Exclusive: Former Colleagues Accuse Mississippi D.A. Candidate Jody Owens Of Sexual Harassment
An EEOC complaint documents allegations against Owens, former managing attorney in the Jackson office of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Multiple women who have worked with Jody Owens, who is running unopposed for district attorney in Hinds County, Mississippi, say he sexually harassed them while he led the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Jackson office. Their allegations include claims that Owens, who was the office’s managing attorney until June, commented on some women’s appearances, discussed their dating lives, made unwanted advances, or touched them inappropriately.
One woman, who worked for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as recently as the spring, filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the summer. The Appeal has obtained a copy of the complaint, which details both specific interactions she allegedly had with Owens and a culture in the office in which, she said, his behavior was allowed to continue unchecked.
Asked about these allegations, Owens wrote in an email, “I have never condoned nor participated in any unwanted behavior or touching of any kind with an employee.”
He said he was unaware of the EEOC complaint and could not comment on specific personnel matters because SPLC policy prohibits it. “What I can say is that we strived as an office to foster an environment that was safe and free of harassment of any kind.”
These revelations come roughly seven months after accusations of sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and racism roiled the SPLC’s Montgomery, Alabama, headquarters and led to the ouster of the organization’s co-founder and chief trial lawyer, Morris Dees.
In the complaint, the woman describes a number of instances, starting in November 2018, where Owens made unsolicited comments about her body and touched her without consent. On one occasion, Owens invited her to dinner with members of his family and she said she felt compelled to attend because of his stature as leader of the office.
“While at dinner, Mr. Owens reached under the table and touched [the woman]’s thigh and calf,” the complaint says. “[The woman] recoiled, but he persisted; Mr. Owens continued to touch her leg under the table throughout the meal despite her attempts to shift away.”
After the meal, Owens allegedly approached the woman, grabbed her upper arms, and commented on her muscles, saying she must work out. When Owens left the restaurant, he immediately called the woman’s cellphone under the guise of discussing work, she said, but asked about her dating life. Owens advised her to be careful on dating apps. “This is a small town,” he said, according to the complaint.
“That conversation was the first of many Mr. Owens would have [with the woman], in which he sought to control and limit her interactions with other men in Jackson,” the complaint says.
On another occasion, the complaint states, he told her she has “a body that Mississippi men appreciate,” and that she was “not white girl skinny, but not fat.”
According to the complaint, the woman reported the harassment to Lisa Graybill, the SPLC’s deputy legal director of criminal justice reform, and Twyla Williams, the director of human resources. Graybill and Williams did not respond to requests for comment. The SPLC declined to comment, citing its policy of keeping personnel matters confidential.
Williams arranged for a third-party investigation, according to the complaint, and outside attorneys interviewed the woman. In June, she was told that investigators found her allegations credible, but Owens was not disciplined to her knowledge, and he resigned on June 28.
The complaint alleges that by the time the woman started at the SPLC’s Jackson office in late 2018, the organization “had long been on notice of complaints that Mr. Owens was a sexual predator who targeted subordinate female employees.”
Another woman, who also alleges that Owens sexually harassed her and said that she reported the conduct internally at the SPLC, said she offered to provide additional testimony to support the complainant in the EEOC investigation.
In total, The Appeal spoke with 17 people who worked in the office or considered working in the office since Owens became managing attorney in 2011. Most would only speak anonymously, citing concerns about their professional reputations.
Some praised Owens as a strong leader and caring supervisor. “He was overall a good boss, a good mentor,” said Alesha Judkins, who worked in the office for almost eight years. “It was a crucial part of my career that I’m forever grateful for.”
But the majority of those interviewed described a toxic work environment under Owens’s leadership.
Ten of the interviewees said they had experienced, witnessed, or knew about his harassment of subordinate female employees. Some said he directly commented on their appearance and dating life in a way that made them feel uncomfortable in the workplace. SPLC’s human resources department investigated his conduct at least twice, according to the complaint and to women interviewed by The Appeal. Many described his behavior as an open secret in the office.
