Lawsuits, including one for sexual harassment, have brought attention to the diminutive Walton County agency.
SANTA ROSA BEACH — The once low-profile South Walton Mosquito Control District finds itself suddenly beset by legal issues and allegations that call into question agency leadership and governance.
A federal lawsuit filed by former employee Emilee Rister claims that she was aggressively sexually harassed by a co-worker and that her efforts to get her superiors to act on the matter were ignored.
It further alleges that then-district Director Ben Brewer and others, including present Director Harley Sampson, retaliated against Rister when she rejected their efforts to downplay the assault.
She was ordered to work a night shift and her hours were cut to the point that she had to resign and seek employment elsewhere, the complaint claims.
"The district was protecting a sexual assailant, concealing the assault, and demanding the victim hide it too," the lawsuit states.
Another lawsuit, this one filed in Walton County Circuit Court, claims former district employee Peter Brabant was fired based on a year-old disciplinary issue after he went to the Mosquito Control District’s elected commissioners to report Brewer showing up for work "heavily intoxicated."
It claims that Commission Chairman John Magee called a meeting after speaking with Brabant about Brewer’s behavior. At the meeting he "insinuated that Director Brewer was actually framed for consuming alcohol in the workplace," the lawsuit states.
Magee disclosed at the same meeting, according to the lawsuit, "that another employee had anonymously reported Director Brewer’s drunken behavior."
Brewer resigned shortly after the March 2019 meeting cited in the lawsuit, records show. His letter of resignation says "I feel my leadership has been undermined by false allegations and toxicity which prevents me from continuing to excel in this role."
Brewer said recently he had no knowledge of the pending lawsuits. He declined to comment on the allegations made in the Brabant suit other than to say "I did not fire Peter."
"There is no basis" for Rister’s claims against co-worker Kenny Hobbs, Brewer said.
"It was her word against his," he said. "And it came to my attention after she quit, probably about one-and-a-half months later."
Hobbs did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Mosquito Control District documents indicate Brewer knew of Rister’s complaints well in advance of her leaving the agency.
Efforts to verify some of the allegations found in Rister’s lawsuit were initially unsuccessful.
A review of the personnel files of Rister, Brewer, Hobbs and Sampson turned up no evidence that meetings or internal investigations were conducted, counseling provided or disciplinary action taken against any of the four as a result of allegations made in either lawsuit.
Shirley Steele, the public records custodian for the South Walton Mosquito Control District, said on the day the personnel files were originally examined that some records had been removed from the files and placed into a "litigation file" exempt from public disclosure.
At the request of the Northwest Florida Daily News, Laura Donaldson, a staff attorney hired by the Mosquito Control District in September, reviewed the litigation file and provided documents contained within it that were not exempt under state law.
Sixty pages of new material, all pertaining to Rister’s claims of sexual harassment and intimidation, were made public as a result of Donaldson’s review.
One specific document not found in any Mosquito Control District files, including the litigation file, was a letter sent to the three district commissioners by "concerned employees" not long before Brewer resigned.
It calls for Brewer’s removal and states that "many of the longer-term employees (of the District) have experienced the intoxication of Ben Brewer while on company time."
"It would be unfortunate if Ben hurt himself ... to allow this behavior may cause harm to the employees or the public," the letter states. "We hope that the commissioners will understand the severity and possible implications this might have."
Asked about the letter, Magee acknowledged its existence and commented that everyone associated with the Mosquito Control District was familiar with the document.
"They have it there at the office," he said.
When asked why it did not appear in Brewer’s personnel file, Magee referred questions to Steele.
"Ask the person in charge of records," he said "We (commissioners) give the person what we’re legally required to give them. Commissioners do not have access to that information."
Brabant said that before he was fired he was accused of writing the "concerned employees" letter, which addressed some of his own concerns about the behavior of the then director. He denied having anything to do with composing the document.
Steele did not respond to emailed questions about the concerned employees letter.
Rister’s legal complaint states that she, a slight 62-year-old woman, was lured by Hobbs, a younger, much larger, heavy equipment operator, to a remote location under the guise that he’d forgotten work-related papers and his eyeglasses.
