By Sara Roth
John Tierney and Pat Dooris contributed to this report
As allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace plague Hollywood executives and government officials, a renowned Oregon golf course and its powerful parent corporation are the focus of an explosive lawsuit that alleges rampant sexual misconduct and inaction from local and corporate executives.
An employee of Bandon Dunes golf course, often rated as one of the world’s top golf courses, has sued the longtime general manager of the resort and its parent company, KemperSports, alleging sexual assault, harassment, discrimination, retaliation and negligence.
Court documents show the allegations aren’t just limited to the golf club in Bandon, Oregon. Two employees claim the alleged misconduct has been pervasive for years at the corporate office. Top executives are accused by the lawsuit of not only condoning the behavior but also participating in sexually inappropriate conduct themselves.
The documents reveal an alleged “Boy’s Club,” which is described as a place where women could only advance if they accepted a sexually hostile work environment that included regular harassment, inappropriate touching and, for at least one female executive, a threat of rape.
Bandon Dunes’ Director of Reservation Services Darla Hamblin is suing her former manager, Henry “Hank” Hickox, and Bandon Dunes’ parent company, Chicago-based KemperSports, for $501,000 for emotional distress, humiliation, damages and medical expenses. A former female executive in the Chicago corporate office submitted a declaration in support of Hamblin and added allegations of sexual harassment from the company’s top executive staff.
Hickox did not return calls for comment on this article and his lawyer refused to comment.
A spokesman for KemperSports said that the company took “remedial action” when informed of the alleged inappropriate behavior at Bandon Dunes, although he did not elaborate on the nature of that action.
In court documents, lawyers for both Hickox and KemperSports state that due to the statute of limitations, only two allegations against Hickox are timely for the lawsuit and while they admit the incidents occurred, they don’t rise to the level of sex abuse. They also deny any retaliatory actions.
The trial was originally set to begin Nov. 14 in Coos County Circuit Court, but court documents show the case was settled and a lawyer for Hamblin said the matter "has been amicably resolved."
Alleged sexual misconduct at Bandon Dunes
Bandon Dunes was built in 1999 by owner/developer Mike Keiser on the rolling dunes of the picturesque, small coastal town of Bandon in southern Oregon. Keiser is not named in Hamblin’s lawsuit.
KemperSports manages dozens of golf courses, resorts and clubs around the country, including Bandon Dunes Golf Resort’s five public courses, Silvies Valley Ranch in Burns, and Heron Lakes and Colwood Golf Center in Portland.
When Darla Hamblin started working at Bandon Dunes as a bartender in 2000, she quickly became friendly with her general manager, Henry “Hank” Hickox, and his wife, Johnna. In a deposition, Hamblin describes the town as close-knit and said her child attended school with the Hickox’s children.
Court documents show Hamblin was promoted at the golf club both in 2001 and 2002. As a single mother, she was grateful for her job at Bandon Dunes and in 2007, rose to director of reservation services. In 2015, she received KemperSports’ top award for hospitality.
But since Hamblin began working at Bandon Dunes, the lawsuit alleges that Hickox made inappropriate remarks toward Hamblin, other female staff and guests. Hickox compared Hamblin’s breasts to the breasts of other employees and patrons, gave Hamblin unsolicited back rubs, and placed his hands on her waist and hips when he talked to her about work, according to the lawsuit.
Hickox’s behavior worsened starting in 2004-2005 when his wife entered cancer treatment and he began drinking more, court records show. Hickox would drink Scotch whiskey from his coffee mug at work and often smelled strongly of alcohol, according to the lawsuit.
Court documents state Hamblin didn’t report the behavior at the time because she wanted to keep her job.
“Throughout the years, [Hamblin] reluctantly came to accept Hickox’s inappropriate sexual comments and objectification of women including [Hamblin] as necessary evil to keep her job and move up in the company,” the trial brief states.
In court documents, Hamblin says Hickox began directly expressing interest in a sexual relationship with her, regularly asked her about her sex life and told her she needed to be “serviced” regularly. He said he was “up for the task” if she was interested.
He also talked about sexual relations with other female employees, the lawsuit alleges. Hickox once asked her to have one of the female caddies “service him for money,” court records show. When she chastised Hickox, he “became very upset … and sternly warned her not to ‘bite the hand that feeds you’ after claiming the only reason he had promoted her was that he felt sorry for her as a single mother.”
