By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |
While unspecified financial concerns are at the heart of the federal government’s review of Operation REACH, an allegation of sexual assault by an employee has also cast a shadow over the troubled organization.
A police report filed with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office in May accuses Wilfred Wright, the brother of Operation REACH’s chief executive officer Kyshun Webster, of assaulting her sexually in the course of a boozy evening.
AmeriCorps initiated a probe. Webster recused himself from that investigation and tapped his second in command, Nicole Payne Jack, to lead it. But when Jack subsequently fired Wright, Webster reinstated him, Jack said.
The complainant, a 23-year-old woman who has since left the organization, agreed to talk about the alleged 2011 incident but asked not to be identified. She said that on April 15, she and Wright were leaving the non-profit’s Home for Homework program at the Safe Haven Community Center in Harvey when Wright asked her out for drinks.
“He was like, ‘Oh, do you want to go check out Big Al’s Saloon?’… And we went and he was buying shots and beers, and he was talking to me about, ‘Oh, well, we all were talking, and we really want to give you a position within the company…’ He was talking about promoting me,” she said.
The woman said she remembers leaving the bar with Wright to get crawfish and then returning to the Home for Homework site. Her memories of what happened next are slightly blurred.
“I remember eating crawfish, and then I remember waking up, and he was on top of me. And I started screaming and kicking and crying,” she said. “Ran out, drove home, completely wasted.”
The woman told several co-workers about the incident the day after it happened but didn’t file her report to police for a few weeks because she was “scared and nervous,” she said.
On May 3, she filed the report with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office but as yet has not pursued the matter further.
The Lens tried to contact Wright multiple times for comment, calling his cell phone, reaching out through Facebook, hand delivering letters to his home, and passing a message through Webster, which Webster said he delivered. Wright did not respond.
Reflecting back on happier times, a former employee named Natalie Yahr said Wright had been an asset. The Home for Homework program in which Yahr worked had seemed disorganized to her until Webster made his brother a full-time staffer.
Wright seemed to know how things were supposed to be done, Yahr said. He managed the bulk of the programs after he was hired in January 2011, and he soon began solving the grievances that Yahr submitted about her program’s lack of organization.
“(He) called me up to his office and said that he had no idea that these things are going on, and that he would change it because he said he’d done it before,” Yahr said.
Yahr was one of the first people told of the alleged incident of sexual assault. Yahr said the accusation made her uncomfortable around Wright, to the point where she left Operation REACH.
“I never confronted him about it, and then I tried to avoid him as much as possible. And then a week after that, I quit,” Yahr said.
Yahr said she kept waiting for the alleged victim to tell a national AmeriCorps representative about the incident, but when she didn’t, Yahr called the AmeriCorps hotline herself. A few weeks later, she was told by an AmeriCorps national representative that Operation REACH and AmeriCorps had opened an investigation.
Jack, who served as the main point of contact for AmeriCorps, said that she received an email regarding the incident on May 11 from the Corporation for National and Community Service’s program officer, Martha Tierney. She, Webster, and Tierney conducted a phone conference shortly after, and they agreed to hire an attorney as an investigator. Webster recused himself, Jack said, given the family tie, and told Jack to handle it.
Jack called Wright the next morning to tell him about the investigation.
“His response was that he was shocked and didn’t know where the corps members were coming from,” Jack said. “He excused himself for the day to collect himself.”
The Lens obtained a copy of the attorney’s investigation, which offers insight into the alleged incident and also discusses a separate alleged incident involving Wright and another corps member at the Half Moon Bar on April 6.
When the attorney asked Wright about the alleged April 15 incident, he refused to comment, saying that he wanted his own attorney present. When the attorney asked him about the alleged April 6 incident, he said he never had been intimate with an employee and that he left the bar alone. The employee involved in that incident told the investigator that she and Wright kissed, but she refused to say anything more because she was afraid of losing her job.
Jack said she read the report and concluded that “it was more likely than not that there was incidence of sexual assault,” she said.
In June, after the investigation was over, Jack fired Wright, giving him two weeks to finish up his assignments. But Jack says that Webster refused to let Wright go.
“When Kyshun got wind of my decision, he told me that I did not have the authority to fire his brother, even though I was put in charge of the investigation and was Wilfred’s supervisor,” she said. “He told me that [Operation REACH] was his organization and he was going to run it the way he wanted to.”
Wright was rehired shortly after, albeit to a different program, Jack said, and was still with the organization when Jack was laid off in August.
Webster refused to discuss the allegations or the status of Wright’s employment, calling it a highly sensitive personnel matter.
“We will not — underscore will not — discuss personnel matters,” he said.
Board chairman Ted Quant emphasized during a recent interview that Webster could not comment because he had recused himself from the probe. Quant declined to comment as well.
As late as last month, Wright was still listed on the organization’s website as the point of contact for several of Operation REACH’s programs.