Lewis’s Hotline exit follows harassment allegations, investigation

By on July 21, 2021

By Maggie Miles and Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice

Former Safe House Manager Haslar filed a complaint about Lewis, whose retirement was announced last week.

In a July 16 press release, officials at the Outer Banks Hotline announced the retirement of Executive Director Michael Lewis, who had been with the non-profit for more than 21 years and had served as its Executive Director since 2015.

Without providing any further details on Lewis’ departure, the Hotline, which was founded in 1980, also announced that it is beginning a search for a new executive director. The organization is a private non-profit that provides crisis intervention, safe house, advocacy and education services, often for women in abusive situations. Its financial supporters include the NC Department of Administration’s Council for Women & Youth Involvement and the NC Department of Public Safety.

But the Voice has learned that the announcement of Lewis’ departure comes in the wake of allegations about his workplace behavior that led former Hotline Safe House Manager Katy Haslar to file a June 8 formal complaint against Lewis that included allegations of sexual harassment. The complaint was sent to the Hotline Board of Directors, which is chaired by Judy Burnette, as well as the North Carolina Council for Women and Youth Involvement.

Those allegations also triggered an investigation into Lewis’s alleged behavior by a committee comprised of several board members, although the announcement of Lewis’ departure makes no mention of the board investigation.

Haslar, who moved to the Outer Banks three years ago from Indianapolis Indiana with her husband and son, had worked for that city’s Julian Center, which supported victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Haslar, who was first hired at the Hotline in June 2020 and became safe house manager in February of this year, resigned — with her last day of work on June 7, several weeks after she announced her intention to leave.

When reached by the Voice on July 16, Michael Lewis referred inquiries to his attorney, Jeff Malarney. On July 19, Malarney confirmed to the Voice that he is representing Lewis, adding that, “At this juncture, I’m not in a position to comment” on the allegations against him.

In interviews with the Voice, Haslar said she was prepared to resign, get out of an uncomfortable situation, and go on with her life. It wasn’t, she said, until she heard the similar stories of other women that she decided to take her story public.

In reporting this story, the Voice interviewed and learned of other women who alleged inappropriate behavior by Lewis, including another formal complaint filed with Hotline Board about nine years ago.

In the complaint filed by Haslar, she wrote that “I had hoped to conclude my last few weeks without issue so that I could leave the safe house status in good condition for the next manager and administrative staff, but as more information came to my attention from community members and former staff members, I found that was not able to happen.”

Haslar’s complaint raised questions about key aspects of Lewis’ overall management style and handling of staff, including making disparaging remarks about a number of employees

She also alleges in that complaint that “I was also the victim of sexual harassment by Michael Lewis,” detailing numerous examples of behavior that included Lewis’ comments about her appearance — including that she looked “beautiful,” that expressed a desire to play “strip poker” with her, and that voiced his desire to “hold you and stroke your hair.”

“Twice, I clearly stated in texts that I was devoted to my family and my husband and would never do anything to jeopardize my marriage,” she continued.

As Haslar stated in both the complaint and interviews with the Voice, Lewis initially was extremely complimentary of her work to the point of telling her: “You’re an incredible leader. I’m going to turn this whole place over to you.” She also said that he told her “his plan was to eventually have me in the Associate Director position alongside of him.”

In the formal complaint, Haslar acknowledged that it took her a while to understand what was happening, noting that it was only in the past several weeks that she understood that the “his compliments of me, promises, and aspirations expressed for me came…only from a place, in my opinion, of hoping to initiate a sexual relationship with me.”

Prior to making her complaint, Haslar said she discussed her sexual harassment concerns with several superiors and other co-workers at the Hotline. After filing the complaint, she said that about a week later, she was informed by a board member that there would be no investigation due to a lack of evidence.

On June 6, Haslar contacted Jane Allen Wilson, Director of Training at the non-profit North Carolina Victim Assistance Network, to get advice. In an interview with the Voice, Wilson confirmed that she provided information to Haslar, adding that “It sounded like a very concerning situation and there is a standard response to the protocol…file a grievance with the board [of the Hotline] and hope the board really hears the complaint.”

Wilson added that she has worked with Haslar on several cases and stated that “she’s a really wonderful advocate…She did not want to leave her job.”