Owens is now the presumptive district attorney for Hinds County, home of Jackson, having won the Aug. 6 Democratic primary in Mississippi’s largest county with more than 52 percent of the vote ahead of the Nov. 5 general election.
Former employees were not surprised that Owens would run for district attorney. They said he has long voiced political ambitions and is well connected in the Jackson community.
Owens has earned endorsements from Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, Real Justice PAC, pop star John Legend, local clergy, legislators, and other local elected officials.
Some women contacted by The Appeal expressed relief at finally being asked about behavior they said they felt forced to tolerate. But many were also fearful, then and now, of what speaking out against Owens could mean for their careers and personal lives.
“It was really hard for me to pick out at the time what was actually happening,” said Emily Tatro, who worked in the office as an intern in the summer of 2013. “That’s one of the myriad reasons that I didn’t say something then, in addition to getting paid and needing the money, and the power dynamic of the boss, and not being from around there and not wanting to cause a stir as an outsider, and needing this for my career.”
Another woman who has worked at the SPLC under Owens said his behavior shocked her from the moment she set foot in the office. In the beginning, she didn’t know if she was just misreading cultural norms.
“There were a lot of excuses [my colleagues] made that this is just how it is in the South,” she said. “But the fact is that … most men don’t behave this way here.”
Owens worked as the chief policy counsel and managing attorney in the SPLC’s Jackson office starting in 2011, litigating class action lawsuits aimed at tackling mass incarceration, private prisons, and the school-to-prison pipeline. He has also served as a Hinds County special prosecutor and as an attorney at the Butler Snow law firm. He’s a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve and, according to his campaign website, has served for over seven years.
Progressive reformers have embraced his candidacy, calling him a champion for criminal justice reform. He has campaigned for district attorney on a platform centered on limiting cash bail, establishing a new post-prison re-entry program, increasing access to mental health care, and investing in restorative justice programs.
But former SPLC employees tell The Appeal that Owens created a culture in the office in which women felt bullied and harassed. Anamika Dwivedi, who worked as a policy intern in Jackson in summer 2015, said Owens once chastised her for showing emotion on a particularly stressful day. “He told me, ‘Don’t act like a woman in professional spaces,’” she said.
Owens said approximately 100 employees cycled through the Jackson office during his time there. “It would be disingenuous to tell you that I remember every employee and certainly not every conversation or interaction with every staff member, full-time, part-time or seasonal.”
Though Dwivedi spent only a summer at the SPLC, other women who spoke with The Appeal, including the one who offered to provide additional testimony to the EEOC, had far more contact with Owens. That woman told The Appeal that Owens sexually harassed her on multiple occasions during her first year in the office. The only reason she is not filing legal charges, she said, is because the statute of limitations has passed.
“It’s hard to grapple with and realize what’s happening to you in the context of a brand new job,” she said. “For someone who uprooted my life to move to Mississippi, let alone to do the work I was passionate and remain passionate about … I thought I got my dream job. And I went there and pretty immediately started experiencing things that made me uncomfortable.”
The woman, like many who have worked in the office, moved to Jackson to work for the SPLC and didn’t know anyone in the city. Many former employees described the criminal justice community in Jackson as insular and small, and said their status as outsiders placed them in a vulnerable position. The woman said she felt pressured to attend social events and consume alcohol with Owens.
A few weeks into her tenure, she said, Owens took her to the State Capitol and told her she would be good at legislative work because she’s “a white liberal woman who’s not from Mississippi.” Owens’s comments, which were sometimes about her gender and race, and other times of a sexual nature, escalated over time, she said. She documented seven or eight serious incidents.
During her second month at the SPLC, she went to a restaurant with Owens and other colleagues. When Owens left, she said, he got up and “kissed me on the cheek and whispered that I should stop being so flirtatious.”
She said she remembers her shock at that comment. “I distinctly remember asking a co-worker after the fact what I could have possibly done that would have given that impression, and she said maybe it was the way I turn my head when I listen,” she said.
On other occasions, Owens commented on her choice of shoes, told her not to wear skirts or dresses around legislators because she has “nice legs,” and made overt, flirtatious comments toward her in public.
Roughly eight months into her employment, during a discussion of her work performance, she said Owens told her: “You’re hell on wheels.”
