When the Me Too movement collides with Black Lives Matter something’s gotta give

HomeInvestigative ReportWhen the Me Too movement collides with Black Lives Matter something’s gotta...

Former Central Health executive terminated for sexual harassment seeks settlement of about $775,000

What happens when a Black public official—the highest paid African American within any Travis County government agency—habitually talks to and touches female employees inappropriately and then claims racial discrimination when he’s fired?

We’re about to find out.

A high-stakes drama is playing out within Central Health, the Travis County agency that levies property taxes to pay for indigent healthcare services.

What does it say about an organization’s ethical culture when documented evidence of this kind of misconduct stretches all the way back to 2011?

Yet over the ensuing eight years after that first documented incident occurred, the alleged offender’s pay doubled. He was even named to head the agency on an interim basis for six months. What kind of message does that send to female employees who have suffered in silence his alleged obnoxious remarks and unwanted touching?

Who is the alleged offender?

Larimen Thaddeus “Larry” Wallace lost his job with Central Health early last December. It was a bitter blow for a man whose career in healthcare began in 1982. He was hired by Central Health in 2005 at an annual salary of $100,000. He ended up 14 years later at age 71 with annual pay of $297,950.

Maram Museitif

Wallace, now 72, was terminated in December 2019 as a result of a complaint filed by Maram Museitif, 40, a member of Central Health’s Board of Managers. The incident triggering her complaint happened during a well attended event at a downtown hotel in September 2019. (More about that later.)

Mike Geeslin
Mike Geeslin

Acting on Museitif’s complaint, Central Health’s president and CEO, Mike Geeslin, requested the Travis County Attorney’s Office investigate the matter.

In response, investigators interviewed Wallace, Museitif, and multiple female employees of Central Health. Based on results of that investigation—in addition to other documented incidents (more about those later)—Geeslin terminated Wallace’s employment. He wasn’t fired immediately. He was given two months transition but was not allowed in the office without Geeslin’s permission. During that time Wallace was paid his regular salary, a total of about $50,000.

Maybe getting fired ain’t exactly Black Lives Matter but it sure buried Wallace’s career and reputation in a deep, dark hole, and he hasn’t breathed easy since.

Wallace’s termination stayed under wraps for more than six months. A former employee who spoke on background said people noticed that Wallace was gone. She told the Bulldog, “Many of us noticed that Larry left and nobody did anything. No retirement party, not a nice way to treat him.

“Even people who knew him well were not aware of the circumstances. She said she worked at the Central Health headquarters for several years and said he was always friendly. “He would hug me on greeting,” she said. “It’s too bad that’s what it took (to fire him) and not his performance.”

Wallace’s dismissal did not surface publicly until June 25, 2020, when Central Health’s Board of Manager’s voted to sustain Geeslin’s decision. That’s when The Austin Bulldog’s investigation began.

In response to the Bulldog’s request for comment, Geeslin on Thursday issued the following statement:

“Out of respect for all parties involved, Central Health is unable to comment…due to ongoing (settlement discussions) as authorized by the Central Health Board of Managers Wednesday night, October 28.

“However, I want to assure our employees that Central Health is committed to maintaining a workplace free of sexual harassment and all forms of discrimination and retaliation. Such acts violate the law and our policies, and will not be tolerated. Ultimately, we will provide a safe, healthy, and respectful workplace for our employees and our volunteers.”

How the ‘Bulldog’ investigation was conducted

The story is based on records obtained through a dozen public information requests. In addition, interviews were conducted with Wallace, his two attorneys, another attorney not associated with this case who specializes in sexual harassment litigation, two women who spoke about Wallace’s offensive conduct on condition they not be named in this story, and other interested parties.

Manager Museitif declined to comment for this story.

Please note that certain records important to this investigation could not be obtained. Those include a copy of Maram Museitif’s complaint against Wallace and the report of findings in the Travis County Attorney’s investigation of her complaint. The Bulldog filed public information requests for these records July 29. Someone sat on those requests for two months until the Bulldog followed up. Then on October 14 the Travis County Attorney’s office requested the attorney general’s permission to withhold the report of the county attorney’s investigation. The AG’s response to such requests typically take 45 or more days.