Haslar also said she contacted Philisa Fowler of the North Carolina Council for Women & Youth Involvement, which is a Hotline funder. In email exchanges between Fowler and Haslar that occurred from June 9-16, Fowler advised her to voice her concerns to all Hotline board members, noting that the board should have a committee in place to address her complaint.

“I will make the board aware that we as a funder have received the complaint and are aware,” Fowler stated in one email.

In late June, Hasler said that Hotline Board Member Teuta Towler called to inform her that she was leading a committee to investigate Haslar’s complaint and also invited Haslar to a June 22 meeting with Towler and two other committee members.

Haslar said that after that meeting, which she characterizes as not having gone well, she next heard from the board when she got a call from her lawyer, Brad Hill, on or around July 10. She said Hill told her, based on a message from Hotline attorney John Leidy, that the board was looking to wrap up the case quickly. On July 13, she said that Hill relayed another message from Leidy, indicating the board had decided to continue the investigation.

For his part, Leidy said he sent Hill a July 10 email indicating that the board was trying to wrap up the investigation and required more documents from Haslar.  Haslar said she had already provided those documents to Judy Burnette. Leidy confirmed that his subsequent July 13 email told Hill that the board had decided the investigation would continue.

The first time the Voice directly approached a Hotline Board member to discuss what its reporting had found was on July 12.

On Friday, July 16, the Hotline announced the retirement of Michael Lewis.

When asked for an interview or a comment on the allegations against Lewis and the circumstances surrounding his departure, Towler issued this statement.

“Regardless of the transition in the leadership team, Outer Banks Hotline is committed to providing services to the victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. My goal is to make sure that Hotline doors stay open. The safe house is fully staffed by wonderful female advocates who are very passionate about helping survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.”

“Women who are experiencing any domestic violence or sexual assault need to know that they have a safe space to go and start a healing journey,” the statement continued. “I thank all the volunteers and our donors for helping us keep the doors open and serve women in need of Hotline services.”

 

 

 




Comments

  • Kelli Harmon

    I’ve worked with Michael Lewis for 6+ years and I’ve never seen him behave unprofessionally in any way. Ever.

    He’s always been the first one to show up when organizations need help for manual labor, donations, or anything else.

    In 6+ years, I’ve always seen him be a leader who leads with integrity, kindness, and compassion.

    Wednesday, Jul 21 @ 4:56 pm
  • Champ Clark

    Fine reporting.

    Wednesday, Jul 21 @ 7:41 pm
  • Just a mom

    This man is a very good man.

    If texting someone uncomfortable things is sexual harassment well the whole world has a case. Making someone lose their job over it is inhuman. Threatening or physical touching is a different story. Words… sad state of affairs the world has come to. No one knows what she said or did off the phone or paper trail to insight such verbal advances. I am of all people a proponent of hard time for line crossers, but saying your beautiful and want to touch your hair seems a ridiculous call for help inside or outside the workplace, If he even said such things. If he did I want the truth from his side too. I don’t like these dirty airings of laundry stories. They are not helpful. They are likened to the days of the center square stockades. Let’s have a picnic and throw our apple cores at the guy confined.

    If I am wrong and lines were crossed he should pay. But by the words of this story they were not in my book.

    This man is a very good hearted man.

    Wednesday, Jul 21 @ 8:31 pm
  • Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice

    You are more than entitled to your view of Mr. Lewis. We’ll have to disagree about the importance of “airings of laundry” stories. I guess maybe it depends on whose laundry is being aired.

    Wednesday, Jul 21 @ 9:17 pm
  • obxcharles

    fox guarding the hen house. sounds like

    Wednesday, Jul 21 @ 8:57 pm
  • Curious

    Hotline makes a lot of money from their thrift stores, fundraising, grants, etc. It’s not clear how many and to what level victims, both women and/or men, receive assistance. Specifically, what services are really provided? How is all that money spent? Curious about annual income, expenses and the executive salaries.

    Wednesday, Jul 21 @ 9:43 pm
  • WooCoo

    I don’t know either of the individuals involved, but I do know something about sexual harassment by virtue of my professional role. Those phrases which were reported to have been spoken by the male to the female are definitely inappropriate. Try this simple test. Would you repeat those same phrases to a male co-worker? You can, and I have, complemented workers by saying “you are dressed very professionally today. Thank you.”. This is appropriate for all co-workers regardless of sex or sexual orientation. You would have to have been living under the proverbial rock in this day and time to say the things reportedly spoken and not realize they are inappropriate.

