This story originally appeared in the Nov. 23 edition of the Daily Post. To get all of the local news first, pick up the Post in the morning.
BY ELAINE GOODMAN
Daily Post Correspondent
A law firm specializing in workplace investigations spent 11 months researching allegations of harassment from five women who worked at Downtown Streets Team, a nonprofit that aims to help homeless people in Palo Alto and other cities.
But even though the law offices of Amy Oppenheimer produced a 44-page report on the allegations, Downtown Streets Team does not plan to share the report with the city of Palo Alto, which awarded $360,000 to the nonprofit in June.
Instead, Downtown Streets Team sent a one-page letter in September, and a 1½ page letter last month, reassuring the city that any issues have been resolved.
“(The law firm’s) findings were that most of the claims were completely unfounded, and the others were greatly exaggerated,” Elfreda Strydom, the nonprofit’s chief operations officer, said in the Sept. 16 letter to the City Council.
“The allegations are many years old, and Downtown Streets Team has made many organizational changes to ensure we are above reproach and that each employee’s experience is a positive one,” Strydom added. The letters are included in an informational report to the council for its Nov. 30 meeting.
The City Council asked Downtown Streets Team for a report on the harassment allegations during the council’s June 15 meeting, when funding was awarded to DST and other nonprofits as part of the Community Development Block Grant program.
The funding to Downtown Streets Team was not dependent on the nonprofit providing the report, but council members said DST is likely to return for more funding in the future and questions about the allegations would probably come up again.
City Attorney Molly Stump said the nonprofit might not be able to provide the investigator’s report due to confidentiality issues, but council members said they’d still like to see some sort of report from DST on the allegations. The council asked DST to provide a report by the end of August.
After Downtown Streets Team sent letters in September and October, the city’s human resources director encouraged the nonprofit to provide a more detailed report. But the nonprofit contends the two letters are sufficient.
“DST maintains it has been responsive to the city council’s request and transparent about the harassment allegations,” City Manager Ed Shikada said in the report to the council.
Harassment allegations from former Downtown Streets Team employees came to light in news reports late last year.
In an article published by San Jose Inside, sources described a culture of heavy drinking at the nonprofit. Chief Executive Officer Eileen Richardson often got drunk and behaved inappropriately at office parties, sources alleged, and managers drank during staff meetings.
One former employee, whom the publication did not name, described a 2014 holiday party at the nonprofit’s headquarters. Richardson allegedly asked her if she was a lesbian, and then confessed that the worker was her “type.” The worker later fell asleep on the floor of an office, awakening to find Richardson allegedly next to her, gazing at her dreamily.
During an outing to Wine Country in 2016, Chris Richardson, who is Richardson’s son and chief program officer at DST, allegedly detailed his sexual relationship with a former coworker to other employees.
Following the news story, Downtown Streets Team’s board chairman, Owen Byrd, fired off a statement.
“The claims regarding sexual comments, alcohol misuse and misbehavior were greatly exaggerated by former employees, and such behaviors are not ongoing,” Byrd said.
Steps taken after the allegations surfaced
Downtown Streets Team hired attorney Amy Oppenheimer of Berkeley to investigate the allegations, according to the letters from DST to the city in September and October. Other actions the nonprofit has taken include hiring a human resources director who can talk directly with the board of directors, Strydom said in the first letter. The board now has an HR governance committee.
DST’s partnership with a professional services firm also provides more HR resources, the letter said. An employee handbook has been updated, and workers now have two ways to report complaints anonymously.
DST sent the second letter after the city asked for more information.
In response to a question about the scope of the investigation or charges being evaluated, DST said the law firm was hired “ to investigate a complaint DST received from five former female employees with various concerns stemming from their time at DST.”
Twelve employees were interviewed during the 11-month investigation, the letter said, and all workers were surveyed about the current work environment. Oppenheimer’s office spent 250 hours on the investigation.
In deciding whether employee complaints had merit, the investigator based decisions on a “preordinance of the evidence,” which means that the evidence on one side outweighs the other side’s evidence, DST said in its letter.
A subcommittee of the city’s Human Relations Commission, which evaluated nonprofits’ requests for Community Development Block Grant money, recommended that the city fund Downtown Streets Team only if DST gave the city three reports.
Those included the report from the Amy Oppenheimer law firm, a report on any discrimination in employee pay, and results of the employee survey on the current climate at the nonprofit.