Transition and uncertainty at Outer Banks Hotline 

By on October 15, 2021

Amid firings and allegations, board to discuss findings of internal investigation

By Maggie Miles and Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Hotline

With the firing of two top employees, and with its board of directors scheduled to discuss the findings of a private investigator’s report on Monday, this appears to be a time of uncertainty and transition at the Outer Banks Hotline.

On Aug. 21, the Hotline confirmed it had fired Executive Director Michael Lewis who had been placed on administrative leave a month earlier. Lewis had been Executive Director since 2015 and worked there for more than two decades.

News of his firing came a month after the Voice published a story detailing allegations about Lewis’ workplace behavior and sexual harassment that led former Hotline employee Katy Haslar to file a complaint with the Hotline Board and the North Carolina Council for Women & Youth Involvement. The story also indicated that other women with similar complaints had spoken to the Voice.

The Lewis firing came just days after news that the Hotline also fired Tammy Cross, a 17-year employee who was General Manager of Hotline thrift stores. Lewis and Cross have had a personal relationship, and their dismissals came amid an ongoing internal probe by the private investigator, Beth Pollard, who was hired by the Hotline Board of Directors.

The Hotline, a nonprofit founded in 1980, provides a number of crucial services. It offers crisis intervention, safe house, advocacy and education services, often for women in abusive situations. Its financial supporters include the North Carolina Department of Administration’s Council for Women & Youth Involvement and the NC Department of Public Safety.

According to Hotline Board Chair Judy Burnette, on Oct. 18 the Hotline Board will discuss Pollard’s report, which she describes as “extensive and very involved.” She and Pollard have declined to comment on its mission or mandate. But it is known that at least part of it involved interviewing some of the women the Voice interviewed regarding Lewis’s conduct.

Aldesha Gore, assistant communications director for the State Department of Administration, said in an email to the Voice that the “NC Department of Administration’s Council for Women and Youth Involvement is aware of recent leadership changes at the Outer Banks Hotline. While the Council does not get involved with personnel matters of its grant recipients, we have had contact with the Board and the Interim ED in an effort to provide technical assistance and ensure that the Hotline is able to continue providing services to the community.”

After several attempts by the Voice to interview Hotline Board representatives, Burnette submitted email responses to questions about the allegations against Lewis, the status of the Pollard investigation, and the future of an organization making a leadership transition.

Asked if the board is conducting a search for a new executive director, Burnette said that “this position of ED is currently held by Heather Chavez.” Chavez had been named acting director on July 24.

Regarding the replacement of Cross, Burnette stated that no new thrift store general manager will be hired, but she added that Paula Midgett had been hired to “assist in the duties of thrift stores.”

The Hotline Board Chair also declined to cite the reasons for the Lewis and Cross firings.

Lewis’ attorney Jeff Malarney has repeatedly indicated that he is not in a position to comment on the allegations against his client at this point. The last response he provided to the Voice was that “we’re waiting to review the results of the board’s internal investigation.”

Asked whether the Hotline Board, in light of recent events, has any plans for any changes in policy or governance, Burnette responded that, “We have made no decisions regarding these issues.”

 *****

The July 21 Voice story reported how Haslar, who left her job as Hotline Safe House Manager job in June, filed a complaint of harassment that also raised questions about Lewis’ overall management style and handling of staff, including making disparaging remarks about a number of employees.

She alleged in that complaint and in Voice interviews that, “I was also the victim of sexual harassment by Michael Lewis,” and detailed examples of behavior that included Lewis’ comments about her appearance — including that she looked “beautiful,” that he expressed a desire to play “strip poker” with her and told her he wanted 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. Haslar also indicated that Lewis repeatedly complimented her on her job performance and promised her advancement in the organization.

Since then, the Voice has spoken to other women connected to the Hotline who left under relatively similar circumstances.

