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Sexual harassment suit filed against Southern Illinois public defender

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Powerful men continue to be accused of sexual harassment and assaults, and have been responding by accepting, hedging or dodging the allegations.

A former employee of Fayette County Circuit Court has sued the agency, saying officials didn’t take action when she reported a public defender was sexually harassing her.

Courtney Gabeau, 26, worked as a secretary for the court since August 2015, a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court of Southern Illinois on Nov. 21 states. In December 2016, she was transferred to the Public Defender’s office.

According to the lawsuit, within two weeks of Gabeau’s transfer, the public defender she directly reported to started making “unwanted, humiliating and sexual comments” to her.

Lawyers for the public defender and Fayette County said they could not comment on the suit.

In one instance, Gabeau says in her lawsuit that the public defender saw a photo of her boyfriend on her computer background and said to her, “It looks like you’re taking it from behind.” Gabeau says she told the public defender that his comment was inappropriate and unwanted.

A few months later, in February 2017, Gabeau was making a joke about her father-in-law’s torn abdominal wall and the public defender responded to her, “I couldn’t imagine having sex with that,” the lawsuit states. Again, Gabeau says she told the public defender his comment was inappropriate and unwelcome.

In the lawsuit, Gabeau says she told an employee at the circuit clerk’s office about the public defender’s comments toward her on Feb. 16, 2017. That employee called a victim witness coordinator and, together, they advised Gabeau to call the state’s attorney for instruction.

Gabeau met with the state’s attorney, the county sheriff and an undersheriff that afternoon, the lawsuit states. Those officials told her she would be placed on administrative leave with pay until they completed an investigation.

The next week, the state’s attorney told Gabeau she could work in the circuit clerk’s office while the investigation continued, according to the lawsuit.

The Fayette County Sheriff’s Office told the BND there is no report on file regarding this investigation.

After the investigation was complete, a judge from Fayette County Circuit Court told Gabeau she had to return to work for the public defender’s office, the lawsuit states. The court did not take any action against the public defender as a result of the investigation.

Gabeau says she felt forced to resign in March 2017 because she did not want to be subjected to the public defender’s comments and advances.

In the lawsuit, Gabeau is seeking lost wages and benefits, front wages, emotional distress damages, compensatory damages and attorney’s fees and costs.

“This kind of behavior shouldn’t be tolerated at work and it happens quite frequently,” said MaryAnne Quill, Gabeau’s lawyer. “Employers need to take this seriously.”

Hana Muslic has been a public safety reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat since August 2018, covering everything from crime and courts to accidents, fires and natural disasters. She is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and her previous work can be found in The Lincoln Journal-Star and The Kansas City Star.

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