Wallace claims racial discrimination

The Board of Managers announced in April 2017 that Mike Geeslin had been selected for the agency’s top job. He started work May 15, 2017.

Wallace, who had served as Central Health’s interim president and CEO for six months, filed his first EEOC complaint May 4, 2017 when he passed over for the permanent job. He didn’t even make the short list. Wallace claimed racial discrimination because he is an African American, “in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended.”

In responding to that complaint, EEOC investigators were unable to determine if Central Health had violated the statute. Following standard practices in such instances, investigators authorized Wallace to file a lawsuit.

Wallace did not file suit. Instead, on August 7, 2017, Central Health announced it had created for him a new position of Enterprise Chief Administrative Officer. On December 8, 2018 Wallace received a glowing evaluation for his performance in that job.

“Mr. Wallace has performed at a highly-functioning, executive level and has assumed enormous responsibility. The responsibility includes his role as an enterprise executive, while also serving as chair on the Community Care Collaborative board and member of the Sendero Health Plans, Inc. board…

“Mr. Wallace displays a sincere concern for his fellow colleagues, and goes out of his way to assist when and where possible,” the evaluation states.

But a year later he lost his job.

Months after Geeslin terminated Wallace’s employment, Wallace filed a second EEOC complaint in April 2020. Again he claimed racial discrimination. This time he added retaliation for having filed the first EEOC complaint. Again EEOC investigators were unable to find a violation of the statute and authorized Wallace to file suit.

Against that backdrop Wallace hired a lawyer.

Wallace’s attorney presses for settlement

Colin Walsh

Wallace is represented by attorney Colin Walsh of Wiley Walsh PC, who is board certified in labor and employment law.

The Austin Bulldog interviewed Walsh August 14, 2020 and read to him the agreement that Wallace signed in 2005 when hired by Central Health. The agreement made Wallace an at-will employee whose employment can be terminated at any time with or without cause or advance notice.

Walsh replied, “That’s a fairly common statement. The general assumption in Texas is that employees are at-will—but that doesn’t mean they can violate the law.”

In a letter to Central Health dated July 27, 2020, Walsh states, “This action against Mr. Wallace is a pretext for discrimination and retaliation. In fact, Mr. Geeslin had long sought to terminate Mr. Wallace. The real reason for terminating Mr. Wallace was unlawful race discrimination and retaliation.”

“In an effort to resolve this matter, Mr. Wallace agrees to waive any and all claims that he may have against Central Health in exchange for severance of two years wages and benefits,” Walsh wrote.

If granted, that settlement would cost taxpayers about $775,000.

Central Health board weighs in

Stephanie Rojo

Central Health’s Board of Managers met Wednesday evening, October 28. In a closed-door executive session the board received a briefing regarding Wallace’s EEOC complaint from the agency’s outside attorney, Stephanie Simons Rojo. She heads the labor and employment section of Thompson Coe Cousins & Irons LLP.

Sherri Greenberg

After the executive session, at 9:10pm Wednesday the board voted to authorize Central Health’s Board Chair Sherri Greenberg, Vice Chair Charles Bell, and Susan Willars, enterprise vice president of human resources, to continue settlement discussions with Mr. Wallace and return to the Board for approval of any negotiated resolution of claims.

Voting for the motion were Greenberg, Bell, Guadalupe Zamora, Cynthia Valadez, and Julie Zuniga. Shannon Jones and Maram Museitif abstained. Congressional candidate Julie Oliver was absent, as was Abagail Aiken (who has resigned but is technically still on the board until her successor “shall be duly qualified” per Texas Constitution, Article 16, Section 17.)

Who is Maram Museitif, and what happened?

The Austin City Council appointed Museitif to Central Health’s Board of Managers in May 2017. The press release that announced her appointment cited her decade of experience as a healthcare professional and quotes her saying, “I’m a Muslim and speak fluent Arabic, which is the third most common language in the CommUnityCare patient population.”