He "reached through the windows of (Rister’s) work truck, forcibly grabbed her by the shoulders and yanked her as far as he could through the window frame, pushing his tongue into her mouth," the complaint states.
Rister’s complaint says that the attack horrified and sickened her, but when she got up the nerve to go to Steele to report Hobbs, she "was told to keep quiet and not to tell anyone."
Steele did not respond when asked, via email, about her response to Rister’s revelation.
When Rister followed up on her complaint by speaking to supervisors, her hours were "immediately" cut from approximately 40 hours to 16 hours a week, the lawsuit said.
Rister was also "suddenly" told by Sampson she would be transferred to a night shift, which presented an untenable situation for her as the primary caregiver for a 10-year-old granddaughter, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit further alleges that prior to the assault Hobbs had made inappropriate comments and stared at Rister in a sexually inappropriate manner.
Hobbs’ immediate supervisor, Daniel Bowman, even told Rister after the attack that "he easily believed it happened because Hobbs was that kind of guy," the complaint states.
When he finally met with Rister about the assault, the complaint states, "Brewer offered a trite, superficial apology, said he knew the attack had happened, and would not claim otherwise."
Brewer promised to meet with Hobbs, then a few days later presented Rister with a letter "saying nothing more than that Hobbs had been urged to stay away from (her)."
Rister refused to sign the letter, which angered Brewer, the complaint states.
"It was a sham outcome because Hobbs was being allowed to remain employed," the complaint states. "The District planned to wash its hands of the assault by allowing (Rister’s) assailant to work in the same offices, fields and areas as (Rister) ... Rister remained in jeopardy."
It was after she refused to sign the letter Brewer had composed, the lawsuit states, that her hours were cut and she was assigned to work nights.
The suit alleges sexual harassment and discrimination, as well as retaliation. It requests that a judgment be entered requiring the Mosquito Control District to pay damages, cover Rister’s court costs and be ordered to cease future sexual discrimination, harassment and retaliation.
Documents disclosed with the opening of the litigation file show that on Nov. 2, 2018, Rister, whose last name was also McMaster for some portion of the time she was employed with the Mosquito Control District, reported sex and age discrimination as well as retaliation to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Rister confirmed the investigation ended when she declined a settlement offered by the Mosquito Control District prior to a mediation hearing.
The litigation file also contained paperwork generated in May and June 2018, after Rister notified Brewer and others at the district about the alleged sexual assault, but prior to her filing the EEOC complaint.
Brewer reported Hobbs had "vehemently" denied kissing Rister, but did acknowledge "hugging her with one arm."
"Investigation was completed by Director Brewer and the facts were unable to be confirmed as the two parties have conflicting facts and there were no witnesses," a report filed May 29 said.
Following Brewer’s investigation, Hobbs was ordered to review the district’s harassment policy and signed an agreement to "not demonstrate inappropriate or unprofessional behavior in the workplace."
Another document showed that Brewer informed Rister that the district had been unable to substantiate her claims and requested that she acknowledge she was satisfied with the resolution of her complaint and be willing to report immediately any further inappropriate behavior.
A penned note at the bottom of the typed investigation report presented to Rister for her signature said "Ms. McMaster opted out of signing this document."
One more piece of paperwork found in the litigation file — this one dated Dec. 12, 2018 — presents a "sworn statement of Ben Brewer" regarding the findings of his internal investigation.
Brabant, according to his lawsuit, was an entomologist with the Mosquito Control District when he was wrongly terminated March 21.
It states he was acting in a whistle-blower capacity when he went to the district’s Board of Commissioners to file a report regarding Brewer’s behavior.
His lawsuit states that he initially complained when Rister’s supervisor forced her to wear a shirt that read "South Walton Mosquito Control Black Ball Girl." (The district gives out balls covered in a black, sticky substance to attract and kill biting yellow flies.)
