Cumberland County in lawsuit with U.S. Department of Justice

By: - March 10, 2021 4:00 am
Cumberland County Courthouse (Photo: Cumberland County Facebook)

Cumberland County Courthouse (Photo: Cumberland County Facebook) Credit: Jim Young

Over a three year period− between February 2015 and February 2018 — the director of Cumberland County’s solid waste services is alleged to have subjected at least 10 women to unrelenting sexual harassment.

Michael Harvel forcibly kissed, fondled and propositioned the women for sex, according to the women’s accounts.  

Michael Harvel, former Cumberland County Commissioner and former director of Cumberland County Solid Waste Services. (Photo: Facebook)
Michael Harvel, former Cumberland County Commissioner and former director of Cumberland County Solid Waste Services. (Photo: Facebook)

He put his hands under their shirts and down their pants, they said. Harvel took some of the women — who included part-time recycling sorters, women court-ordered to perform community service, and one full-time employee — to secluded areas, including the county’s landfill, where he subjected them to unwanted sexual contact, they said. Two women said they were pressured into providing “sexual favors” in return for employment benefits.

In November 2017, one woman quit after she said Harvel threatened to rape her.

Cumberland County is now subject to a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice for failing to protect employees from sexual harassment.

The lawsuit, filed Monday, is expected to result in a settlement that will require ongoing court supervision of the county under a consent decree, according to court filings. 

Five women reported Harvel to their superiors at the recycling center, but those managers failed to take any action, the lawsuit said. Other women complained directly to Harvel. Some women said they didn’t know how to file a complaint. Others reported that they feared the County Mayor, who was friends with Harvel, would not help, or worse — that he would fire them. 

Indeed, the lawsuit alleges that former County Mayor Kenneth Carey, Jr. told the director of Solid Waste to “get rid of” a woman who filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2018. The director who, by then, had replaced Harvel, said she understood that to mean Carey wanted the woman fired, the lawsuit said. 

“Many of the women described his unwelcome sexual contact, sexual advances, and offensive sexual remarks as occurring on a daily or near daily basis or even multiple times a day,” the lawsuit said. “Harvel’s conduct unreasonably interfered with the women’s ability to do their jobs. His physical touching of the women while they worked on the line made it difficult to sort the recycling properly.”

“All of the women found Harvel’s sexual contact, sexual advances, and offensive sexual remarks to be unwelcome, and many of the women undertook repeated efforts to get him to stop,” the lawsuit said.

Neither Carey, nor attorneys for Harvel and the county responded to requests for comment. Carey chose not to run for reelection in 2018 and is no longer mayor.

Harvel was indicted by a Cumberland County grand jury in February 2018 on two counts of sexual battery and one count each of assault and official misconduct. His trial date has been pushed back several times as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and a new trial date has not yet been set, according to court records.

Harvel was terminated after the indictments, after remaining on the county’s payroll for a year until the EEOC investigation was completed. 

Attorney’s for the county have been negotiating with federal officials on a settlement for months. An announcement on the terms of the settlement — and its cost to Cumberland County taxpayers — is expected shortly. 

The county lacked an effective harassment policy, the lawsuit alleged. The existing policy was distributed only to full-time employees, and the company did not provide training on its policy or the process for filing an internal complaint. 

Since the allegations came to light in 2018, county officials have taken steps to update human resources procedures and personnel policies for employees, according to published reports.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.