When attending Central Health board meetings Museitif wears a traditional Muslim hijab head covering, just as she appears in her official photograph published in this story. She has been seen on numerous other occasions similarly attired in public.

Our investigation determined the event that precipitated Wallace’s downfall happened September 19, 2019, in a packed Hilton Hotel ballroom at The EquitySpace Summit. In front of that crowd, Wallace was presented an Equity Warriors Award for leading equity transformation in the health and wellness industry. It was a significant honor.

Yet only moments later something happened that brought his downfall.

In Wallace’s October 23, 2019, memo to the Board of Managers he laid out his recollection of details about the photo incident that had occurred a month earlier.

The memo states that Museitif approached his table to congratulate Wallace and request a photo with him. “I complied with her request and two photos were taken. Museitif took the first photo using the selfie mode on her phone and then asked someone at the table to take the second photo.

“During the second photo, I placed my arm around her waist/mid-back area, which is a common posing position and is in no way sexual. At no time did I feel I was imposing upon her (redacted) or acting inappropriately, especially given our history of similar interactions. Museitif never stated she was uncomfortable or offended during the photo shoot and departed my table afterward. I did not see the photos.”

A few days after the photos were taken Wallace was informed that Museitif had complained to Central Health and an investigation would be conducted by the Travis County Attorney’s Office.

Investigators substantiated her complaint

Despite Wallace’s benign description of the photo shoot, an investigation conducted by the Travis County Attorney’s Office corroborated Museitif’s allegation, the specific nature of which has not been disclosed.

Wallace participated in that investigation. His memo states that he met with the Travis County Attorneys September 26, 2019—just a week after the photo session—to receive information about the complaint and to provide comments.

“I was informed that Museitif filed the complaint and was offended because I had placed my arm around her during the photo shoot. I asked why Museitif did not express her discomfort to me, given our non-threatening relationship, and simply ask me to remove it. The attorneys had no answer.

“I…asked if Museitif stated I touched her in sensitive areas, such as her breasts or buttocks, and was told no. Under the circumstances I have described, I strongly believe I am the victim and am being targeted. As a friend and often a mentor, I respectfully complied with (Museitif’s) request for a photo, which I still have not seen.”

The Attorney General has granted permission for Central Health to withhold the photos from release.

A current employee speaks out

On Thursday The Austin Bulldog interviewed a current female Central Health employee who said she had experienced Wallace’s unwelcome sexual remarks and touching. She agreed to speak on condition that her identity not be disclosed.

“Following (Museitif’s) allegation that brought this to the fore, the Travis County attorney’s office met with me and others and we were able to raise our concerns,” she said.

She was especially pleased to speak to the investigators because she, like others, had not dared to report Wallace’s behavior.

“I value where I work and I’m delighted to be able to work for delivering healthcare to the people who need it. I don’t want to damage the institution,” she said. “I could see there were many good reasons for him to resign. It’s not simply one event. I can think of half-dozen women who heard from sexist to sexually inappropriate remarks and who felt uncomfortable with the physical contact that he made.”

“I speak as someone who was on the receiving end of several inappropriate comments,” she said. “He said a number of things about my physical appearance. And on a number of occasions he would have a hand linger too long on a back or on an arm. It was deeply uncomfortable. He did this to people who reported to him directly or indirectly and I think to others.

“I wanted to let you know, whatever prompted the investigation and dismissal revealed a pattern of inappropriate behavior that stretched back years,” she said. “If this (settlement) gets paid out, what does it say about real racial discrimination (given) his long and sordid history of inappropriate comments?”

A former employee adds more

A former longtime employee who suffered Wallace’s sexual harassment also spoke to the Bulldog on condition she not be identified.

An incident directly involving her happened in January 2011 and is documented in Personnel Notes: Larry Wallace, obtained through a public information request.

That was the earliest written record of Wallace’s misbehavior that turned up in the Bulldog’s investigation.

The record states that she, Wallace, and two male employees were touring the Central Health administrative offices when they were being renovated.

