AKRON — For nearly two decades, Sherri Bevan Walsh has built a powerful political base, trumpeting herself as champion for crime victims as Summit County’s prosecutor.
She came into power as an unknown underdog when first elected in November 2000.
And ever since, she’s been the face of Summit County Democrats, among their top vote-getters, routinely snapping up nearly 70 percent of the vote. Her popularity is so strong, Republicans barely bother to run a serious competitor.
Victims have always been Walsh’s greatest ally. As prosecutor, Walsh has fiercely carried that torch year-round, hosting self-defense classes, alerting the elderly to the latest scams, and aggressively arguing for victim rights, most recently Marsy’s Law.
But inside the seventh floor of her downtown Akron offices, some employees, past and present, are telling a story of contradiction.
According to county records and interviews, Walsh is accused of turning her back to acts of bullying, sexual harassment and racial discrimination - all while allowing political campaigning to take place by favored workers, sometimes on county time, and requiring campaign donations of her workers and denying pay hikes to those who did not.
Walsh’s campaign finance reports, reviewed by Channel 3 News, reflect the cash flow, showing her employees contributed thousands of dollars, or about half of her entire campaign funds in the past six filing periods.
But in the past several weeks, cracks have emerged as five workers have filed complaints of mistreatment. The allegations come from a long-time assistant prosecutor, as well as Walsh’s former chief criminal investigator, her grand jury coordinator and two minority secretaries.
The allegations are a stark contrast to the brand Walsh has molded during her five terms in office.
“Sherri Bevan Walsh does not care about victims,” said Chelsea Fernandez, a secretary, who resigned last month after three years. “Because I was a victim of sexual harassment and nobody cared about me.
“The amount of bullying by that administration ….it’s uncalled for. For an office that advocates for victims, the amount of bullying that goes on is horrendous.”
Walsh declined to be interviewed about the allegations. Instead she released the following statement:
“We have evidence that these are retaliatory claims. These are disgruntled former employees who clearly have an axe to grind. The County has a process in place to review these claims along with our evidence. I have been advised to not comment publicly while this process is pending.”
Deborah Matz, the county’s director of law and risk management, said this week that the complaints are still being investigated.
“As the investigation is on-going, we cannot discuss or make any comment on the allegations,” Matz said in an email.
Three of the five workers resigned from their jobs. One remains. The fifth claims he was fired two hours after filing a complaint against Walsh with the county’s Human Resources office.
Fernandez filed her complaint with the county Human Resources Equal Employment Opportunity office alleging she felt “bullied and harassed by Lisa Holdt,” Walsh’s close friend and chief administrator. Holdt has worked for Walsh since 2001.
Fernandez said she reached out for help, but her cries were summarily dismissed.
Instead of intervention, she said she lived through mental anguish, stress and sleepless nights, all of which required medication and counseling.
“I’m not even under [Walsh any longer] but I’m still afraid of the retaliation from Sherri Bevan Walsh’s office, even talking today,” she told Channel 3 News in an interview. “It was a toxic environment. It really was.”
Fernandez, 23, said she hoped campaigning for Walsh would endear her superiors and make her job tolerable. She had no idea that laws may have been broken by using government time, computers and assets to campaign for Walsh’s re-election in 2016.
“I didn’t know that during work hours campaigning was illegal. I did not know that on county time you could not do that. I thought it was normal,” Fernandez said.
It seemed normal, she said, because fundraisers often involved office chats and envelopes being passed around. Contributions and attending fundraising events were expected of everyone, she said.
“I thought that everybody did it, honestly,” she said.
“If I didn’t campaign, I felt that I would no longer be up for a promotion. I felt that if I didn’t campaign, I would no longer be up for raises.”
Shari Barton Harrell, an assistant prosecutor since 2007, said she found out the hard way what happens when a worker doesn’t contribute.
In her written complaint to the county last month, she said was denied pay raises for not donating enough to Walsh’s campaign or attending fundraisers.
