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DOSSIER: Incoming DA Faces Accusations, NBC's Tentacles in Mississippi

Incoming Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens is facing accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct from his time as managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Jackson. Photo by Seyma Bayram

Incoming Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens is facing accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct from his time as managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Jackson. Photo by Seyma Bayram

This morning brought jarring news to Jackson and Hinds County about our incoming district attorney who many believe can reform a badly broken criminal-justice system that has left accused people sitting in jail without trial for years on end.

Multiple women are accusing Jody Owens, who won the Democratic primary and faces no challenger in November, of inappropriate and sexual behavior and comments from his time as the managing attorney of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Jackson office. Kira Lerner broke the story in The Appeal, a national news outlet focused on criminal-justice issues, after months of conversations with former employees and after seeing a complaint filed with the EEOC this summer.

"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," Lerner wrote.

The Appeal did not name most of the accusers, but detailed what the woman filing the EEOC alleged, including inappropriate touching under a dinner table and calling her to talk about dating, instead of work.

Owens denied the allegations in an email to The Appeal: "I have never condoned nor participated in any unwanted behavior or touching of any kind with an employee."

The employee filing the complaint also alerted Lisa Graybill, the SPLC's deputy legal director of criminal justice reform, as well as Twyla Williams, the office's director of human resources, Lerner reported. The women did not respond to The Appeal for comment, and the SPLC said it could not comment on confidential personnel matters.

Less than a year ago, SPLC co-founder Morris Dees stepped down from his position in the Montgomery headquarters due to similar charges.

Owens ran for district attorney on a "decarceral" platform, pledging to tackle the pre-trial detention problem and making the system more efficient and humane as a whole, while still prosecuting those who commit serious crimes. He would replace former District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith who served for 12 years and faced multiple trials himself, including for domestic violence and stalking his former girlfriend, but was ultimately acquitted.

Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba is a supporter of Owens, as well as Smith, even showing up to sit up on the front row during closing statements in the State of Mississippi's trial against the current DA for his efforts to delay prosecution of Jackson man Christopher Butler. Smith was acquitted in that trial as well.

The DA Files

An archive of reporting on controversies surrounding Hinds County district attorneys, present and past.

Appeals Court Keeps Christopher Butler Behind Bars

Speaking of Christopher Butler, the Mississippi Court of Appeals turned back his attempt to cut short a 30-year drug-related prison sentence, avoid paying $500,000 in fines, in a Sep. 17 decision. This ruling was just the latest development in a winding and rather confusing saga that was at the heart of Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood's efforts to prosecute Smith for what his office argued was favoritism toward certain defendants such as Butler and Darnell Turner for whom the DA went to great and sometimes confusing lengths to keep out of prison, frustrating judges, police officers, the Mississippi Bar Association and other law enforcement in the process. The attorney general dropped Turner from its case against DA Smith early in the process.

In filings and in the courtroom, the attorney general's office indicated that Smith's efforts to keep Butler, and earlier Turner (a long-time associate of Smith who had done work for his early campaigns), from going to trial or prison showed favoritism toward certain defendants and, at points, insinuating in the courtroom that corruption might be involved. For his part, Smith argued that he was a criminal-justice reformer trying to stop unfair prosecutions, although it was not clear why he had picked the cases of Butler and Turner as his cause célèbres.

Being willing to help certain defendants wasn't a new accusation directed toward Smith. Journalist Curtis Wilkie's book on the Dickie Scruggs scandal, "Fall of the House of Zeus: The Rise and Fall of America's Most Famous Trial Lawyer," quoted former long-time DA Ed Peters (who had backed Smith against former DA Faye Peterson) on a FBI recording indicating to corrupt attorney Tim Balducci that then-new DA Smith would help indict two attorneys who "screwed (Balducci) over ... on a deal."

Wilkie writes that Peters told Balducci that the new Hinds district attorney was already prepared to indict others who had "'tried to screw him out of a percentage of fees and things.'" Peters told Balducci he would "'have Robert with us'" at a meeting soon in Jackson. "'You need to meet Robert anyway,'" Peters said on the FBI recording. "'It'll be good for you.'"

