A top aide to Mayor Charlie Hales
is under fire for suggestive remarks and gestures he allegedly made toward Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith
at a Thursday night event.
WW has learned the aide, Baruti Artharee, 60, and about 40 others gathered Thursday at the Quartet Restaurant at Riverplace. The purpose of the event, which was arranged by Bernie Foster, the publisher of The Skanner newspaper, was to introduce Dante James, the director of the city’s Office of Equity and Human Rights, to leaders of the African-American and other minority communities.
Hales named Artharee public safety adviser in December, which makes him
the mayor’s liaison to the Portland Police Bureau. Part of his job is to
help the bureau address long-standing civil rights problems.
After Foster made some opening remarks, Artharee, who was there representing the mayor, took the microphone to introduce James. In the course of making those remarks, according to several sources who were in the room, Artharee acknowledged certain audience members, including Smith, who stood in the back of the room.
According to sources, Artharee commented that he found Smith physically attractive, and then made a suggestive motion with his hips.
Reached on Sunday afternoon, Smith declined to comment on what happened at the reception.
But when told how others described Artharee’s comments and gestures, Smith told WW: “Nobody should have to be subjected what I was subjected to Thursday night.”
WW interviewed three people who independently described three other previous instances in which Artharee made what the people described as inappropriate references to Smith's physical appearance.
Smith acknowledged those earlier instances but declined to describe them or comment on the specifics of Thursday evening. Smith said she does not want to interfere with a possible city inquiry into Artharee's actions.
“I trust Mayor Hales will do the right thing,” Smith says.
Reached at his home Sunday night, Artharee acknowledged the comments he made.
"I said, 'Here's our beautiful commissioner, Loretta Smith—mmm, mmm, mmm—she looks good tonight,'" Artharee says. But he says the comments were meant to be "light-hearted."
"I meant to give her a compliment and do so in a comical way," Artharee says.
Artharee says when he learned Friday afternoon that Smith was upset, he called and left an apology on her voice mail. "I recognize now my comments were inappropriate," he says. "For that I sincerely apologize."
Artharee says, however, he does not he think did anything else wrong. "I don't recall any gestures," he says, nor was he was aware that there were three previous instances in which Smith found his comments about her appearance offensive.
"I have never heard that before," he says. "In 40 years in the workplace, this is the first time anybody's ever said I said something that was offensive."
WW has learned Hales’ office was told Friday of Artharee’s comments.
Mayoral spokesman Dana Haynes says Gail Shibley, Hales' chief of staff and Artharee’s direct supervisor, was made aware of the situation Friday morning and immediately spoke to Artharee about it.
"We are taking the concerns as expressed to us very seriously," Shibley said in a statement Sunday night. "The mayor's office has been in direct contact with Commissioner Smith's office since we first heard about this on Friday. We are gathering as much information as we can in order to take appropriate action."
Haynes declined,to disclose the results of Shibley’s inquiries other than to say Artharee’s employment status remains unchanged.
Artharee is a former Portland Development Commission and Providence Hospital executive and state housing director. He has also worked as a diversity consultant, including preparing a 2012 report reviewing Multnomah County's diversity efforts. His
salary at the city is $85,000 a year.
When Artharee was speaking at the Quartet restaurant Thursday night, Smith was standing in the back of the room next to James and Antoinette Edwards, director of the city’s Office of Youth Violence Prevention.
James and Edwards could not be reached for comment.
But Earline Penson, a real estate agent who attended the event, says Artharee referred to Smith’s physical appearance in a way that made Penson uncomfortable.
Penson says Artharee remarked upon Smith’s attractiveness and the stimulating effect it had on him, but nothing about her work as a county commissioner.
“I thought, ‘Uh-oh’ where is he going with this,'” Penson told WW. “It wasn’t what he said as much it was his mannerisms. He kind of shimmied.”
Others describe feeling discomfort with both Artharee’s words and the suggestive nature with which he moved his hips.
Two other attendees provided similar descriptions of Artharee’s words and gestures but declined to be identified because they feared creating conflict in the African-American community.
Foster, the organizer of the event, says he was in the bathroom when Artharee spoke.
Artharee's remarks came in front of dozens of people who have worked on diversity and civil rights issues.
The City of Portland, his employer, has a strict policy against conduct that constitutes harassment including “in any work-place setting outside the workplace,” and prohibits “sexual innuendos” and “graphic gestures or other materials made toward a person on the basis of protected status.”
In addition to James and Edwards, several other city employees attended the event, including mayoral staffer Josh Alpert, most of James’ staff from the Office of Equity, and at least three police officers.
That puts those employees in a tricky position. City policy says “every employee shares the responsibility for bringing to the City's attention conduct that interferes with providing a work environment free of discrimination, harassment and retaliation.”
The events of last Thursday come at a time when James is under pressure to prove the value of the Office of Equity, which the City Council created in 2011 to “work to resolve issues rooted in bias and discrimination.”
Last week, Artharee's boss, Hales, surprised many observers when he put a new commissioner in charge of the Office of Equity—himself.