She said a medical condition prevented her from attending many events.
“[Walsh] clearly paid higher salaries to those who attended,” Harrell wrote. “My salary was much lower than the others and the reason I was given was I needed to attend more of her functions [for re-election].”
Harrell, an attorney for 22 years, provided a payroll spreadsheet, pointing out less experienced, male assistant prosecutors, who earned more than her $62,534 annual salary. She also pointed out less experienced, but favored females, earning more as well.
Holdt, who holds no college degree, is paid $91,000. About 40 assistant prosecutors are paid less, records show.
Other examples of the pay scale: Walsh’s director of communications, James Pollack, is paid $93,000 annually performing public relations work for the office.
Walsh’s top assistant prosecutor Brad Gessner earns $120,000, while Walsh is paid $137,193. Assistant Prosecutor Margaret Scott, whom Walsh strongly backed for a failed campaign for judge, earns $106.,000.
Harrell, 50, also alleged that Holdt, “engaged in a persistent pattern of mistreatment of others which caused both physical and emotional harm to individuals and the office as a whole.”
“[Holdt] has demonstrated threatening, humiliating and intimidation which has created a climate of fear in the office,” Harrell wrote.
Harrell said when she tried to report Holdt’s conduct she was told “[Holdt] is Sherri Bevan Walsh’s best friend, there is nothing we can do.”
Harrell initially agreed to an interview with Channel 3 News, but abruptly stopped communicating with a reporter investigating the complaints.
She has since dismissed her complaint, but she did not back away from her claims of mistreatment.
“….it is basically not worth my time and effort. There are more important things to focus on in life than a wrong that cannot be corrected,” she wrote to the county HR EEO compliance officer.
Jennifer Cline, who worked for Walsh as coordinator for the county grand jury, also filed a complaint alleging sexual harassment and cyber stalking. She said Holdt consistently pried into her personal life, asking personal questions about who she is dating and making inappropriate comments about male police officers attending grand jury.
Cline said she spoke to Walsh about the treatment, but said her concerns were brushed aside.
But what about Walsh’s mantra of victims’ rights?
“Ha, that’s her public persona. Yes, behind the scenes she wouldn’t even listen to me,” Cline said in an interview with Channel 3 News. “I felt like my personal life was being invaded. It was very creepy to me.”
Cline resigned last month after three years working for Walsh. She earned about $37,000 a year.
“I feel this is a story that needs to be told. It was a toxic environment. It really was,” she said.
Cline also agreed that working for Walsh’s campaign was part of the job. She said she often spent weekends knocking on doors, or posting yards signs.
“It’s known that you were expected to contribute if you work here,” Cline said. “It’s very well known that you contribute. You have to pay to play.”
Perhaps the oddest departure was that of Chief Criminal Investigator Ben Bergeron. He said in his complaint that he was repeatedly questioned about who he would eat lunch with and time he spent mentoring Chelsea Fernandez.
Bergeron, 39, who is married with children, filed a complaint with HR alleging sexual harassment and two hours later, he said he was fired. He later alleged retaliation. Bergeron would not comment on his complaint.
“I have protected this office and Sherri [Walsh] every single day I have been employed here,” he wrote to Gessner in an email. “I have never in my life felt so much embarrassment and mental stress over petty office gossip.”
One worker who filed a complaint did not resign and remains employed with Walsh. Yolanda Richardson, 55, a secretary for 22 years during three different county prosecutors, wrote of verbal abuse and harassment. An African-American, she cited racial discrimination in her written complaint. She earns $32,000.
Richardson, who declined to comment, said she was denied pay raises and promotions and was a witness to what she called “Lisa Holdt’s reign of terror.”
She compared Walsh to previous prosecutors she worked under, Michael Callahan, and Maureen O’Connor, who is now Ohio’s Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
“And Sherri Bevan Walsh is by far the worst,” she said.