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Accused again: State official facing two harassment lawsuits

Xerxes Wilson
Delaware News Journal

Insurance Commissioner Trinidad Navarro's attempts to control an investigation into allegations he sexually and racially harassed a subordinate caused his former human resources director to lose her job, according to a federal lawsuit filed by the woman. 

Jenifer Vaughn claims in the lawsuit that Navarro once physically barred her from leaving her office, and had his "cronies" run a smear campaign against her for trying to investigate another employee's complaint against Navarro. 

That original complaint is one of two related hostile workplace lawsuits pending against Navarro and his administration.

It was filed in September by Fleur McKendell, a black employee who claimed sex and racial discrimination and charged that Navarro made comments about her height and weight and inappropriately touched her braided hair, an allegation he has denied. 

Insurance Commissioner Trinidad Navarro

The more recent lawsuit filed by Vaughn, the former human resources director and controller in the insurance commissioner's office, centers on claims that Navarro sought to improperly interject himself into the investigation of McKendell's allegations and retaliated when Vaughn wouldn't allow that. 

NOTE: Read copies of the complaints at the end of this story 

Vaughn is seeking to be reinstated to her job, back pay, additional money for pain and mental suffering, punitive damages, and that Navarro's office receive anti-harassment training.

"Nowadays, government officials think they are above the rules," Vaughn said. "We as the citizens need to explain that you are held accountable when you do wrong." 

Navarro declined to comment on the specifics of the complaint, citing the pending litigation and workplace restrictions. He said he plans to fight the suit.

"I strongly deny her depictions of the department and some of the information in the complaint," he said. 

Tension arises

Vaughn's lawsuit paints a picture of a commissioner who demanded allegiance, and says that soon after his 2016 election, he sought to fill the office with "cronies" he "deemed loyal" from his past positions as New Castle County sheriff and other positions. 

Jenifer Vaughn

His chief of staff, Stuart Snyder, is a defendant and described in Vaughn's lawsuit as Navarro's longtime "friend and colleague." 

Mitch Crane, who had worked in the state insurance office under former commissioner Matt Denn and unsuccessfully ran for the office in 2012, is also named as a defendant. Crane said he supported Navarro in his campaigns for commissioner and sheriff and has been an official in the state Democratic Party. 

Crane left the department in February 2018 and said he shouldn't be a part of the lawsuit.

"Everything she alleges that was done with her happened after I retired," Crane said. 

The lawsuit claims there were five women in the office that were trusted by Navarro. They were all associated with Crane and referred to by Navarro during a meeting in his office as "Mitch's B*****s."

Navarro denied ever using that expression. 

Vaughn had worked at the department since 2010. Before that, she was with Delaware’s Health and Social Services department since 1996.

When Navarro was elected, Vaughn was responsible for all aspects of human resources including managing disciplinary actions, according to the lawsuit. She also had financial management duties as the office's controller. 

Her lawsuit says Navarro's appointees targeted McKendell quickly with Crane asking for a list of all employees still in their first-year probationary period because they could be fired more easily than others.

McKendell was the only black person on that list. She was also the only person who Crane asked Vaughn for dirt on, according to the lawsuit. 

PREVIOUS FILING: Lawsuit alleges racism, sexism against Delaware insurance department employee

“Vaughn was extremely concerned that the heightened scrutiny of McKendell was due to the fact that McKendell is an African American woman,” Vaughn's lawsuit said.

Crane denied targeting McKendell. He said he led the team smoothing Navarro's transition to the office and requested a list of employees that were seasonal, first-year and part-time from the office's chief of staff, not from Vaughn. 

Delaware Department of Insurance employee Fleur McKendell, left, and civil rights and personal injury attorney Ben Crump speak during a press conference about a lawsuit the filed last year.

Some time later, McKendell approached Vaughn to report racial and sexual harassment she said was perpetuated by Navarro and Crane, saying the two had made inappropriate comments to her. At that time, she just wanted to make Vaughn aware of the issue but not file a formal complaint, according to Vaughn's lawsuit. 

THE ALLEGATIONS: Click to read details of those specific charges 

Secret letter 

The situation became more tense when an anonymous letter was left with Navarro in January 2017 that was critical of Crane, according to Vaughn's lawsuit.

The suit says Navarro paid no concern to the contents of the letter and instead called an executive meeting to find out who wrote it.