“As we approached one of the hallways with a skylight in it, there was a metal pole, soon to be painted red,” the Personnel Notes state. “Mr. Wallace then proceeded to say in front of (the men) that he would like to see what I could do with that pole. I was completely shocked and mortified at his words and my only response was to say, in a distressed tone, ‘Larry, I cannot believe you just said that to me…in front of (the men)’ one of whom “made some comments about pole dancing.”

Next day she spoke to human resources and was advised to speak to Mr. Wallace directly and tell him his comment was inappropriate. “I talked with him about the pole dancing comment and said that it offended me and that he had gone too far.”

“Mr. Wallace apologized to me and admitted he was out of line. He said it would not happen again.”

“However, Mr. Wallace also commented to the effect that I should be flattered that I was the only staff member he could imagine with that pole, and he referred to a red pair of shoes I once wore to the office that were to blame for the comment.”

Years later she resigned from Central Health.

She told the Bulldog, “This type of behavior, unbeknownst to me, had been going on for years. Later I heard about others and I went back to Mike Geeslin before I left the organization because…I wanted him to protect the women of the organization.”

She said Geeslin initiated a county attorney’s investigation and she spoke to the investigators. (This was nearly two years before the investigation launched as a result of Museitif’s complaint.) But the resulting report disappointed her.

Mike Geeslin wrote a memo dated May 25, 2018, that states, “This memo closed the process involving the review performed by the Travis County Attorney’s Office of the work environment at Central Health and subsequent management actions taken by Central Health…Based on this review, no further action will be taken with Mr. Wallace. It was determined in the course of this review that a hostile work environment did not exist due to corrective measures taken by Mr. Wallace.”

“The reason I’m even talking to you,” she told the Bulldog, “is I want the truth to come out. This is not about racial discrimination. It was never about (that). I tried my hardest to keep anyone else from being sexually harassed and I was unsuccessful. Another person was hurt because of his action. To consider the board might compensate him in any way—when termination was clearly for sexual harassment—is offensive to me.

“I have lot of sadness and angst. Even though I tried to impact the culture I was unsuccessful, which resulted in another incident (with the board member). All this could have been prevented if appropriate action could have been taken—should have been taken.

“I know at least four women who have been affected,” she added. “That’s why this story needs to be accurate.”

Another complaint got counseling for Wallace

Patricia Young Brown

Wallace’s personnel file contained evidence of another offense that occurred around 2014, but wasn’t reported until November 2016. The incident was recorded in writing by former president and CEO Patricia Young Brown.

“(Name redacted) relayed that at the time she was discussing with Larry that something had occurred workwise that had ‘screwed her up’ (implying the work she was attempting to complete had gotten derailed or made difficult because of someone else’s actions).

“(Name redacted) reported that Larry’s response was, ‘(name redacted) everyone wants to screw you.’ He then paused and quickly followed with, ‘I should not have said that.’ ”

Regina Williams

In response to that complaint, on December 5, 2016, Wallace was given training in “sexual harassment avoidance” by attorney Regina C. “Gina” Williams. The attorney’s written record of that training states the individual training was conducted in the conference room of a law firm whose employees did not know who would be there or what would be discussed.

During that two-hour session with Williams. her memo states, Wallace volunteered a personal story that some “seven years ago” he had suggested that a female employee could do “pole dancing.” The record states that Wallace later apologized for “that one flippant remark.”

Williams wrote, “I explained that going forward, the best course of action would be for an executive in particular is to be above the fray by avoiding sexist comments and jokes and touching in the first place.”

Wallace’s first attorney

William “Kirk” Kuykendall

Wallace was initially represented by William H. “Kirk” Kuykendall, an attorney based in West Lake Hills. Kuykendall is familiar with Central Health and its inner workings. He was jointly appointed May 7, 2013, by the City of Austin and Travis County Commissioners Court to serve on Central Health’s Board of Managers. His term ended December 31, 2016.

In The Austin Bulldog’s recorded June 28, 2020, 64-minute interview with Wallace and Kuykendall, the Bulldog asked for Wallace’s response to his alleged remark to a female employee: “everyone wants to screw you.” Wallace did not speak.