Another former Safe House Manager, Laurie Everett, filed a formal written complaint with the Hotline Board of Directors on July 26, 2012, about a year after she said she left the organization under difficult circumstances. The opening sentence in her complaint said: “I have been sexually and personally victimized.”

Everett said she began working at Hotline as a safe house manager or “shelter mom” in 2007. She wrote in her complaint that she “believed strongly in an organization that gives a sense of worth and hope to women that have been broken by the men that they love.”

In her complaint, Everett said that after she separated from her husband, Lewis began lavishing attention on her in the workplace, complimenting her appearance, instigating conversations that became more sexual and initiating physical contact, some of which is described in fairly graphic terms.

Everett said the couple also engaged in sexual relations on two occasions at her home, writing that Lewis would tell her not to discuss the affair “as we would both lose our jobs…I was vulnerable after my separation and Michael Lewis took advantage of his position of authority and my vulnerability.”

The work situation became sufficiently “uncomfortable” for Everette, she said, that she left the organization in July 2011.

Asked about this case, Burnette said, the letter “was submitted in 2012 by an employee long after they had left the organization. Significantly, it did not allege or demonstrate any acts of sexual harassment. That matter was investigated by the Executive Director, Lynn Bryant, who determined the complaint to be without foundation; was submitted for an ulterior motive; and even if the allegations were true, they demonstrated at worst a consensual relationship.”

Bryant, the former executive director, is now deceased.

Everett also told the Voice she never heard back from the Hotline in response to her complaint.

Asked whether anyone associated with the Hotline had ever informed Everett about the results of Bryant’s investigation, Burnette said the Hotline’s files reflect that Bryant “conducted an investigation and prepared a letter to send to as a response to the complaint she had received. We cannot confirm whether the letter was ever received, but we have no reason to doubt it.”

As for the year delay in sending the letter, Everett told the Voice that she was in counseling after her departure from the Hotline, and it took her a year to build up the courage to write the complaint letter.

Angela Vance was getting counseling at the Hotline after separating from her husband when she became a volunteer there in 2014. Shortly after that she said, “Lewis started flirting…it was texting and verbal…I was not interested. I had no desire whatsoever to be involved with anyone.”

Lewis, she added, was “really good at grooming…telling you how great you shine, what a great asset you are,” using language that echoed Haslar’s.

Vance said she left the Hotline at the end of 2015 and moved with her daughter to Elizabeth City, at which point, she said, Lewis started appearing at her home, talking about living with Vance and being a father to her young daughter. There was a relationship that consisted of “seeing each other periodically,” Vance told the Voice, and she ended it when she learned Lewis was in a long-term relationship and living with someone else.

Her 10-year-old daughter was “devastated” by that news, Vance said. “You took advantage of another woman and her child,” she recalls telling Lewis.

At that point, Vance said she turned to social media, posting on OBX Locals trying to find and alert Hotline Board members and writing about Lewis’s relationships with multiple women in an attempt “to let them know what Michael was. Because he didn’t need to be anywhere near vulnerable women,” she said. “I wasn’t going to stop until I let the Hotline know what he was.”

Vance said that one day, officers showed up at her ex-husband’s house to arrest her on a warrant issued in September 2019. According to both Vance and court documents, Lewis brought a criminal complaint of cyberstalking against Vance, claiming she “knowingly put private personal information on social media,” and published material “causing embarrassment and humiliation” while declining requests to stop.

Vance said she was placed in a holding cell for a few hours before being released on $1,500 secured bond. The conditions of her release order included prohibiting her from contacting Lewis and from using “text, email, or social media or the like, to reference or contact Michael Thomas Lewis.”

Vance told the Voice that her public defender told her she was better off keeping quiet about Lewis and moving on and when she agreed, the charges were dropped. The court records say the case was disposed of by “dismissal without leave by DA” and by “agreement with the parties” on July 17, 2020. She said she and Lewis have had no contact since.