McKendell was immediately targeted and “interrogated” by Navarro and Snyder, who compared handwriting samples taken from her office. 

"Stu and I are cops so you know that what we do is interview and solve cases," Navarro told McKendell, according to her complaint.

Sussex Democratic Committee Chairman Mitch Crane (left) and House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf catch up at Cape Henlopen High School on Election Day.

Crane thought that McKendell was the writer because it used the phrase “off the chain," which is a phrase only used by "black people" as a reference to slavery, McKendell's lawsuit says.

Vaughn said such an interrogation should not have occurred and that she was "stunned and confused" that the men would take such action without starting a more formal process through human resources. 

Snyder told Vaughn he didn’t know why that happened and told her to “stay out of the matter," the lawsuit said. 

MCKENDELL SPOKE OUT IN 2018: Racism, sexism alleged by state insurance employee

In March 2017, McKendell filed a formal complaint with Vaughn against Navarro and Crane alleging discrimination, retaliation and a hostile work environment.

Vaughn received the complaint. Because it involved the highest official in the office, she said she sought input from officials in the state's Office of Human Resources, who advised her to conduct an administrative investigation.

She claims that Navarro's attempts to influence McKendell's investigation began days after the complaint was filed when he stood in Vaughn's office doorway refusing to budge until he received a copy of the complaint. 

She told him he’d need to ask officials from the state’s Human Resources department whether he could view the grievance.

"I would never just hand a grievance or a complaint to someone that is named in the complaint," she said. 

He said that as the head of the department, he could view any records he wanted and refused to leave until he escorted her across the hall to retrieve a printout, she said. "It was extremely tense and kind of scary," she said. 

Two months later, in May 2017, Vaughn was called to Navarro's office to discuss McKendell’s grievance. 

According to the lawsuit, he had one question, one he said she needed to "think really hard" on: "What side are you on? Was she on his side or Fleur’s side?”

She said she told him she wasn't taking sides and was trying to do the "right thing," according to the lawsuit. 

"I was very upset," Vaughn said. "As human resources director, I'm there to apply rules, policies and procedures fairly and equitably no matter who you are." 

Vaughn began the investigation but a family member's hospitalization caused her to be out of the office the day she was to interview Navarro and others. When she returned, she was told that she was no longer on the case, she said. 

STATE EMPLOYEE SALARIES: 21 Delaware employees made more than 200K last year — none were the governor

She said she was kept out of meetings she would normally be a part of and Navarro "berated" her in front of other directors, telling her she was prohibited from emailing executives in the office about anything because such communications were subject to public open records laws.

Delaware Insurance Commissioner Trinidad Navarro

Her lawsuit claims they took away job duties and sought to go around her to get employee information.

In January 2018, Snyder told her that her roles of human resources director and controller were being split.

Snyder said he wanted the human resources director to do more, duties she couldn't handle with both titles, according to the lawsuit. He told her she could apply if she wanted to carry on as director. But it was a decrease in pay. Her lawsuit described it as retaliation. 

She continued as controller and someone else was hired as human resources director.

In August, she admitted to sharing a password to a state government billing system with another employee in the office to approve transactions on a limited basis.

She said she immediately admitted to sharing the password when accused by Snyder. She was stripped of access to the system, escorted from the office, barred from re-entry and locked out of her state email.

Statewide office winners (from left) Congresswoman-elect Lisa Blunt-Rochester, Insurance commissioner-elect Trinidad Navarro, Lt. Governor-elect Bethany Hall-Long and Governor-elect John Carney take in their victories at the Democratic gathering at the DoubleTree Hotel in Wilmington in 2016.

She was told she could not return until an investigation was complete and has been on paid leave since. Her lawsuit said the lengthy and "bogus" investigation is Navarro's way of retaliating. 

In a written statement, Navarro called it a "potential breach" of the state's "financial security." In a written statement, he accused Vaughn of trying to "distract" from this by "falsely attempting to link" her situation to McKendell's.

He said she will remain on leave until the investigation is complete.

"Anything I say could be deemed retaliatory and potentially information that is protected," Navarro said. 

Navarro is up for re-election this year and said, "there has been an effort to sabotage my administration since the election," declining to discuss that in detail. 

"I want to tell the story because the public needs to know," he said. "But right now it will have to wait until it moves along in the process." 

Contact Xerxes Wilson at (302) 324-2787 or xwilson@delawareonline.com. Follow @Ber_Xerxes on Twitter.