Election Staff Strife Worries GOP Chairman; Current, Former Employees Suing Elections Chief

Article excerpt

ST. CHARLES COUNTY - With election workers suing their boss, county Republican Party Chairman Eugene Dokes is worried there could be problems at the polls.

"I have grave concerns that something could be done incorrectly," Dokes said regarding internal tension over a lawsuit filed against Elections Director Rich Chrismer by four employees and two ex- employees.

The suit accuses Chrismer, 66, of sexually harassing one of the former workers, Mary Railean Benefield, 45, and giving substandard job evaluations to punish others who corroborated her claim. It also alleges Chrismer overcharged local governments for their share of election costs.

Chrismer denies all the allegations.

He said his employees "are acting like the professionals I believe they are" and that the lawsuit won't affect the coming Aug. 7 primary and Nov. 6 general election.

The allegations of retaliation were made by Benefield's husband, Christopher Benefield, a voting systems supervisor; her sister, Catherine Fry, an election assistant; and Mary Widaman, a program specialist. A fourth employee - Margaret Muffler, an accountant - said Chrismer gave her a poor evaluation in retaliation for a disability and age discrimination complaint she filed against him. Chrismer has 15 employees.

Dokes, who also is a Missouri House candidate, said he doesn't think any Election Authority employee would deliberately make a mistake. But he said it's difficult for an office to operate with "so much pressure and stress."

A former county GOP chairman, Tom Kuypers, echoed Dokes' concerns. Both emphasized that they weren't taking sides on the case filed in St. Charles County Circuit Court.

But some other political figures - county Democratic chairman Morton Todd and County Council members Nancy Matheny, Joe Cronin and Joe Brazil, all Republicans like Chrismer - said they believed that the dispute won't affect the agency's ability to run professionally.

"They realize how serious a job they have," Todd said of the employees. "I've been in work environments where people don't get along. You've got a job to do."

None of the employees suing Chrismer could be reached for comment, but their attorney, Larry Bagsby, said he has advised them not to say anything while the suit is pending.

The lawsuit was filed in October by Mary Benefield; other plaintiffs were added earlier this month. The revised suit seeks more than $5 million in damages.

Meanwhile, County Executive Steve Ehlmann said through a spokesman: "We're always concerned about putting on good elections but the people elect the director of elections and we can't tell him what to do or how to do it."

Ehlmann, also a Republican, and Chrismer, who is in the middle of his third four-year term, have clashed over the years on some issues. …