Throughout this episode that made it all the way into the courts, Vance said she never heard from anyone on the Hotline Board. Burnette said Vance “never communicated her complaint or any accusations to the Board,” while Vance said she made a very public effort to alert them.

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Comments

  • Robin Ames

    There is nothing uncertain about the important mission of Hotline. The staff remains dedicated to providing a safe and compassionate community.
    Robin L. Ames
    Attorney
    Legal Aid of North Carolina, Inc.
    P.O. Box 945
    Avon, NC 27915
    phone: 252-995-4534
    fax: 252-995-5706
    e-mail: lscprobin@charter.net

    October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month – Domestic Violence: It’s EVERYBODY’S Business

    Friday, Oct 15 @ 8:59 pm
  • R. Bo

    I have been a patron of Hotline since its inception in Manteo (early 1980’s). They kept me clothed in times of extreme hardship. I have also found ” treasures”, things that made me happy and were inexpensive. All the while, I thought I was also helping others who needed more help than me. This is horrible news. Please, Hotline, sort this out and be transparent through the process. You have helped so many people in need. Your services are important and necessary. And to the victims in this story, my heart bleeds. You tried to help others in pain, and were hurt in return. Bless you

    Friday, Oct 15 @ 10:22 pm
  • Katy H.

    My experience with Hotline was that they have and do provide wonderful, important and helpful services. AND there have been practices and employees present there for a long time who were abusive and toxic. They have done a lot of good. And some board members and employees have done harm. Both are true.

    Robin’s comment is spot on. I believe that the current director is the right person to steer the ship past the iceberg with minimal and heal-able damage. In my experience, she is a wonderful advocate and I believe in her. I believe that if the right people step down from the board and are replaced with ethical, professional, and committed members, Hotline can continue it’s very important and vital work.

    I wholeheartedly thank The Voice for being the only people who could intervene and stop the cycle. Without their time, attention and commitment to investigating these allegations, it could have gone on. I appreciate Mark and Maggie, Robin, and all who have shown the victims support.

    Saturday, Oct 16 @ 11:30 am
  • lippy

    I will continue to support the Hotline and their worthwhile mission. Many thanks to the women who had the courage to come forward to root out the evil among them. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

    Saturday, Oct 16 @ 9:42 pm
  • Jon

    There is a serious problem with law enforcement at the end of this story that needs to be addressed, which is an apparent abuse of the NC cyberstalking law. The statute in question does not (and cannot under the 1A) prohibit public communication of information about another person, unless that can be construed as a physical threat or is false.

    The statute reads:

    It is unlawful for a person to:
    (1) Use in electronic mail or electronic communication any words or language threatening to inflict bodily harm to any person or to that person’s child, sibling, spouse, or dependent, or physical injury to the property of any person, or for the purpose of extorting money or other things of value from any person.
    (2) Electronically mail or electronically communicate to another repeatedly, whether or not conversation ensues, for the purpose of abusing, annoying, threatening, terrifying, harassing, or embarrassing any person.
    (3) Electronically mail or electronically communicate to another and to knowingly make any false statement concerning death, injury, illness, disfigurement, indecent conduct, or criminal conduct of the person electronically mailed or of any member of the person’s family or household with the intent to abuse, annoy, threaten, terrify, harass, or embarrass.

    So unless the DA had reason to believe that they could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the information being communicated by Vance was false, they had no grounds for a criminal charge. An official comment by the DA’s office seems lacking from this article.

    Sunday, Oct 17 @ 6:42 pm
  • pkmnobx

    If the Director and Board had paid any attention to volunteers and staff who worked with Tammy and Michael 10 years ago this could have been corrected then. Instead, the people who complained were fired, pushed aside, victimized, and vilified.

    Monday, Oct 18 @ 12:06 am
  • Victim

    Robin Ames so is sexual harassment that has been going on for probably 21 years but definitely known about for at least 12 years.

    Thursday, Oct 28 @ 7:25 pm