“Oh Jesus, Jody, what does that mean?” she responded, according to notes she took at the time and referred to during her phone interview with The Appeal.
“You’re a dynamo,” he said, according to her notes. “You’re a white, attractive, liberal woman. You have a shape that is attractive to people of all races. People talk about what white men and black men like. You have a shape that everyone likes.”
Owens specifically disputed a number of these allegations. “I have never kissed an employee and told them to stop being flirtatious,” he wrote in his email to The Appeal. “If I had concerns about an employee being inappropriate towards me, I would have consulted Human Resources and/or documented the issue appropriately.”
He also denied pressuring anyone to attend events outside of work hours or making work decisions based on race. “Race never determined whether someone would be good at any work of any kind including legislative work,” he wrote. “We had a diverse office where numerous individuals contributed to all aspects of our work.”
The woman said that after Owens commented on her body, she reported the incident within the SPLC to Graybill, the deputy legal director, which triggered an investigation in which SPLC co-founder Joseph Levin came to the office to conduct interviews with most staff members about the allegations and related conduct by Owens. Several weeks later, she said, Levin and a human resources representative told her that they did not find any grounds to take substantive, remedial action. Still, they said, Owens would go through an unspecified training, and she and Owens would be prohibited from having direct contact with each other. (Owens denied being prohibited from interacting with any employee while at SPLC.)
Weeks later, she said, she met with an SPLC human resources representative and with legal director Rhonda Brownstein, who told her they had received a complaint about her before she complained about Owens. As a result, Brownstein told her, they would be keeping track of her performance.
According to the woman, Brownstein also asked her why she hadn’t raised her concerns about Owens sooner, and the woman responded that she had been afraid.
“She looked at me and said, ‘What would you possibly have to be afraid of?’” the woman remembers. Brownstein, who has since left the organization, did not respond to a request for comment. Levin, who retired in 2016 but is still on the board of the SPLC’s political arm, declined to comment.
The woman said that for the rest of her employment, she faced what she described as retaliation and friction with co-workers who were close to Owens. She never received a raise, could no longer do much of the substantive work she had been doing, and her desk was repeatedly moved throughout the office.
The woman’s father, who said he spoke with his daughter most nights during her time in Jackson, said he remembers hearing about her encounters with Owens and said the harassment made his daughter anxious and stressed. She had trouble sleeping, he said, and when she did, she had vivid nightmares.
The woman said she has warned people who are considering working at the SPLC in Jackson about the issues. “I would never wish my experience on anyone,” she said.
Tatro, the 2013 summer intern, was entering her third year at Georgetown Law School when she worked at the SPLC. She said Owens often spoke to her in the office about her appearance and dating life. The attention created an uncomfortable environment that affected her work. Tatro said the attorneys gave her less substantive work than other interns.
At one point early in the summer, Tatro said, Owens told her that Elissa Johnson, a senior staff attorney and the internship coordinator, did not like her and he was the only reason she was there. “It made me feel like I owed him something,” she said. “Like he was giving me a chance that I didn’t deserve, and that meant that I owed him something.”
During the midsummer evaluations, when attorneys in the office submit anonymous feedback on the interns, Tatro was told that people were unhappy with her performance. When she asked Johnson for more specifics, Tatro said the only explicit feedback was that “I didn’t smile enough in the office.”
“I was just like, ‘What am I supposed to do with that?’ I was just at a loss and really struggling with how to move forward,” she remembered. “You’re in a pretty exciting but also pretty vulnerable position during your 2L summer,” she added. Johnson was unavailable for comment when contacted by The Appeal and did not respond by publication time.
Tatro recalled drinking with Owens at various happy hours and events around Jackson that summer. At one event, where Owens wasn’t present, she said she had to fight off unwanted flirting from a man who told her he was Owens’s friend. In the office the following workday, she said Owens called her into his office and mentioned the interaction.
“If I knew at 26 that that was inappropriate, certainly he knew … or should have known,” she said. “Why would you put someone in a position like that?”