Kuykendall said, “[I]f you read the memo, sir, all it is…all of that stuff is inflammatory, taken out of context, driven by #MeToo. All right, people are offended, but Mr. Wallace is offended, too, in terms of how things have been handled and managed, and he is entitled to consideration….”

What does a sexual harassment expert say?

Gregg Rosenberg

For a broader perspective The Austin Bulldog reached out to Houston attorney Gregg Rosenberg of the law firm Rosenberg Sprovach. Rosenberg said he has spent 35 years in a practice dedicated to protecting victims of sexual harassment.

In 2010 The Austin Bulldog reported on a Williamson County case in which he represented two female Williamson County employees in a federal lawsuit involving a county court at law judge accused of sexual harassment.

Rosenberg’s comments cited here are based on the scenario laid out in Wallace’s account of the photo shoot with Museitif.

Rosenberg said, “Sex has to be motivating factor. In this situation, it seems the man terminated was reflexively acting benignly responsive to take a photo. It’s not unreasonable to expect there would be contact. You didn’t mention groping or squeezing. If they terminated the man for sexual harassment that would not rise to level of sexual harassment.

“One fact is the conduct has to be unwelcome. He was asked to pose for a picture, inviting close proximity for the photo. It is reasonable to think he would touch her.”

“I’m not saying anyone consents to having their butt grabbed, but incidental contact is okay. If there was a grab, that would be a question for the finder of facts.”

This story was updated at 12:10pm November 10, 2020, to correct the number of months that Larry Wallace served as interim president and CEO of Central Health. It was six months—not 16 months.

Trust indictors: Ken Martin has been doing investigative reporting in the three-county Austin metro area since 1981. His aggressive reporting twice garnered first-place national awards from the National Newspaper Association for investigative reporting. Both of those projects resulted in successful felony criminal prosecutions, one for a Williamson County commissioner, the other for a con man based in Austin. You can read more about Ken on the About page.

Links to related documents:

CEO Trish Young Brown memo addressed to Susan Willars in Human Resources, subject: Conversation with (redacted), November 30, 2016 (1 page)

Colin Walsh’s letter to Sherri Greenberg, chair of Central Health’s Board of Managers, July 27, 2020 (2 pages)

Investigation Report Summary by Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta  LLP, June 12, 2020 (1 page)

Larry Wallace’s Central Health Personnel File (66 pages)

Larry Wallace’s Charge of Discrimination filed with the Texas Workforce Commission May 4, 1017 (2 pages) 20170504 EEOC

Larry Wallace’s Charge of Discrimination filed with Texas Workforce Commission April 29, 2020 (4 pages)

Larry Wallace’s job offer letter, August 16, 2005 (2 pages)

Larry Wallace’s memo to the Central Health Board of Managers, re: Employment Separation, October 23, 2019 (2 pages)

Larry Wallace’s memo to the Central Health Board of Managers, re: 2nd Supplemental Employment Separation Complaint, November 22, 2019 (3 pages)

Larry Wallace’s pay records while interim CEO, December 24, 2016, through June 12, 2017

Larry Wallace’s payroll records for 2018 and 2019 (1 page)

Larry Wallace’s performance evaluation, December 8, 2018 (3 pages)

Larry Wallace’s Sexual Harassment Avoidance Training, Meeting Summary, December 5, 2016 (3 pages)

Larry Wallace’s Terms of Transition, October 21, 2019 (2 pages)

Mike Geeslin’s memo closing the review of the Travis County Attorney’s Office concerning a hostile work environment, May 25, 2018 (1 page)

Patricia Young Brown’s memo to Susan Willars concerning a complaint about Larry Wallace, November 30, 2016 (1 page)

Personnel Notes detailing allegations of Wallace’s remarks to a female employee concerning pole dancing, on or about January 10, 2011 (1 page)

Press release announcing Maram Museitif’s appointment to Central Health’s Board of Managers, May 24, 2017 (3 pages)

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