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Hostile workplace persists at Architect of the Capitol, lawsuit alleges

Donna Blake, a female painter at the Architect of the Capitol, alleges she was sexually harassed even after an internal resolution to her complaints

Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton will have to navigate the agency through a sexual discrimination lawsuit.
Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton will have to navigate the agency through a sexual discrimination lawsuit. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Architect of the Capitol is facing allegations of sexual harassment from an employee who contends supervisors continued to denigrate her despite previously agreeing to resolve her complaints.

The complaint filed against the AOC by Donna Blake, a painter at the agency, alleges she was harassed dating back to 2014 by supervisors based on her sex and protected activity.

Those individuals — Walter Skinner, Doug Helmann, Erma Teacher and Mike Reid — are identified in the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia but not named as defendants.

Among the allegations outlined in the lawsuit are that Skinner sexually harassed and denigrated Blake for years and told her if she wanted a promotion, she should wear a short skirt and “go bend over” in the superintendent’s office.

There was an unspecified internal resolution of Blake’s claims in January 2019, but the hostile work environment continued past that date, according to the lawsuit filed in November. The lawsuit has largely flown under the radar but is noteworthy because of other discrimination lawsuits filed recently against the AOC.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the AOC’s employment practices related to Blake in violation of the Congressional Accountability Act and to prevent her supervisors from any such actions, as well as award damages and legal costs.

A spokesperson for the AOC did not provide answers on whether Skinner is still Blake’s supervisor or whether Skinner has been disciplined in response to the allegations in the lawsuit.

The process is playing out as J. Brett Blanton began his tenure as the 12th architect of the Capitol in January. The AOC maintains and renovates the facilities and grounds on the Capitol complex.

“All of the allegations in this complaint are investigated as part of the litigation process. The agency does not comment on pending litigation or personnel matters,” the AOC said in an email.

“Mr. Blanton was sworn in as the new Architect of the Capitol one month ago. In his nomination hearing, Mr. Blanton indicated he will not tolerate harassment or unethical behavior, which is why he is determined to ensure the agency is free from unlawful discrimination, harassment and retaliation for all employees,” the email continued.

The lawsuit alleges that Skinner hung a poster with women in bikinis on his locker and repeatedly belittled Blake since 2014. Skinner called Blake condescending names aimed at her gender, such as the “Sears Roebuck Model,” “Vanna White,” “Chrissy Snow,” and “the face of the AOC,” the lawsuit says. Skinner also told Blake she was a distraction to the men working at the AOC because they stared at her, the complaint alleges.

Further, Skinner allegedly told Blake that she is “not a real painter” and that “women cry when they lose their jobs.”

According to the complaint, in 2014, Skinner put Blake through a superfluous and demeaning process to get a promotion by refusing to promote her and requiring her to get approval from a higher-level supervisor, Chris Miles, who put Blake’s promotion to a vote by her all-male colleagues in the paint shop. They voted for her to get the promotion.

Later that year, when Blake was seeking another promotion, Skinner refused, and she appealed to Reid. Reid told Blake he would promote her if she collected donations for an AOC fundraising effort. She agreed and got the promotion. In this role, Blake was encouraged to solicit the donations door to door from the largely male staff while wearing revealing costumes, including a Santa Claus outfit with a knee-length dress, the complaint says.

When Blake informed Skinner that she was dyslexic on Oct. 22, 2015, he said, “they hired you like that!” which caused Blake to cry, the lawsuit states. The next day, Blake entered the paint shop 30 minutes after clocking into work and Skinner said they could “take care of this like adults” or he could write her up, a comment Blake interpreted to intimate that Skinner would excuse her tardiness for a sexual interaction with him, according to the complaint. Later that morning, Skinner allegedly asked Blake to read a safety tip to the painters at the morning meeting — a request he never previously asked of the painters — which pushed Blake to tears, the lawsuit states.

In 2016, Skinner allegedly asked Blake why she didn’t have a boyfriend. Blake said it wasn’t the right time for her, and Skinner responded by asking: “What, do you like women?” in front of her male co-workers, according to the lawsuit.

Blake had a child in July 2017 and took maternity leave for several months. In May 2018, Skinner told the men in the workplace that he planned to remove Blake from her position as a painter and transfer her to an administrative job so he could replace her with a “real painter,” meaning a man, the lawsuit alleges. Later that month, Skinner told Blake she should go on vacation with her fiancé — without their child — and then Skinner made “humping” gestures and sounds imitating sexual thrusting, the lawsuit says.

Blake filed a request for counseling and then mediation with the Office of Compliance (now the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights) in June 2018 on discrimination, hostile work environment and retaliation claims. The AOC eventually transferred Blake to work under Reid and decided not to remove Skinner from his post, according to the lawsuit.

In March of 2019, Blake was told by Reid and Helmann that she was being moved back to work directly under Skinner’s supervision.

“To this day Ms. Blake continues to live under the hostile work environment based on her sex and protected activity and created by Mr. Skinner and other AOC employees,” the lawsuit says.

Les Alderman, Blake’s lawyer, declined comment.

A spokesperson for House Administration Chairperson Zoe Lofgren, declined to comment, as did a spokesperson for the panel’s ranking Republican, Rodney Davis. A spokesperson for Senate Rules Chairman Roy Blunt also did not respond to a request for comment. Those committees have oversight jurisdiction over the AOC.

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