Worker speaks out after alleged assault
GREENWICH — Lynn Mason never wanted to be at the center of a major controversy.
But a firestorm erupted two years ago, after Chris Von Keyserling, who was then a member of the Representative Town Meeting, allegedly pinched Mason on her crotch while she was working at a town-managed facility. That incident led to another round of difficulties for Mason, who said she was going public with her story in part to make changes in how the town handles similar cases in the future.
Mason filed a complaint earlier this year with the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities over the way the town administration and her immediate supervisors processed the case involving Von Keyserling.
After an investigation, the CHRO ruled recently that there was “reasonable cause” that Mason’s complaint was legitimate and could proceed. The CHRO is set up to investigate and mediate complaints in the workplace, and it can be the first step for civil litigation.
Mason said the incident involving Von Keyserling on Dec. 8, 2016, at the town-owned Nathaniel Witherell nursing home, was “disgusting” and very disturbing. He was later charged with sexual assault in the fourth degree. The misdemeanor criminal charge is set for a jury trial.
The confrontation with Von Keyserling was bad, Mason said, but the reaction of her supervisor was troubling as well. Mason contends her immediate supervisor, Mary Bruce, attempted to minimize the alleged assault. Her supervisors were concerned about losing Von Keyserling’s support for the Witherell home and did not want to antagonize him, she said.
“I felt they were minimizing it, reducing it to a dispute,” she said.
Mason said she was highly demoralized by the reaction of her supervisor, and requested a new work space at the Witherell, which was not immediately provided. That led her to file the complaint with the CHRO. “I feel pretty beat up,” Mason said this week.
The investigator for the CHRO wrote that the town erred in not providing another suitable work space for Mason after she requested one. The CHRO report also said the process was faulty: “(Mason) should have relied on her immediate chain of command to take action. Instead, she had to reach out to her union after reporting the incident (to her supervisor).”
Bruce has retired from her position with the town and relocated to North Carolina. Her phone number is not listed, and she could not be reached for comment. According to the report by the CHRO, Bruce denied making comments that she wanted to minimize or downplay the incident involving Mason and Von Keyserling.
But a lawyer for Greenwich is defending the way the town handled the matter. In a statement, Assistant Town Attorney Valerie Maze-Keeney said the CHRO report was not the final word on the matter and called the initial investigation “incomplete.”
“The claims remain to be heard and decided on the merits,” Maze-Keeney wrote. The town lawyer pointed to a number of actions the town took within 24 hours of finding out about the alleged incident. Von Keyserling was banned from the Witherell, police were put into action and steps were taken for Mason to take a leave of absence and receive psychological counseling, Maze-Keeny said. The Board of Selectmen issued a statement calling for Von Keyserling to resign from the RTM.
“There can be no doubt that the town took prompt action to stop the alleged sexual harassment and no doubt the town does not tolerate sexual harassment. In addition, the evidence will show that the town showed extraordinary support for the Complainant (Mason) in various ways,” Maze-Keeney stated.
The town administration also approved a transfer for Mason to work at another facility in September 2017.
But to Mason, the town should have done better, and it still upsets her that she was not provided with a new work space, separate from her former boss, when she first requested it. She took more than three months of leave after her initial request did not gain approval.
“It is so important to handle these things correctly. Why did it take three-and-a-half months to find me an office? When it was available?” she asked. Mason was eventually moved to a new space after she came back from leave.
Mason still finds it wrong that it was her union that made the first call to human resources.
“It has to be reported right away,” she said, “I do not want this to happen to the next employee. They have not changed their way of handling these things.” Mason is now working at the town’s senior center on Greenwich Avenue, working on programming and activities.
The MeToo movement, which brought men to justice for sexual crimes and misdeeds, encouraged her to come forward, Mason said.
“Since then, we’ve seen the extent of sexual assault. And the only way it can exist is if there’s hand-in-hand collusion, of people knowing and accepting that behavior,” she said, “ “If I don’t report this, I become part of the problem. But I get why people don’t come forward.”
The Von Keyserling case has been assigned for a trial, but no date has been scheduled.
Phil Russell, Von Keyserling’s lawyer, said, “there’s a story that remains to be told” about the complainant and his client. He criticized the media coverage of the case, including the release of a video depicting the aftermath of the incident, through a Freedom on Information request. The video showed Von Keyerling leaving the office after the alleged attack, but not what happened inside.
“The video is not evidence of anyone’s innocence or guilt,” Russell said.
A conference call will be arranged in January between Mason, the town legal staff and the CHRO, which will lead to the scheduling of a hearing in coming weeks.