Tatro also remembers an interaction in the office hallway when Owens touched her butt, claiming there was lint on her skirt. She said at least one person, whose identity she doesn’t recall, saw the interaction. “I remember being like, ‘Oh my God. Everyone saw that.’”
Tatro said the culture in the office and Owens’s treatment of her made her feel like a bad lawyer and question whether she wanted to be a litigator, as she had previously thought. She said she did not understand her experience to be sexual harassment until after the summer ended. Once she had time to process her feelings, she said she became more honest with herself and began sharing her bad experience with others.
A friend of Tatro’s from law school said she remembers Tatro discussing Owens’s comments about her appearance in the office. She said Tatro seemed traumatized by her interactions with Owens that summer and said it continues to affect her interactions with men.
“She asked me what I think she does to invite this kind of behavior,” the friend said. “If there’s something that she could do differently. If there was anything that she had done to create a perception that she was open to this.”
When the SPLC fired its co-founder and chief trial lawyer Morris Dees this year in March, the dismissal came amid an uprising by female and nonwhite employees and allegations that Dees had created a racist, sexist work environment. A group of employees signed on to a letter claiming that several allegations of sexual harassment by Dees had been ignored or covered up over the years and that staff members who reported mistreatment faced retaliation.
Rumors about Dees’s propensity to hit on young female staffers had circulated in the office for decades, according to former employees, and the Washington Post talked to more than a dozen people who said that they witnessed Dees acting inappropriately with women, including subordinates, or making racially insensitive comments. At least one incident was investigated by the SPLC.
Dees has denied the allegations and has said his termination was not related to misconduct.
In a statement at the time of Dees’s firing, then-SPLC president Richard Cohen did not give a reason for the dismissal, but said the organization requested “a comprehensive assessment of our internal climate and workplace practices” to ensure that the organization was a place where “all voices are heard and all staff members are respected.” Cohen did not respond to The Appeal’s request for comment.
Shortly after Dees’s dismissal, Brownstein, the SPLC’s legal director, abruptly resigned and Cohen left after an interim president was named.
While the exodus was occurring in the SPLC’s Montgomery, Alabama, headquarters, staff members in Jackson called an all-office meeting during which Owens tried to downplay the accusations, according to the EEOC complaint.
“Mr. Owens told the entire Jackson office that he believed the claims against Mr. Dees had been overblown and that Mr. Dees was simply a ‘hugger,’” the complaint states. “He went on to make sweeping statements about the merit of the complaints that led to Mr. Dees’ removal, characterizing the allegations against Mr. Dees as ‘minor issues.’”
Women who worked under Owens in Jackson said the reports of Dees’s behavior struck a chord. One woman, named as a witness in the complaint, said that, like the employees in Montgomery, she had difficulty reconciling the sexual harassment she experienced with the values and idealistic goals of the organization.
“People move to the Deep South to work for SPLC because they want to do good, and they are in a place where they are coming for idealistic purposes,” the woman said. “The disillusionment immediately is hard to bear.”
“You struggle with the reality that it does do good work, and that it is deeply flawed,” she added.
Though the SPLC fired Dees for misconduct, current and former employees said they were disappointed that Owens was allowed to resign and write his own narrative about the end of his employment.
In June, he sent an internal email stating that he would be leaving the SPLC permanently, despite his initial plan to take a leave and then return to the office after the primary. “I didn’t calculate that my campaign will likely go to the end of August, and then keep me busy for much of the Fall,” he wrote.
A current SPLC employee outside of Jackson noted that Owens’s voluntary resignation preserved his campaign for district attorney. “He was certainly allowed to leave unscathed,” the employee said. The SPLC declined to comment on Owens’s resignation. A spokesperson denied that the organization was trying to protect his campaign: “The SPLC does not, and has not, engaged in any activities either in support of, or opposition to, any candidates for public office, including Mr. Owens.”
Still, many who have worked at the organization say the SPLC should have taken a stronger stance.
“Jody has ruined a lot of lives for women,” said one woman who has worked in the Jackson office. She said she was subject to one of Owens’s off-color comments and heard about other instances of inappropriate conduct from female colleagues. “The SPLC has known about his behavior for a very long time.”