Cindy Stankoski and Vanessa Stout-two assistants in an office full of lawyers-blew the whistle in the attorney general's office, triggering the biggest story of 2008: the fall of Marc Dann.
She left her journal on the kitchen table, where she knew her parents would find it. It was a way to tell them without having to say the words.
"Don't read it," Danco Stankoski, a carpenter for the state, instructed his wife, Sonja. "I'll take it back to her tomorrow."
He'd see his daughter, Cindy Stankoski, early the next morning at the Rhodes Tower, where they both worked. But late that night, after Sonja fell asleep, Danco opened the black, spiral-bound notebook, filled with Cindy's hurried handwriting. He knew she never would leave her journal behind accidentally. She was too careful, too private. This was a silent offering of her secrets. He began to read.
Aug. 13, 2007: I had an interview at the Attorney General's office. My father set me up an interview with Tony Gutierrez, in the General Services section . . . During my interview I felt Tony was always staring at my body, not my eyes. But I overlooked it and focused on getting a great job.
The next morning, when he went to work, Danco left the journal behind, too. His wife had to read it now. With her daughter's permission, Sonja opened the notebook later that day.
Sept. 11, 2007: I woke up in a sweat and to find my 3 buttons of my pants were undone and Tony was laying next to me in just his briefs. I got up quietly and paced around in tears and panic in the family room and kitchen. I wasn't sure what happened to me. I had blacked out. I thought maybe I rolled around in my sleep and my buttons came undone, but 3 buttons?
Each passage was worse, each page harder to turn. Sonja's mouth hung open. The mother in her ached. She thought of the day her husband introduced her to Tony Gutierrez in his 17th-floor office. She remembered the way she thanked him for helping her daughter get the job. She wished she could take her words back. She wanted to throw up.
That night, when she walked through the door of her parents' home, Cindy Stankoski ran straight for her mother's arms. "I hugged her and I held her and she just cried on my shoulder," Sonja says. "I didn't let her go until she stopped."
For six months, Stankoski and co-worker Vanessa Stout kept stories of their boss's inappropriate office advances mostly to themselves, afraid for their careers and their futures if they came forward. Stout had two children to raise. Stankoski feared for her father's job. But in March, enraged by one last slight, the young women decided they could hide it no longer. They took their accusations to human resources and the Equal Employment Opportunity office.
A media volcano soon erupted. For weeks, newspapers, television stations and radio personalities could talk about little else than the incendiary political scandal in the office of Attorney General Marc Dann. An internal investigation revealed the now infamous details, so quickly etched into political lore, and substantiated Stankoski and Stout's allegations of sexual harassment and a hostile workplace. Gutierrez was suspended and eventually fired. Communications chief Leo Jennings III, accused of an attempted coverup, also was fired. Policy chief Ed Simpson quit after the investigation found he failed to pursue the sexual harassment allegations properly. Dann's own Democratic party, including Gov. Ted Strickland, wanted the same from Dann, who, in the midst of the chaos, admitted to an affair with a subordinate. When he refused to resign, Ohio House Democrats filed articles of impeachment-a measure that hadn't been taken in the state since 1860.
Finally, on May 14, after only 16 months on the job and realizing there was no way to salvage his term, Dann left office, and Stankoski and Stout became known as the women who brought down the attorney general.
The notoriety doesn't come with a lot of benefits. In the AG's office, where both women still work, they say they are viewed more as rabble-rousers than heroes, and that many co-workers can muster little more than frosty politeness. Friends stopped calling. Strangers started staring. And the women aren't the only ones to suffer. Stout's parents disconnected their phone and moved out of their Dublin apartment to escape the scrutiny. Stankoski's parents say they have been all but ousted from the tight-knit Macedonian community to which they once belonged, abandoned by those who believed their daughter brought her troubles on herself.
"She risked everything," Sonja Stankoski says of Cindy, now 27 years old. "Everything. And I don't think at the time she realized how much she was risking. I don't think she had a clue it would be as big as it got."
When Stankoski and Stout-mere assistants in an office full of lawyers-stepped forward to accuse one of the most powerful men in the state, the world shifted beneath them. They've come to accept they may never be able to right it, but they're searching for something they hope is more attainable: justice. Whether they will find it, no one can say. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has given them the right to sue, though they're still hoping to settle with the state, and another investigation-by the inspector general-promises one more spin through the news cycle.
