Top Democratic staffer steps down amid claims of sexual harassment

Party’s executive director says he’s done nothing wrong

jfrank@newsobserver.com April 15, 2012 

The executive director of the N.C. Democratic Party resigned Sunday as questions mounted about a secret agreement to pay a former staffer to keep quiet about sexual harassment allegations.

Jay Parmley, who served less than a year at the helm of the party, denied harassing any employee and blamed right-wing political enemies for “spreading a false and misleading story.”

“Even though I have not done anything wrong, it is clear to me that I need to move on,” Parmley wrote in his resignation letter. “I refuse to be a distraction.”

But his quick departure – just two days after the matter surfaced – did little to answer questions about the settlement or quiet critics of party Chairman David Parker. A number of party activists, openly and privately, are calling for him to resign, too.

In a statement, Parker said he accepted Parmley’s resignation and defended his decision not to fire him, saying “there have not been grounds for termination for cause.”

“In this political world of rushing to judgment and the presumption of guilt, however, my legal and personal opinion has been outweighed by this having become a political distraction and issue,” said Parker, a Statesville attorney.

Watt Jones, a member of the state party’s executive committee, said Parmley made the right decision for the party. “Clearly I think there are others who should resign, too,” Jones said.

Democratic consultant Perry Woods of Raleigh agreed. “I think Jay did the right thing,” he said. “David Parker should join him.”

Rumors of a harassment issue have circulated for months, but the matter was pushed into the public spotlight by internal party emails obtained on Friday by The News & Observer. The emails included questions about a financial settlement and nondisclosure agreement with the former staffer. The documents did not identify the party official responsible nor the former staffer.

Parker’s statement did not mention any settlement or agreement with the former staffer who was fired in November. Parker declined to comment further, citing advice of legal counsel, but he defended Parmley’s tenure as a party leader in South Carolina and Oklahoma earlier in his career. “There have never been any complaints or allegations concerning Jay Parmley before or since the matter,” Parker concluded.

North Carolina is a battleground state in the presidential race and host of the Democratic convention, and activists suggested that continued negative publicity involving party leaders could taint the state party’s efforts in the 2012 election.

State Rep. Bill Faison, a candidate for governor who challenged Parker for the party chairmanship in 2011, said in a statement Sunday that Parker should resign “on behalf of the 2.7 million Democrats in North Carolina so that we can get on with the primary election without further distraction.”

The party’s turmoil made for tense conversations Saturday as local Democrats hosted dozens of county conventions across the state. At the Wake County event, Democratic activists introduced a resolution demanding Parker and Parmley resign or be fired. A similar resolution at the Durham County party convention called for a meeting to determine whether the party leaders should be removed.

The Wake resolution introduced by Woods said the party “must deal with sexual harassment claims in an open and transparent fashion.”

Muriel Offerman, treasurer of the state Democratic Party and a Parker ally, spoke against the resolution. “This is a personnel matter within the party,” she said in an interview afterward. “Personnel matters are not to be discussed in public.”

Other Democrats echoed Offerman’s remarks, and Woods pulled the resolution before a vote took place.

Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, who is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, suggested party officials should resign or be fired if the allegations are true. “We cannot tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace,” Dalton said Saturday at the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party convention. “If there’s any truth to the allegations, somebody should resign or be fired immediately.”

Another leading Democrat seeking his party’s gubernatorial nomination, former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, issued a statement Sunday that said: “Mr. Parmley has done the right thing by resigning his position with party. I know that Chairman Parker will also do what is right.”

Frank: 919-829-4698

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