A state prison supervisor was fired this year after multiple female officers said he rubbed his groin in their presence and made sexual comments such as, “You don’t know what I could do to you.”
Bernard Robinson, a former sergeant at Lumberton Correctional Institution south of Fayetteville, had worked for the state for 22 years before he was fired in February.
Details of the accusations remained out of the public eye until this September when a judge affirmed the firing.
Never miss a local story.
Four women, who ranged in age from 24 to 55, came forward in the summer of 2016 with allegations that the 47-year-old Robinson had directed lurid comments and lewd behavior at them while on the job. All four had been under Robinson’s direct supervision, so he had control over their schedules, vacation requests, promotions, disciplinary actions and other matters.
Two of the women didn’t report him at all until approached by an investigator. Another said she had endured his verbal and physical harassment for three years before filing a formal complaint.
Robinson has denied all the allegations, saying the women either misunderstood him or were out to get him.
The administrative law judge, Donald Overby, disagreed and said Robinson’s behavior “unquestionably amounted to sexual harassment.” But the case isn’t done yet because Robinson has appealed again, said his attorney, Michael C. Byrne, who runs a Raleigh firm that specializes in representing state employees. The case is now in superior court.
Robinson, who made $45,643 last year according to state records, was eight years away from being able to retire with a full pension.
The case began in July 2016, when a correctional officer went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Office of the N.C. Department of Public Safety.
Overby wrote in his ruling that the women’s initial hesitation to come forward was “understandable,” since “female correctional officers working in this environment are reluctant to report sexual harassment by superiors for fear of reprisals in a male dominated environment.”
The first officer to come forward said Robinson would “look me up and down and then lick his lips, and it makes me feel as if he views me as a piece of meat and I am uncomfortable with it.”
A few days later, another corrections officer on Robinson’s shift filed a complaint of her own.
She said that a week earlier, on July 20, 2016, Robinson “called her into his office and told her he was looking for an inmate, but when she glanced down she noticed that (Robinson) was rubbing his groin area ... and appeared to have an erection.”
Details of the allegations
The judge, Overby, cited many of the incidents the women had complained about – incidents which were corroborated by state investigators before Robinson was fired.
Here are a few examples of the lines that contributed to Robinson losing his job.
▪ “You’re not doing those pants no good.”
▪ “You would look good in Victoria Secrets.”
▪ “Let me taste it.”
▪ “23 years old, mmm, so young and fertile.”
▪ “You don’t know what I could do to you.”
▪ Looking at a woman’s buttocks and saying, “Good God, that thing is spreading.”
▪ Saying the letters RBX on his badge stood for “Rape, Booty, X-Rated.”
Hesitation to come forward
It’s unclear how often prison employees sexually harass their coworkers. A Department of Public Safety spokesman, Jerry Higgins, couldn’t point to any records – either publicly available or purely internal – that the department uses to track how many workers are disciplined for sexual misconduct.
Personnel records are also not public records, meaning that the only way allegations like the ones against Robinson come to light are during court hearings, which typically are public.
While Robinson made inappropriate and harassing comments to at least four women he worked with at the prison, the investigation found, his behavior wasn’t limited to words.
The second officer said Robinson had been verbally harassing her for three years before she reported him in July 2016. For most of that time he wasn’t her direct supervisor, she said, so she let it go.
After he did become her boss, she said, the harassment became more physical.
The day after the groin-rubbing incident, she said, he called her to his office again and started handing her items like keys and a time sheet – but repeatedly pulled them away as she was reaching out for them.
After a while, she said, Robinson grabbed her wrist and refused to let go, despite her asking him several times to stop. She eventually yanked herself free.
She said she told Robinson multiple times she felt harassed, and “not to touch or talk to her unless it was DPS business, and (Robinson) would laugh and tell her, ‘it won’t hold up in court.’ ”
She said she asked a different supervisor for a reassignment, but it never happened. She then asked another officer to ask Robinson to stop harassing her. Robinson retaliated, she said, by refusing to speak to her at all – which made it hard for her to do her job since he was her boss.
So then she filed a formal complaint – adding to the first officer’s complaint a few days earlier. The next day, prison officials put Robinson on an “administrative assignment” and began investigating.
Greta Bethea, the acting director and lead investigator for DPS’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office, interviewed Robinson and his first two accusers – plus seven other current and former correctional officers, including four women.
Two of those four women defended Robinson, saying he hadn’t harassed them and was trustworthy. But the other two said they had been sexually harassed by Robinson while he was their superior at the prison, although they hadn’t reported it previously.
One of them said Robinson “would refer to himself as ‘Big Daddy’ while on the phone with her,” according to the ruling, and that in person he would stare at her, licking his lips or making sexual comments.
Robinson also “offered to come to her house and keep her company,” Overby wrote, noting that Robinson is married to someone else.
The judge wrote that Robinson also once asked that officer to secure a locker, which required her to bend down. When she stood up, she saw Robinson “immediately behind her. (Robinson) looked in her eyes and then looked down at the crotch area of his pants. (The officer) said there was a bulge in his crotch area and his penis was clearly erect.”
But that officer wasn’t keen to tell anyone about all this. She originally told Bethea that Robinson never harassed her, only to later admit that was a lie. She explained she was also enrolled in college and was afraid that if she came forward, prison officials would change her carefully arranged work schedule, forcing her to miss her classes.
The fourth woman, a former correctional officer who had resigned during an unrelated investigation into whether she had given a prisoner her phone number, also came forward with her own allegations after being approached by Bethea. She said she didn’t report Robinson earlier “as she did not think anything would be done,” Bethea wrote.
While Overby and Bethea both noted the possibility of retaliation against the women who came forward, the prison superintendent Harvey Clay said he was sympathetic to their concerns “about possible reprisals.” He also testified that “it is unacceptable for senior correctional officers such as (Robinson) to engage in sexual harassment of subordinates,” according to Overby’s ruling.
Robinson’s side of the story
Robinson denied everything to the investigator, Bethea.
He told her that the first woman to file a complaint might be related to someone else who had once made a “false allegation” against him.
He also told Bethea that he “truly feels ... targeted” by the accusations.
Bethea, however, sent her findings up the chain of command last October, three months after the allegations were first reported.
Robinson met with the prison’s top two administrators in November in a “pre-disciplinary” hearing and had the opportunity to give them more evidence or information on his behalf. He didn’t, and in February he was fired.
Robinson then appealed his firing, claiming racial discrimination since he was the only African-American sergeant at the prison. Robinson had worked there his whole career and had been a sergeant since 2003.
Overby dismissed that argument.
He said Robinson “offered no testimony to support this theory, three of the four accusers are African-American females, and both Superintendent (Harvey) Clay and Assistant Superintendent (James) McRae who participated in the pre-disciplinary conference are African-American males.”
Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran