Capitol Police chief directed weaker look into sexual discrimination claim, attorney says

Steven Sund asked HR to look at complaint instead of designated office

Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund asked human resources to investigate rather than the office of professional responsibility. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund asked human resources to investigate rather than the office of professional responsibility. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 3, 2020 at 1:40pm

Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund circumvented his own department’s requirements when, as an assistant chief, he tasked the wrong internal office to investigate a sexual discrimination complaint lodged by a female officer, according to her attorney.

The accused officer, Sgt. Anthony Phelps, avoided a more thorough investigation into his conduct and the department shielded itself from potential liability, the lawyer, Les Alderman, told CQ Roll Call.

When Mauricia VanMeter emailed her sexual discrimination complaint to Sund, he assigned the matter to the human resources department. Capitol Police policy calls for such allegations to be handled by the Office of Professional Responsibility, Alderman said.

“My understanding is that OPR is required to investigate all claims of gender discrimination,” said Alderman. “The Capitol Police has produced no records or information showing that OPR had any idea that this was going on.”

Sund did not respond to a request for comment.

“We do not comment on ongoing litigation,” Eva Malecki, a spokesperson for the department, wrote in an email to CQ Roll Call.

The Office of Professional Responsibility has oversight of investigations into the conduct of Capitol Police officers. It “records and investigates allegations of misconduct by Department employees generated from within the Department or outside sources,” according to the Capitol Police website.

A 2012 Capitol Police directive says employees who believe they have been victims of discrimination can seek assistance from a management official with whom they are comfortable discussing the matter. Employees facing possible discrimination are also advised they can contact the Office of Professional Responsibility. That directive was produced as part of another sex discrimination case against the department. Alderman noted that because VanMeter went to Sund with her claim, the matter should have been referred to OPR by Sund.

“This is how employers do it when they don’t want to hold their people accountable,” Alderman said. “OPR is the part of the Capitol Police that is used to investigate its own members and hold them accountable when they do wrong and there’s a good reason why the policies assign this kind of thing to OPR.”

VanMeter is suing the Capitol Police alleging she was dismissed from the canine unit’s training program on the basis of her sex and disability. Additionally, the lawsuit is proceeding with a retaliation claim. The veteran officer alleges that her training supervisor, Phelps, told her in the third week of a 14-week program that he planned to fail her, a comment he did not make to the male officers, according to the lawsuit. Van Meter also alleges Phelps assigned her a dog whose chance of successfully completing training was in doubt and that Phelps “belittled” her after she told him she had anxiety.

She was the lone female among four new canine officer candidates in the training that started in August 2017. VanMeter was dismissed from the canine program in week 11 despite her completing the required exams to proceed, the lawsuit states.

The litigation is at the discovery stage and new documents produced by the Capitol Police shed light on the way in which Sund processed VanMeter’s complaint.

After her removal from the program, VanMeter emailed Sund on Oct. 23, 2017, outlining her allegations.

“3 weeks into the program, I was already told that I didn’t look like I was going to make it,” VanMeter wrote to Sund. She also noted at one point in the email that “Diversity among our specialty units is very minimal.”

On Oct. 27, Sund asked a subordinate to have human resources look into it and screen the complaint before a decision was made to send it to the Office of Professional Responsibility.

“Can you have HR do a deep dive into the allegations brought forth by Officer VanMeter?” Sund wrote. “I am interested in determining; if her previous concerns were ever addressed, if the canine processes were appropriately followed, properly documented, and if any abnormalities or inappropriate actions/conduct identified that would warrant a referral to OPR.”

Francine Benko, an associate director in the Capitol Police human resources office, was assigned to look into to VanMeter’s allegations.

Benko reached out to Phelps to schedule a meeting with him to discuss the training process and expectations in the canine program.

“Have a great weekend!” Benko wrote in an email after setting the appointment for Nov. 6.

Sund opting to pursue a human resources route, rather than go through the Office of Professional Responsibility was a calculated move, according to Alderman.

“Human resources simply helps the manager effectuate whatever the manager wants and is typically a tool of management,” Alderman said. “I believe Sund chose HR because he knew they wouldn’t do as thorough an investigation.”

Benko sent a report to Sund on Nov. 20 that said the process concerning Ms. VanMeter “appears to have been conducted in a fair and consistent manner.”

Despite this conclusion, Phelps was reassigned out of the canine division just two months later, a decision he questioned then-Chief Matthew Verderosa about. In a Jan. 11, 2018 email, he asked Verderosa to talk about his reassignment. Verderosa replied Jan. 16 and told Phelps to speak with his direct supervisors before contacting him.

Phelps submitted his resignation letter on Jan. 16 — the same day he received the email from Verderosa.