Senate President Refuses to Confirm Whether Senator Payne Responded to Sexual Harassment Allegation, Next Steps Now in Hands of Frett-Gregory, Sen. Francis Says
The Office of the Senate President today issued a statement on the investigation into a sexual harassment allegation made against Senator Steven Payne by one of his employees, but the statement failed to give an update on the latest developments, citing an effort to keep matters regarding the probe confidential.
Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory told the Consortium Monday afternoon that the report of an investigatory team, which includes Senate Vice President Novelle Francis and the executive director of the Legislature, was placed on her desk Monday and that she could not comment on whether Mr. Payne had responded until she saw the report. Today, Ms. Frett-Gregory refused to comment on whether Mr. Payne had responded.
Yet Mr. Francis told the Consortium Tuesday afternoon that the report was submitted to Ms. Frett-Gregory Monday and that it includes a response from Mr. Payne, though he said it was not his place to comment on Mr. Payne’s response. “The executive director and I sent our report,” Mr. Francis said, adding that Ms. Frett-Gregory would determine the next step of the investigation.
In her statement today to the press, Ms. Frett-Gregory delineated the investigatory process, which includes the following steps:
- When the alleged harasser is a Senator, a member of the Legislature appointed by the President, (in this case, the Senate Vice President), together with the Executive Director shall meet privately with the senator to ascertain the accused Senator’s response to the claim of sexual harassment, the accused Senator’s defense against the charge, if any; and if there are any witnesses who can substantiate the alleged harasser’s denial and response.
- The alleged offender will be required to submit a written response to the complaint within five (5) business days after receipt of a copy of the complaint. If by the eighth business day, the accused has not submitted a written response, the accused will be considered to have declined the opportunity to respond, and the investigation shall proceed despite the failure of the offender to respond. The alleged offender’s failure or refusal to respond shall be so noted in the investigative report.
- Should the preponderance of evidence suggest that the alleged harassment has occurred, the Committee on Ethical Conduct shall be informed for further action as provided for in the Rule 810 of the 34th Legislature.
Ms. Frett-Gregory has had the report from the Senate’s investigatory team on her desk since Monday afternoon. In it, according to Mr. Francis, was the full report which includes a response from Mr. Payne.
Additionally, when Ms. Frett-Gregory said last week that Mr. Payne had time to respond, she said the timeframe was five days. “The rules of the Legislature requires that an investigation is put together, so we’re investigating the matter and the senator has five days to respond,” Ms. Frett-Gregory told the Consortium Wednesday. “Based on the complaint we are looking into the matter, and the senator has a responsibility to respond.”
Today in her statement, it said Mr. Payne had as much as eight days to respond.
Ms. Frett-Gregory did not address no part of the report, including what are the recommendations, when is the Senate going to disclose to the public what the next course of action will be, nor did she address whether Mr. Payne had provided a response — the latter confirmation came from Senator Francis.
Mr. Payne is now facing multiple sexual harassment allegations, both of which have been reported on by the Consortium. The first, which we reported on April 7, involves an allegation made against Mr. Payne by one of his employees during a work trip to St. Croix. Mr. Payne, an at-large senator, represents St. John. According to people familiar with the matter, the female employee who is believed to be in her early 20s, allegedly realized that her luggage was missing when they arrived to a hotel they were staying in and made inquiries with other employees of Mr. Payne’s office. Still unable to find the luggage, she allegedly approached Mr. Payne outside his hotel room to ask whether he knew what happened to the luggage. Mr. Payne allegedly had the luggage, and it was then that he allegedly invited the employee to stay in his room, an alleged action the employee is said to have refused.
Mr. Payne dismissed the allegations when asked by the Consortium on March 23 about the complaint. Denying the allegations, he said, “What happen is it’s election time, man. Election time,” an apparent reference to bad actors attempting to derail his reelection bid.
The other matter, which was reported by the Consortium Monday, involves a woman from St. John who said she was sexually harassed by Mr. Payne on a beach in 2005, where the senator allegedly ripped her underwear off.
The alleged victim, Chezni Jones, posted about the incident on Facebook in 2018 but while she received encouraging words from commenters, the media did not pick up her story at the time.
“We were in St. John. Anybody who’s been to St. John knows it’s 3/4 National Park — that means nothing but trees. So I was afraid… I didn’t know whether or not this man was looking at me to say ‘Well, you know what? If I think she’s going to say something, I might have to take care of this now to save my career.’ I didn’t know if he was going to do something and drag my body somewhere deep in the woods – I didn’t know. This is a man who’s what, 6”2”, 6”3? And I’m 5”5”, and at the time I only weighed 125 pounds…I’m afraid of him. He’s bigger than me, and he has a weapon,” Jones told the Consortium in a series of exclusive interviews.
Mr. Payne did not respond to a request for comment regarding the recently-resurfaced allegations made by Ms. Jones in 2018.
V.I. Attorney General Denise George, who spoke today at the V.I. Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council (DVSAC) Sexual Assault Awareness Month press conference, refrained from commenting on the matter, citing a V.I. Dept. of Justice policy aimed at preserving the integrity of a possible investigation. “Investigations are confidential in nature, and I will not breach the confidentiality of the investigation process by commenting whether or not there exists an investigation,” Ms. George said.
St. Croix Administrator and former Senator Sammuel Sanes, also present at the DVSAC press conference today and spoke on behalf of the Bryan administration, said the administration’s response was in line with the attorney general’s. “At this time the attorney speaks for the administration,” he said.
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