Thisstory begins in, of all places, Youngstown, the northeastern rustbelt city that Marc Dann represented when he made a name for himself as an Ohio senator, leading the charge against Republican corruption at the Statehouse. The power play came with enough press and glory to help him win a tight attorney general's race in 2006 by upsetting GOP stalwart Betty Montgomery. He arrived at the office with a self-imposed mandate to act as the state's unrelenting watchdog and, some critics say, an unhealthy vehemence. He quickly appointed two old friends from Youngstown to key positions in his office. Jennings, who served as Dann's campaign spokesman, became the communications chief and Gutierrez, even though he owed the state and federal government thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes, headed general services.
By most accounts, Gutierrez, a 50-year-old former construction company owner, ran the 17th floor of Rhodes Tower like a fraternity house: Vulgar language was accepted, sexually charged comments tolerated and after-hours drinking encouraged. Staffers told investigators he regularly complained about his wife, barked orders like a drill sergeant and bragged about ties to the Mafia.
Stankoski's father, who was often called to make repairs on the floor, had heard the rumors and warned his daughter before her August 2007 interview to stay on Gutierrez's good side. But neither Stankoski nor her father seemed to think the stories were reason enough for her to turn down the job. She was a graduate of the Ohio State School of Cosmetology and a skin-care technician at a Westerville salon, but the sporadic commission wasn't always enough to pay the bills. She was looking for steady work with good benefits and a little prestige, two things a job in the attorney general's office offered.
Stankoski started to work as a telecommunications assistant, entering data and managing phone bills, on Aug. 20 and, according to her journal entries, Gutierrez's dinner invitations began soon after.
She finally, and reluctantly, accepted on a Monday in September, one of her only nights away from the salon in Westerville where she still kept clients. "One drink," she told him after unsuccessfully trying to recruit co-workers to join them. Gutierrez chose Ringside, a bar just steps away in the alley behind Rhodes Tower. She says she drank a glass of Grey Goose vodka and Gutierrez told investigators he drank two Bud Lights before he suggested they stop at Tip Top, a restaurant on Gay Street, for another round.
Stankoski was hesitant, but she didn't know how to decline. This was her boss and he'd just monopolized most of the conversation with tales of his power, both in the attorney general's office and outside it. By the time they left Tip Top, another Grey Goose later, Stankoski was drunk and hungry, so when Gutierrez asked if she'd join him for dinner at nearby Mitchell's Steakhouse, she agreed. "I was in no condition to drive home," she says.
Shortly after arriving at Mitchell's, Dann called Gutierrez's cellphone. When the attorney general heard they were getting ready to eat, he invited them back to the apartment he shared with Gutierrez and Jennings for pizza. Stankoski had never met Dann, only seen him in the office, and she was both surprised by the invitation and hesitant to turn it down. It was the attorney general, after all. "Only if there is a Hawaiian pizza," she joked.
In Gutierrez's car on the way to the apartment complex in Dublin, Stankoski began having second thoughts. She texted a co-worker and asked for a ride home. The co-worker couldn't pick her up, but she offered this advice: "Get out of there."
But Dann already had ordered the pizzas-including a Hawaiian for Stankoski-and someone had pulled out the tequila and margarita mix. He greeted his young employee at the door with an order to call him Marc. Moments later, Stankoski says Dann's scheduler, Jessica Utovich, walked into the apartment without knocking, sprawled on the living room floor and began typing on her laptop. She was wearing sweats. It was a detail the media would replay over and over again in the months to come-except their reports were worse, claiming Dann's scheduler was at his apartment in her pajamas.
Though still a little hazy from the alcohol, it didn't take Stankoski long to realize her co-worker was right-she needed to get out of there. Buying time and craving air, Stankoski stepped outside to smoke and call her office friend again, hoping to concoct a plan to get home.
She couldn't see her in the darkness, but Dann's neighbor, Vanessa Stout, was watching Stankoski from a nearby patio, silently smoking and straining to hear Stankoski's half of the pitched, panicky conversation. They didn't know each other then-and they couldn't have predicted it even if they did-but they were about to become allies in a fight that would irreparably change the attorney general's office and their lives.
Thenext morning, Stankoski, startled by her beeping cellphone, says she stirred next to a nearly naked Gutierrez, her pants unbuttoned and her zipper partially down.