According to Hamblin's trial brief, “on several occasions, [Hickox] commented that he was going to kiss [Hamblin] someday and that she would like it.”
In July 2015, Hickox forcefully kissed Hamblin after a work party, her trial brief states. She describes him “grabbing her with both arms while inserting his tongue into her mouth.”
While court documents show Hickox later admitted to the incident, a trial memorandum for Hickox states that he did not have knowledge of the incident due to how alcohol interacted with medication he took, and the kiss “cannot fairly be characterized as a sexual assault and, in any event, Hamblin did her own share of kissing.”
Hamblin confronted Hickox after the incident and says he promised to “behave going forward,” but shortly after suggested that she dress provocatively for a company party, according to court records. When Hamblin told Hickox she was bothered by the comments, she alleges he became angry, defensive, and threatened her job by saying that “their relationship was going to change.”
In September 2015, Hamblin lodged a formal complaint with human resources at KemperSports, according to the lawsuit.
In court records, Hamblin says she waited to report sexual misconduct in part because she felt KemperSports had a company-wide culture of permissiveness and inappropriate sexual conduct, and Hickox – a corporate vice president and member of the executive management team – had close personal relationships with top executives at the company.
The lawsuit says the company failed to properly address her complaint, and she soon learned from another employee just how rampant the alleged sexual misconduct at KemperSports was.
Claims of inaction amid ‘work hard, celebrate hard’ culture at KemperSports
Hank Hickox was revered in the golf world for his management of Bandon Dunes, which is consistently ranked as one of the top public golf courses in the world. He was known as the “face of Bandon Dunes” and granted many interviews with media. Hickox was well-known in government circles as well; he was appointed to the Oregon Tourism commission and the State Economic Development Commission. When he retired in 2016 in his early 70s, a local article celebrated his work.
Hickox’s reputation and close relationship with KemperSports top executives – particularly President Josh Lesnik and Executive Vice President Gary Binder – contributed to Hamblin’s decision to wait to report the misconduct, according to her trial brief. But when she did, Hamblin says human resources staff downplayed the incidents and waited to escalate the complaints.
The lawsuit states that KemperSports’ human resources director Susan Sommers-Evans took Hamblin's complaint but brushed off the behavior as part of the company’s “work hard, celebrate hard” culture.
After Hamblin filed a human resources complaint with KemperSports, Sommers-Evans passed along the complaint to Binder. Court records show KemperSports acknowledges this happened but that Binder did not confront Hickox for months, due to “various business-related reasons” and because of Hickox’s wife’s ongoing cancer treatments. Instead, Binder monitored Hickox’s behavior during his monthly visits to Bandon Dunes and observed nothing inappropriate, KemperSports states in court records.
After several months of inaction, Hamblin took her complaints to the Bandon Dunes human resources director Alexander White in May 2016, court records show. Hamblin alleges White had no knowledge of her previous complaints but warned that “she could not let the situation affect her work or she could be subject to discipline by Kemper.”
KemperSports asserts in court records that Hickox was put on final notice following the May 2016 complaint, with a plan to retire in 18 months. Later that year, Hickox acted aggressively toward another female employee and was forced into early retirement, KemperSports states in court documents.
KemperSports said in a statement to KGW that Hickox is no longer employed by KemperSports or Bandon Dunes; however, Hickox was named an advisor at KemperSports-managed Silvies Valley Ranch, according to an October 2017 report. KemperSports has not yet commented on Hickox's continued involvement with the organization.
Another female executive at KemperSports took notice of Hamblin’s complaints.
Sexual harassment allegedly rampant amid ‘Boys Club’
Hickox’s actions were par for the course for the executive team at KemperSports, according to a court document from former female executive Adrienne Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald, a longtime KemperSports employee who was the National Director of Strategic Partnerships from 2008 to 2017, submitted a declaration in support of Hamblin’s legal claims in September 2017 and was expected to testify on Hamblin’s behalf.
Fitzgerald alleges rampant harassment, threats and touching despite her objections. The harassment was most acute during alcohol-fueled work trips to golfing events around the country, according to her declaration.
In her declaration, Fitzgerald says she learned of Hamblin’s harassment complaint by overhearing Lesnik and Binder joking about it.
