursday that she was an employee at Vanguard, not "an owner, officer or manager," and much of her work was done remotely. She was a vice president at Vanguard from May 2016 to January 2017 and later became partner.

She said she was "stunned" by the revelations, but noted she was shown inappropriate text messages by employees from Bucholz twice several years ago. She said she advised the employee to contact management other than Bucholz and believed the situation was resolved.

Policies were put in place "to ensure employees would be protected," she said. 

"I was unequivocal in my condemnation of inappropriate behavior in the workplace and advised that if I was ever made aware of another incident, I would immediately terminate my employment," Eyer said. She announced her departure within hours of the revelations on Thursday.

Among Eyer's critics was Abby Clark, 38, who started at Vanguard in May 2018 as the firm’s chief strategist but has since formed her own political consulting firm called Athena Strategies. In a Twitter exchange, Eyer tweeted Wednesday at Clark that she was part of "senior staff. ... Why didn't you tell anyone?"

Clark responded that Eyer "always made it very clear you were in his corner and we were on our own." 

Clark said Thursday she was stunned to read alleged sexual text messages between Bucholz and former employees.

“How flagrant. How explicit,” she said. “It just sucks, that one guy can do this to this many people.”

Clark left Vanguard in fall 2019, but said Bucholz never made sexual remarks to her or, as far as she knew, others during her tenure. He was known to own multiple firearms and sometimes brought guns to the office, Clark said. 

She described Vanguard as a “revolving door” where the vast majority of new hires were young women. For most of her stay, none of the employees had health insurance or benefits of any kind.

“I was so embarrassed by not having benefits that I didn’t tell anybody,” Clark said. “That’s outrageous, especially when you preach progressive values.”

Alleged behavior outlined

Chelsea Coffey was 22 when she joined Vanguard in 2016 and received inappropriate messages from Bucholz, she told The News on Thursday. 

At one point, Coffey had purchased bread for Bucholz from a bakery they both knew, and she said he responded, "You're so f---ing hot. Marry me."

In August 2017, Coffey posted a photo of herself in a T-shirt with a logo for Schor, whose campaign Coffey was working for through Vanguard. Bucholz, she said, commented "You certainly look, um, healthy" in an apparent reference to her breasts. 

Bucholz apologized, but Coffey told him she was leaving the firm. Coffey told Schor of the incident and continued to work on his campaign independent of Vanguard before she was later hired as special assistant to the mayor.  

"I’m disappointed that everyone allegedly knew; people have said this was the worst kept secret in Lansing," Coffey said. "And yet people still used him for work, hired him, paid him.”

Schor said he supported a woman who came to him about an inappropriate text, but "had no knowledge of this pattern of toxic behavior, nor the extent to which it escalated with others."

In a statement to The News, former Vanguard employee Ashlea Phenicie said Bucholz made regular comments about women's bodies — calling them "hot" or "fat" — and warned female employees not to get pregnant so he didn't have to pay for health care coverage or grant maternity leave. 

"I told him this was illegal," Phenicie said. "He responded that he was joking. He repeated this 'joke' every few months, and it was clear to us that he was not actually joking."

Toward the end of her time with Vanguard, Bucholz brought his handgun into Phenicie's office and told her to "touch it."

"I told him no each time," she said. "It felt like a taunting power display charged with sexual innuendo."

Staff Writer James Dickson contributed.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com