She woke her boss. "Take me to my car," she begged. She said no more. She was too embarrassed to ask the question, too scared to know the answer.
As they drove downtown where her car was parked, she flipped through the files of her memory. The last moment she could recall was Gutierrez offering his bed when she asked for a quiet place to lie down. She assumed he'd sleep on the couch.
Gutierrez claims he did. When investigators questioned him about that night in September, he said he allowed Stankoski to sleep in his bed while he watched television in a nearby chair. And early that morning, he says he moved to the living room couch where he slept until 5 am. He told investigators he never touched Stankoski and doesn't know how her pants came undone.
But they do agree that Stankoski crept into the office late on Sept. 11, and she says she spent the next few days attempting to avoid her boss. However, according to journals and the internal investigation, Gutierrez wouldn't give up his quest to spend time with his telecommunications assistant. He continued to call her cellphone and arrange her schedule and duties so they'd end up alone together outside the office. He announced one evening that "ass and tits" had gotten her the job. She seethed and simmered, but never boiled over nor questioned him about that night in his apartment. She couldn't figure out how to confront him without accusing him.
She didn't have to. Stankoski says Gutierrez brought it up himself after drinks at a restaurant in Easton. Stankoski was shopping when Gutierrez called and asked her to drop by and have dinner with him, Jennings and Jennifer Urban, a young attorney who worked in the office and would later file her own sexual harassment complaint. She reluctantly obliged.
" 'Listen, I know that you woke up with your pants undone when you stayed the night,'" Stankoski remembers Gutierrez telling her while they stood on the restaurant patio and smoked. " 'I just want you to know, I didn't do anything. Of course I wanted to fuck you, but I realized it was wrong. You were my employee.' "
She stared at him. She was relieved by the truth, but disgusted at the way he'd told it. She finally snapped. "I hope your daughter meets someone just like you," she spat. Then she walked away. (Gutierrez denied to investigators that he made such a statement.)
In some ways, that moment was a premonition, a sign that Stankoski would fight her way out of the corner Gutierrez had backed her into. Though still vulgar in the office, Gutierrez stopped searching for time alone with Stankoski. He promoted her to top telecommunications assistant and hired another young woman to take her place.
Vanessa Stout started work on Nov. 26, 2007. She immediately recognized Stankoski as the dark-haired woman who made the panicked phone call from Dann's patio that night in September. Though they worked in close quarters and became quick friends, Stout avoided talking about the incident. She didn't want to make any enemies in the office. She had too much to lose.
Stout met Gutierrez when he accidentally backed his sport utility vehicle into her father's truck at the apartment complex where they all lived. She found him surprisingly frank and easy to talk to, even if he had a tendency to share too much. She sometimes dropped by his apartment to chat. One night, when they heard about her fruitless job search, she says Gutierrez and Dann offered to find a place for her in the attorney general's office. Stout celebrated and then hesitated. She'd applied for a state job before and was denied when she revealed her retail theft convictions. She racked up three of them in 2003, in what she calls her rowdier days, along with earlier citations for driving under the influence, disorderly conduct and simple assault, which her father says was self-defense. She says she told Dann about her troubles with the law.
"Are they felonies?" she remembers him asking.
"Then don't worry about it," he supposedly told her. (When confronted by investigators, Dann claimed to have no recollection of the conversation.)
Whatever the case, Stout quickly realized the offer wasn't entirely prompted by goodwill. On the eve of her interview, she and a friend met Gutierrez at a downtown bar so he could walk her through questions he and two other general services directors were likely to toss at her. But when she arrived, she writes in her own journal, Gutierrez seemed more interested in drinking and pawing at her leg than preparing her for the interview.
She left angry, but undeterred. Even later, when Gutierrez invited her to his apartment and presented her with a purple vibrator, she didn't waver. She says she laughed, almost mockingly, at him weeks later when he called her into his office and asked if he would be allowed to watch her use it (a charge he denies). She was 25 years old at the time, hadn't finished high school and lived in an apartment with her parents and her two children. This was her chance, maybe her only chance, to get a job that would make her financially independent and able to raise her kids alone.
Once she had the job-even though Gutierrez admitted to bypassing procedure to help her get it-she couldn't consider letting it go.
