Seattle paid a recruiting firm nearly $50,000 to vet candidates for the Seattle City Light CEO job, but city officials never learned of the workplace investigation at Austin Energy in Texas. The probe exonerated Larry Weis after he was named to the City Light job.
Larry Weis, Seattle City Light’s new general manager and CEO, did not inform city officials interviewing him for the job that he was the subject of an active workplace investigation in Texas concerning an allegation that he presided over a culture of harassment, retaliation and discrimination against women, The Seattle Times found.
Seattle officials also did not learn of the investigation from The Search Partnership, an executive recruiting firm City Light paid nearly $50,000 to identify and vet qualified candidates. A Seattle Times reporter obtained 50 pages of investigative records by filing public-records requests with the city of Austin, where Weis served as Austin Energy’s general manager since 2010. Those records cost nothing.
The Austin investigation ended in November, two days after Seattle Mayor Ed Murray named Weis as his pick for the City Light job. The investigation exonerated Weis and determined that there wasn’t evidence of a pattern of discriminatory conduct.
But the fact that the Austin probe coincided with Weis’ effort to lead City Light, an agency with its own history of gender-diversity problems, raises the question of whether he should have been more forthcoming with Seattle officials — and whether the search firm paid to check Weis’ background fulfilled its role.
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Weis went through a 90-minute interview as part of the HR investigation involving him last year, but when a reporter asked Weis about complaints from his job at Austin Energy, he said he didn’t know anything about it. A couple of weeks later, he acknowledged that he had been investigated but hadn’t initially recalled it because the accusation against him “was a little bit of a stretch.”
“I would have remembered something that would have been significant,” Weis said. He added that there was “no reason” to disclose unsubstantiated complaints and false statements during the interview process with Seattle officials.
Linda Paul, the president of the recruiting firm that City Light paid $47,600 to identify and vet candidates, said Weis did mention to her that he was dealing with a human-resources investigation at Austin Energy. But once Weis explained that the woman had filed complaints against a number of people, Paul said she considered the revelation unimportant. She did not seek additional records about the complaints or mention the issue to Seattle city officials, Paul said.
“I had written it off as a nonissue,” Paul said.
Murray cited Weis’ “deep concern for the welfare of his employees” when he officially nominated him for the City Light job on Nov. 18. The City Council in March approved the nomination with a 7-2 vote, making Weis, whose annual salary is $340,000, the city’s highest-paid employee.
Murray spokesman Benton Strong said the mayor has confidence in Weis and how he had been vetted.
City Councilmember Debora Juarez, a member of the council’s energy committee, said in a brief interview that she was unaware of the Weis investigation and did not want to discuss the matter further. The two other council members on the energy committee — Kshama Sawant and M. Lorena González — did not respond to requests for comment.
Probe started in 2013
The Times first requested documents related to Weis’ tenure at Austin Energy in March, and the final set of documents was turned over this month.
The records show that the 2015 Austin investigation involving Weis was an extension of a 2013 investigation concerning the culture at Austin Energy. The earlier investigation does not mention Weis by name and focuses on the actions of the utility’s corporate communications director, who had been supervised by Weis.
During the investigation, Austin Energy employees accused the communications director of referring to women in the workplace as “little girls” and said he made disparaging comments about people’s weight. In addition, nine current and former employees told investigators they were reluctant to discuss the problems because of a history of reporting complaints to management and HR, “after which no apparent action was taken.”
Austin’s investigators concluded that the communications director had violated policies, and the man resigned.
Sarah Fusco, the woman who filed the formal complaint triggering the 2013 investigation, said in a brief interview with The Seattle Times that she had taken her concerns about the communications director to Weis, who she said did nothing to address the problems.
Weis, in an interview with the Times, said Fusco never brought any complaints to his attention.
“I take all personnel issues seriously, and believe that when a formal complaint was filed in Austin, it was taken seriously and acted upon in a fair and professional manner,” Weis wrote in a later email. “I also feel strongly that all staff (including myself) should cooperate fully with the investigation into any formal complaint.”
Fusco filed a new complaint in 2015 with the city of Austin alleging that Weis and other officials had engaged in a pattern of gender discrimination against her and other women. Fusco accused Austin Energy officials of retaliating against those who filed complaints and noted that she had been denied promotions three times.
Fusco’s complaint states that she spoke with Weis about concerns over pay disparity and that he failed to take appropriate action.
Weis told investigators that he had met with Fusco and explained to her that he wasn’t involved in work-performance issues. He also said he later told Fusco’s new boss that “there is a lot of stuff in her personal life that she cannot separate from her work.”
The Austin investigation ultimately found no evidence of a pattern of discriminatory conduct, noting that two of the three positions that Fusco applied for went to women.
“In the absence of any evidence, no policy violations are substantiated,” the investigators wrote.
Fusco has since filed a lawsuit against the city. Though Weis is not listed as a defendant in the case, he is named in the complaint.
Weis said Fusco’s 2015 complaint had “a lot of false claims” and that he was disappointed that he had been dragged into it.
Susan Coskey, director of the Seattle Department of Human Resources, said vetting Weis included extensive face-to-face interviews, background checks and reference checks.
Paul, the recruiting firm’s president, said she conducted numerous interviews about Weis and heard overwhelmingly positive feedback. She said she talked to people in organized labor and previous places Weis had worked. None of the issues mentioned in the complaint came up during those talks, Paul said.
Seattle council members questioned Weis when he was under consideration earlier this year, and Sawant began the hearing by asking Weis what he had done to promote diversity in the workforce. Weis responded that he was proud to have a diverse leadership team in Texas and that he takes the matter “personally” because the CEO needs to lead on the issue.
In 2014, four former City Light employees, all women, accused the utility of discrimination and retaliation. And last year, a city-sanctioned report singled out City Light as an agency with a large gender imbalance.
Murray has said the city needs to do more to ensure women are provided more and better opportunities in city government, and the City Council’s members have called the issue a priority.