The Downtown Streets Team, a nonprofit whose leaders have been accused of sexual harassment by former employees, issued a public apology on Monday and formally retracted the false comments that its board chair made last month, including a baseless claim that the Weekly "got it wrong" in reporting about the accusations.
The nonprofit, which provides work support and counseling to homeless individuals, has been facing increased scrutiny over the past year after multiple employees complained about its hard-drinking culture and cited incidents of sexual harassment by senior staff, including CEO Eileen Richardson and her son, Chris Richardson. The reports had prompted investigations by San Jose Inside and the Weekly, which in a Jan. 22 story detailed allegations from numerous former employees against the nonprofit's top executives.
The 2020 story also included a link to a ruling from the state Unemployment Insurance Board, which considered allegations of sexual harassment from former Downtown Streets Team employee Zia MacWilliams and upheld her claims for unemployment benefits.
"Based upon the claimaint's sworn testimony, which was provided in a manner which caused the administrative law judge to conclude her testimony credible, it is found that the claimant was subjected to sexual harassment and a hostile work environment," the ruling from Robert Dresser and Ellen Corbett of the state Unemployment Insurance Board states.
The state board had also concluded that MacWilliams' testimony is accorded "greater evidentially weight and probative value than the sworn testimony of the employer witness which was lacking in conviction and frequently nonresponsive to questions posed to her regarding the issue of sexual harassment."
But on Dec. 7, as the Palo Alto City Council was considering a new contract with the Downtown Streets Team for maintenance of downtown streets, alleyways and parking lots, the nonprofit's board chair Owen Byrd characterized the complaints of sexual harassment from former employees as "allegations brought in the press" and asserted to the council that these allegations "have never been the subject of any civil or criminal matter."
After then-Vice Mayor Tom DuBois asked specifically about the rulings that the Weekly had reported on, Byrd falsely maintained that the Weekly "got it wrong."
After Byrd's testimony, the council voted 6-0, with council member Alison Cormack absent, to approve a one-year contract with Downtown Streets Team for $107,748. Prior to the meeting, staff had recommended a three-year contract worth $323,244.
During Monday's council meeting, Elaine Wood, a board member at Downtown Streets Team, read a letter that publicly retracted Byrd's statements and apologized to the council, the public, city staff and the Weekly. Byrd's statements, she said, were wrong.
"Mr. Byrd's statement that the Weekly 'got it wrong' was incorrect when he was asked about the reporting that an Administrative Law Judge had ruled on November 17, 2017," the letter states. "As the Weekly correctly reported, the judge made such a finding, as did the two-person panel that reviewed the final employee appeal of the Unemployment Insurance Compensation Board," states the letter, which is signed by Byrd and Richardson.
The Downtown Streets Team board also provided to the city on Monday copies of the rulings from the administrative law judge and the Unemployment Insurance Compensation Board.
The letter from the Downtown Streets Team states that the nonprofit and Byrd "deeply regret Mr. Byrd's inaccurate answer to Vice Mayor DuBois' questions and for impugning the accuracy of the Palo Alto Weekly's reporting."
"To be clear, we do not believe the Palo Alto Weekly was inaccurate in any of its reporting on DST and the claims of sexual harassment by a former employee. It got nothing 'wrong.'"
The nonprofit issued a statement more than a month after Bill Johnson, publisher of the Palo Alto Weekly, first demanded that Byrd retract his false allegations that the Weekly "got it wrong." When no such retraction came, Johnson sent a letter to the nonprofit putting it on notice about a potential legal claim for defamation.
"The fact that this comes at a time when the credibility of responsible media organizations and their journalists across the nation is under malicious attack by those who seek to delegitimize their important work makes the damage done even greater since it plays directly into a false narrative," Johnson wrote in the Dec. 24 letter to Byrd.
Johnson also observed in the letter that Byrd did not give any indication during the Dec. 7 discussion that any court documents pertaining to sexual harassment allegations exist. Rather, Byrd "listened while councilmembers and the city attorney struggled over how the city attorney might look further into proceedings that might shed light on the sexual harassment allegations."
"Instead of helping clear up their confusion by acknowledging that there was indeed a case and a written ruling on the sexual harassment allegations by an Administrative Law Judge and the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, you remained silent about the case," Johnson wrote. "Amidst the confusion that you helped create, the council then proceeded to approve a new contract with DST (albeit for only one year), accomplishing just what you had come to achieve."
The council did not discuss the Downtown Streets Team contract on Monday, though several members had expressed concern in recent months about both the allegations against nonprofit executives and about the organization's steadfast refusal to provide to the city the results of its own internal investigation. The nonprofit had commissioned in 2018 an independent investigation of complaints from five former employees by the Law Firm of Amy Oppenheimer. But despite multiple requests from the city, the Downtown Streets Team has declined to provide even a redacted version of the report.
While council member Lydia Kou and former council member Liz Kniss had each expressed concern in recent months about the nonprofit's failure to provide the report, the council has continued to provide funding to Downtown Streets Team. In June, the council approved an allocation of $336,400 in federal funding to the Downtown Streets Team from the Community Development Block Grant. And on Dec. 7, despite some misgivings, the council moved ahead with a new street cleaning contract.
In response to the Monday retraction, Johnson lauded the nonprofit for correcting the record.
"We appreciate that Mr. Byrd and the Downtown Streets Team board of directors have retracted Byrd's statements and have apologized to the City Council and to the Weekly," Johnson said in a statement. "Staff Writer Sue Dremann and Weekly editors carefully researched and fact-checked our January 22, 2020, story before it was published and it was completely accurate.
"Our reputation as a reliable source of local news is especially important in an era when news organizations are being regularly (and usually falsely) accused of bias and presenting 'fake news.' Trust in our reporting is essential to our continued success, and we are glad DST has corrected the record."