Internetbloggers, who made the attorney general scandal their issue of choice, demanded an answer to the looming question. It was tough, but fair. Why hadn't Stankoski and Stout, armed with such damning evidence against Gutierrez and protected by the law, immediately gone to human resources to complain? Stankoski's mother wondered the same thing. She once worked in human resources and knew the office was obligated to protect its employees.
But Stankoski and Stout weren't so sure. It was no secret that Gutierrez and Dann had a decades-long friendship and that they shared that apartment in Dublin. Gutierrez liked to remind his employees whenever he got the chance. Several told investigators they assumed Gutierrez was untouchable. And then there were the Mafia rumors.
The women spent most of their time at the office together, lamenting the injustice of their situation, constantly searching for a way out, afraid to tell anyone else about their plight. They felt trapped, helplessly locked in a system that was protecting the wrong people. Those who knew them best had long suspected something wasn't right. Stankoski, usually effervescent, became reserved and suspicious. She cried too much. Her mother often asked what was wrong, but after being repeatedly rebuffed, she chalked it up to too much work and too little sleep. Stout sometimes returned to her parents' apartment in hysterics-angry and tearful. When her children asked their grandfather, Christopher Stout, what was wrong, he says all he could do was assure them everything would be OK, even if he wasn't always so certain himself.
As far as Stankoski and Stout were concerned, complaining about Gutierrez's behavior to anyone could cost them their jobs, and they say that was the one thing neither one of them could afford to lose.
In the end, it was Stout's sudden and so-called temporary transfer to information technology that triggered Dann's downfall. It happened on Jan. 18. Human resources personnel told investigators that the office directors suspected an affair between Stout and Gutierrez and wanted them separated. Policy chief Simpson claimed it was a budgetary need.
Whatever the reason, it enraged the women, and it scared them. They felt Stout was being punished for Gutierrez's bad behavior and that Stankoski could be next. Stout changed her cellphone number, trying to dodge Gutierrez's calls. They waited impatiently for the transfer to end and wondered what to do if it didn't.
Nearly eight weeks later, on March 6, Stout dropped by the Rhodes Tower to have lunch with Stankoski. Gutierrez asked Stout for her new cellphone number and, when she refused to give it, she says he threatened to banish her to the IT office permanently. It might have been said as a joke, but Stout had finally had enough. She marched into the human resources office and began talking. The next morning, Stankoski, injected with words of anger and determination from Stout, did the same.
Then they waited. But Simpson and chief operating officer Joyce Chapple were reluctant to confront Gutierrez or look into the allegations of sexual harassment, according to the investigation. And a representative from human resources, who said she was fearful of Gutierrez, was left to call clandestine meetings with Stankoski in the basement of Rhodes Tower to update the women on their complaint. But there was little to say. It was almost as if they had never complained at all.
And then, on March 18, Stankoski's phone rang. It was a reporter from the Dayton Daily News, wanting to ask questions about supposed sexual harassment in the attorney general's office.
The silence was shattered. The volcano began to erupt.Theproblem with justice is that it rarely reverses wrongs. It tries its best to atone and appease, redress and repair, sometimes without much success. Attorney Rex Elliott of Cooper & Elliott, who represents Stankoski and Stout, has watched it happen again and again in his practice, where he often represents victims of sexual harassment, accidents and wrongful death: In this system, justice doesn't always feel much like justice. Money doesn't always replace what was lost.
Elliott doubts it will in this case. Though he initially asked the state for $400,000 each for Stankoski and Stout, along with legal fees and a commendation for their courage, he knows their anonymity and ability to trust have been destroyed. No amount of money fixes that.
So far, Elliott and the attorney hired to represent the state have not reached an agreement. They've barely talked. Elliott suspects part of the problem is circumstantial. The acting attorney general, Nancy Rogers, likely wants to leave the game-changing decisions to Richard Cordray, who was elected in November and soon will take office.
But Elliott knows the longer Stankoski and Stout wait for answers the worse it will be, for everyone. If the women are forced into litigation, taxpayers will bear the brunt of any award, which he says could be millions. If the women continue to get brushed aside in such a high-profile case, the chances of others blowing the whistle on workplace wrongs will diminish. "If people think in coming forward all they're going to do is get trashed and victimized further, they're not going to do it," Elliott says.