    Thursday, Jul 22 @ 7:11 am
  • Obx mermaid

    Looks like Hotline needs a better attorney than John Leidy! Someone that respects women and their positions!

    Thursday, Jul 22 @ 7:47 am
  • lippy

    A year ago the town manager in Duck was arrested for assault of a young female employee. The majority of the town council let him resign….and paid legal fees of more than $300K to four employees. PS the former town manager just plead guilty recently.

    Now this woman is shining a light on her harassment. I hope she sues too.

    Happy to read the women of the Outer Banks are not putting up with sexual harassment anymore!

    Thursday, Jul 22 @ 9:57 am
  • That One Weirdo

    It doesn’t matter if the director was otherwise a “very good man,” he was the boss of this woman and knew that meant he had power over her. When you have power over someone, you can’t say something like, “you’re beautiful,” to a woman without that implying something more. And with him working in that field, that’s even more shameful because you know he’s had trainings on sexual harassment and power dynamics. He had to have known it was WRONG. This isn’t even the first complaint the board has received on him. Not to mention that as director, he is responsible for the well-being of women and children in the most vulnerable time of their lives. Would he ever tell one of those women that they’re beautiful? I hope not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is how he treats his female employees. Good for Katy speaking up to prevent this from happening to any of the other female employees at the Hotline.

    If you end up reading these comments, Katy (which I hope you don’t since people can be such a-holes), I hope you know how important it is that you’re speaking up and that a lot of us are grateful. It couldn’t have been easy to do this!

    Thursday, Jul 22 @ 2:46 pm
  • Bill B

    Is this the same organization that was once known as the Women’s Hotline?

    Thursday, Jul 22 @ 3:58 pm
  • Bobby

    Always love when the, “they’re a good person and would never act this way” crowd comes out…

    Thursday, Jul 22 @ 5:54 pm
  • Stephanie Joy

    Finally Michael Lewis is getting what he deserves. I worked for Hotline from 2005 to 2009 and he was sexually harrassing women for years. I have a lot of information about him. I am so proud of the woman who came forward, and he is caught that is called karma.

    Thursday, Jul 22 @ 7:35 pm
  • Carol

    So glad to hear Mr. Lewis is gone and that someone has made a formal complaint. Mr.Lewis seems to be good at wanting to keep things hush-hush. I worked at the safe house years ago and was fired because of lies told by one of the residents. I was told that she threatened to go public with her lies (he knew they were lies) which would make Hotline look bad. Rather than calling her out on her lies the decision was made to fire me and give her what she wanted, including 2 plane tickets to somewhere half way across the country for her and her son.

    Friday, Jul 23 @ 3:33 am
  • surf123

    I have no idea what the truth is, but I do know that letting anyone resign versus being fired is something that does not happen in the real world (only government and non-profits). They either had nothing on him or the case was flimsy or they did not want him to leave.

    As more and more people move here we get more big city problems.

    Friday, Jul 23 @ 8:58 pm
  • There are more out there

    Glad to see him finally getting his due, karma comes around eventually. And I’m speaking from firsthand experience – not just this story. Too long in coming. Funny how the OBX Today story is so glowing and the actual truth comes out here.

    Saturday, Jul 24 @ 3:04 pm
  • Stephanie

    Good for this woman for coming out with the abuse!! More women should feel safe enough to report such comments from management or any other employee! I myself have been victim to so many instances of workplace sexual harassment you wouldn’t believe. In ALMOST every job I’ve had. You know which job that didn’t happen at? A daycare where I worked with ALL WOMEN! I am by no means a “man hater”, I am married to one and have many other great men in my family. But with that being said any woman would be lying if they said they haven’t had this exact thing happen to us at least once in our working life. And it’s not just at work, it’s everywhere. Men just really nerd to get with the times and realize that their inappropriate,disgusting advances will no longer be tolerated.

    P.s. I wish I could like some of yalls comments , their great! And good for you obx voice for being ballsy enough to post a story like this on the precious obx! Would love to see more stories like this, bc I know there are plenty more on this beach that would blow this one out of the water!

    Sunday, Jul 25 @ 9:35 am
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