“At the time, Hank Hickox was notorious in the company for being sexually inappropriate and horribly offensive,” she wrote, noting that the executive team laughed off Hamblin’s complaint.
“They claimed Darla was having an affair with Hank and was probably pissed about something he had done. They didn’t take her complaint serious and claimed that she was delusional and making it up,” Fitzgerald wrote in the declaration.
Fitzgerald documented her own first-hand experiences with Hickox.
“Whenever I saw Henry … [he] would call me ‘sexy’ and make other inappropriate and offensive sexual remarks about my body parts,” she wrote. “He once got so close to me I could feel his breath and he told me, ‘You look so gorgeous, I could kiss you on the mouth.’”
Hickox’s behavior was routine among KemperSports’ “Boys Club,” according to Fitzgerald's declaration.
“These men constantly talked about sex during work hours and gossiped about which female employees in the company were sexy and attractive, and which ones were ugly and not worth f---ing,” she wrote. “For a woman to stay or succeed in management, she had to be one of the boys and put up with their inappropriate behavior.”
Binder would make inappropriate comments and once told her “nice boobs” after participating in a company sexual harassment training, according to the declaration.
The declaration states Fitzgerald often witnessed the executive team taking about women’s breasts and butts, and they asked her directly about multiple orgasms, threesomes, orgies, vibrators, and oral and anal sex.
The behavior worsened, she alleges, during work trips when they would drink in excess.
“On numerous occasions during these trips, one or more of the male executives aggressively pursued me while intoxicated, demanded to make out with me, for me to give them a blow job, and various other inappropriate requests,” she wrote. “On one trip, one of these men got really drunk and made advances toward me. When I rebuffed him, he got angry and screamed, ‘I can f--- you right here if I want.’”
KemperSports President Josh Lesnik was one of the chief offenders, according to the declaration. At one point in the declaration Fitzgerald describes a sexual proposition from Lesnik during a work trip:
“A few years ago, I attended a KemperSports Leadership meeting held at The Glen Club which is owned by KemperSports. I was terrified to wake up in the middle of the night to find Josh standing in my room. Josh had obtained a key to my room from the front desk without my permission and had let himself into my room. I rebuffed his advances and managed to get him out without having to involve others. The experience left me shaken,” she wrote.
Fitzgerald wrote that when she complained about the behavior to other executives, the incidents were dismissed. She says she resigned due to the ongoing harassment in April 2017.
Hickox, KemperSports deny retaliation, allege appropriate HR response
A lawyer for Hickox declined to comment on the allegations. In a statement to KGW, KemperSports said: "When informed of the alleged inappropriate behavior at Bandon Dunes, the Company took decisive remedial action that effectively addressed Ms. Hamblin’s concerns. Mr. Hickox is no longer employed by KemperSports or Bandon Dunes."
Trial memorandums for both parties show responses to Hamblin’s two most recent allegations against Hickox – the kissing incident and party costume suggestion – that they say are within the statute of limitations for these types of complaints. The memorandums do not address Fitzgerald's allegations.
In Hickox’s trial memorandum, he states that Hamblin never suffered any adverse employment action. She was never fired, demoted or saw a pay reduction. He denied threatening her job and said he was unaware she would take offense to his statement about her party costume.
In the trial memorandum, Hickox also alleges the kiss was not sexual assault.
“Hamblin’s claim of ‘sexual assault’ and battery is based almost entirely on Hickox kissing her one time,” the memorandum states. “When Hickox kissed Hamblin, she immediately pushed him away and told him to stop and get into his house. He had been drinking, but was also on medication which interacted with the alcohol and he has no knowledge of what happened. This, however, cannot fairly be characterized as a sexual assault and, in any event, Hamblin did her own share of kissing.”
KemperSports’ trial memorandum outlines a timeline of human resources reporting that follows the company’s policies. The company said it is not liable for Hickox’s actions and Hamblin is unable to prove she was sexually harassed.
KemperSports also states Hamblin is seeking money through the lawsuit after she received “everything she wanted from her employer” following Hickox’s retirement.
“One kiss does not a lawsuit make,” the KemperSports trial memorandum states.
Hamblin applied for a leave of absence from KemperSports in September 2017, the company said in court documents. She is expected to return to work at the end of the year.
Read court documents:
Published November 13, 2017