"That was horrible," Brabant, who was permitted by his attorney, James Garrity, to speak to the media, said of the T-shirt incident. "I did see the behavior and the way they treated her. I made sure I could have as many jobs as I could for her so she could avoid some of the behavior going on around her."
When Brabant went to Brewer about the T-shirt incident, he was told Brewer would handle the complaint, the lawsuit said, and "no action was taken to resolve Ms. Rister’s situation."
"After that complaint was lodged, district leadership hired an insurance salesman to explain how everybody is family," Brabant told the Daily News. "There was no punishment, no training, really, it was more like a sales pitch."
The lawsuit also claims that Brewer forced Brabant to assist in the construction of a "mosquito colony room" even though he knew Brabant suffered from severe asthma. He refused to allow Brabant to wear a mask while working on the project, the complaint said.
Brabant suffered an asthma attack so severe he had to be medically treated and spent two days confined to his bed, the lawsuit states.
The complaint claims Brabant was written up for insubordination "after he refused to allow his coworkers to drown a raccoon which had been captured."
The suit states Brabant returned to work from a conference March 1 to find Brewer exhibiting "discernible signals of alcohol intoxication." It states he found beer cans in the lab on district property and full cans of the same type of beer in Brewer’s truck.
"The only people who have keys to that room are me and him, and I don’t drink, so it was pretty clear who it was," Brabant said.
Brabant sought to lodge an official complaint about the on-the-job drinking with Steele, the human resources director, and was told he should contact the three elected district commissioners individually to address the issue of Brewer’s behavior, the lawsuit said.
Commissioners Kristine Faulk and Tim Norris "were receptive" and "listened to all of the concerns (Brabant) raised," his lawsuit states.
Magee, who contacted Brabant well after Brabant had spoken to Norris and Faulk, convened a meeting of all of the district’s employees after receiving Brabant’s report, the lawsuit states. He "explained that SWCMCD is a family and as a result, the members of the family need to show more loyalty to one another."
In a separate meeting attended by Brabant, Steele, Brewer and another employee, Magee implied Brewer had been framed for consuming alcohol at work, the lawsuit states.
On March 20, Brewer resigned during the monthly commissioners meeting, the lawsuit said, but no reason for the resignation was provided to the district’s rank and file.
The lawsuit states that Brabant was fired the day after Brewer resigned based on the year-old charge of insubordination over the raccoon incident. Brabant told the Daily News the charge stemmed from his refusal to allow his co-workers to kill the raccoon cited in the lawsuit.
Brabant’s lawsuit alleges the Mosquito Control District violated the terms of the Whistleblower Act. It calls for damages and Brabant’s reinstatement to his former position.
Mosquito Control District history
The South Walton Mosquito Control District office sits off quiet Walton County Road 393. It is a small agency employing no more than 15 people and has operated as an independent county taxing district since 1964, according to its website. Its annual budget last year was just over $6 million.
Although Brewer spoke of "false allegations and toxicity" leading to his resignation, one of his former bosses, district Commissioner Tim Norris, said he sees no cause for concern within the taxpayer funded agency.
"Morale is great, it’s a team. People roll up their sleeves and do their job. Everybody seems to be happy," Norris said. "I think we’all doing a pretty good job running an organization, making sure we have the right people in the right places, like a typical board would do. We’re doing what we need to do to make an operation run like it should."
One item that did appear in Brewer’s personnel file was an annual evaluation, conducted by Magee, dated Sept. 26, 2019, or six months after the former director’s resignation.
It is the only one of the many performance evaluations found in Brewer’s file that ranks his work as a five on a five-point scale — exceeding all required standards of the job.
"We have a very strong team for the first time in many years. Ben continues to try to work on internal personnel problems when individuals are receptive to help," Magee wrote in the evaluation.
He cited great improvements in leadership, constant communication with supervisors and strong team building as positives.
Asked about the date on the evaluation, both Steele and Magee said a clerical error had been made and that the evaluation should have been dated Sept. 26, 2018, or six months before Brewer left, apparently, unhappy.
"It is with a heavy heart that I make this decision upon the eve of my vision and hard work becoming evident as the standard of excellence," his letter of resignation said.