Already, the internal investigation, conducted over two weeks in April by executive assistant attorney general Ben Espy and senior assistant attorney general Julia Pfeiffer, unveiled a cringe-worthy series of failures to protect the women. Previous complaints by other employees were ignored with a shrug and a suggestion to wait four years: "Dann won't get reelected." Investigators say Stankoski and Stout's complaint sat for weeks before being properly investigated. At one point, Stankoski says, a supervisor in the office eager to avoid public scrutiny asked the women, "What do you want us to do to make this go away?"
"Do the right thing," Stankoski replied.
In July, after the office's top supervisors had departed and just when the office seemed prepared to move on from the sexual harassment debacle, two general services employees filed complaints against Stankoski and Stout, alleging the women had intimidated them with dirty looks and under-the-breath comments. Elliott says the complaints were retaliation, an attempt to get his clients moved out of the Rhodes Tower. (At their request, Stankoski and Stout were later transferred to the state office building on Gay Street, where both still work as telecommunications assistants.)
Too often, Elliott laments, the person who blows the whistle gets more scrutiny than the offender. And in this case, the whistleblowers say the scrutiny has been suffocating. After the media reported the story, Stankoski was reluctant to go anywhere but work and home, afraid people would recognize her from the news coverage. She has considered leaving Ohio and starting over somewhere else. But she doesn't want to let this scandal scare her out of a good job, especially with the ugly state of the economy. Besides, technology wouldn't let her escape, anyway. Google Cindy Stankoski or Vanessa Stout and the search engine returns nearly 10,000 hits, not all of them flattering. One asks how two twentysomething women could be plied with alcohol. Another accuses the girls of being unfit for their jobs. A few co-workers claim both women flirted with Gutierrez.
One website has taken to detailing Stout's subsequent arrests-one outside a Delaware bar, when she was intoxicated, for disorderly conduct and another for drug possession. Regarding the latter, police pulled Stout over shortly after the scandal broke for having expired tags. They found a small amount of marijuana in her car. Stout says the arrests were related to the stress of the scandal's aftermath. Her father calls it a setup.
"I'm a woman and I cannot believe that these party girls, desperate for attention, free drinks and a romp are going to get away with this, and in addition, make money off of it!" someone named Jane posted below news of Stout's charges. Both women say former friends have voiced similar sentiments.
But Stout and Stankoski have fierce allies, too-some strangers-who appreciate their courage. "I hope this doesn't make anyone think that these girls are not believable. It took a lot of grits to come forward and these infractions shouldn't discredit them," MD wrote on a blog.
"I don't care what they have done in their past-I care about dirty men in politics and all walks of life getting away with sexual harassment due to their position," added Had Enough.
Still, Elliott wonders what would happen if they chose to leave the AG's office to search for another job. Would future employers be sympathetic to their circumstances or would they view them as troublemakers? Could anyone blame them either way? "Employers don't want distractions," Elliott says.Twomonths ago, driving home after picking up her children from daycare, Stout spotted a white minivan in her rearview mirror. She says its driver was weaving in and out of traffic, trailing her closely, making the same stops and turns. When she pulled into her apartment complex, the van came to a stop across the street. She jumped out of her car and ran toward it. "What are you doing?" she demanded, spotting a pair of binoculars and a camera on the front seat. "Where are you going?"
The driver said nothing, just pulled away. She began to shake. Was she being followed? Was she overreacting?
These are the kinds of questions she and Stankoski ask themselves now. Suspicion has wrapped a bony hand around their lives and squeezed. When a room suddenly falls silent when they walk into it, they wonder what has been said about them.
"You did the right thing," Elliott reminds them on the worst days. "You were the catalysts to ridding the state of a really corrupt administration."
Both Dann and Gutierrez have returned home to Youngstown. Gutierrez, who was accused of running his construction business on state time and drinking while driving state cars, also faced charges for failing to file tax returns. Dann opened a new law practice. Neither one has sought much spotlight since leaving Columbus.
Eventually, Sonja Stankoski says, reporters will stop knocking at her door. The new attorney general will take office and people will forget. But she believes the ordeal will forever haunt her daughter.
Her mother is right, Stankoski says. She always will wonder what happened that night in the Dublin apartment. She always will feel sick when she pictures Gutierrez. And she always will keep her eyes wide open, waiting for the next blow to land from a scandal that already has pummeled her.
"God only knows what I haven't seen."
April Johnston is an associate editor for Columbus Monthly.