Smith, the grandon of civil-rights hero Rev. R.L.T. Smith, has long denied any corruption on his part, including through his connections with Peters—who, in truth, could've been making it up about Smith. The federal investigation of Scruggs, Balducci, former state auditor Steve Patterson and others revealed that Peters had offered his own former assistant district attorney—then-Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby Delaughter—a million-dollar bribe. Peters cut a deal with the feds, and Delaughter went to prison, tarnishing his heroic narrative as the prosecutor who finally sent Medgar Evers' killer Byron de la Beckwith to prison. (Lesser known was that, around the same time as the Beckwith trial, he and Peters were also behind the faulty prosecution of Cedric Willis, sending him to prison for 12 years for a murder-rape he did not commit.) 


Deepest Midnight: Cedric Willis and The Failure of Mississippi Justice

Jackson police took Cedric Willis from his home when he was 19 in 1994 with him promising his family he'd be "right back." But a broken Hinds County prosecution system and bad policing conspired against him, and he did not gain his freedom for 12 years, spending much of it in horrendous conditions in Parchman prison.

Hood's main prosecutor in Smith's Butler-related trial was Stanley Alexander, a long-time 
prosecutor who had served as DA Peterson's top assistant district attorney—who had run unsuccessfully for DA against Smith and then again this fall against Jody Owens. The first Smith trial ended in a mistrial; then he was acquitted in a second trial (the one where Mayor Lumumba sat on his front row for closing arguments). And just to add to your confusion by now, Smith ran unsuccessfully for governor against Hood in the Democratic primary this year for governor, drawing minimal votes. Hood is now the nominee heading into November, and Peterson is a Hinds County judge that the district attorney prosecutes case before.

Neither Butler nor Turner, also known as Darnell Dixon, has fared as well as any of the above, however. After the State of Mississippi took over Turner's prosecution from the county, Hinds County Circuit Judge Jeff Weill sentenced him in late 2017 for 45 years in three separate counts related to a 2014 domestic incident—aggravated assault with a firearm, aggravated domestic violence and shooting into an occupied vehicle. Despite Smith's alleged early attempts to help Turner, the State had indicted and arrested Turner in 2016 for beating the 22-year-old mother of one of his eight children and shooting into the car she was in. The jury found that he had dragged her out of her car, took her to a bridge in the Washington Addition vicinity, tried to strangle her there and suspended her over the railing of a bridge, prosecutors said. Then he left, and someone came to her aid. Turner came back and beat that person, picked the victim up, put her in his car and kept beating her there as he drove her home, the State said.

A Hinds County Circuit Court jury convicted Christopher Butler of possession of about four pounds of marijuana on July 27, 2017, also in Weill's courtroom. Weill sentenced Butler to prison for 30 years without parole under the State's habitual offender law. In his appeal denied last month, Butler argued among other things that Judge Weill should have recused from his case, as Butler had requested in December 2016, due to "contentions" between the judge and District Attorney Smith. Weill noted then, however, that Smith had eventually recused himself months before the trial and was no longer associated with the case.

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A Jackson man says MBN framed him for drug charges, which the agency vehemently denies. Illustration by Zeakyy Harrington

The appeals court denied that point, along with the others. "Butler offers nothing more than mere speculation to support his claim of judicial partiality," the court found. "... Butler points to no specific rulings or record evidence that would indicate the circuit judge was biased against him or unqualified to hear his case."

'They Behaved More Like Members of Weinstein's PR Team'

Mississippi doesn't have a monopoly on complicated webs of accusations, although tentacles of national scandals, or those involved in them, have a way of ending up here. This came into full relief earlier this week when excerpts of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ronan Farrow's book, 'Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators,' started leaking out to media outlets like Variety. The specifics we know so far are shocking—like a young woman accusing Matt Lauer of vicious anal rape at the Sochi Olympics—but the systemic through-line isn't a surprise.

Anyone paying attention to national media in the wake of #MeToo knew that Farrow was going to bring the receipts on network executives Andrew Lack and Noah Oppenheim for shutting down support for his long-running investigation of Harvey Weinstein. That work, alongside reporting by women journalists at The New York Times, exploded the already-existing #MeToo movement against systemic misogynistic cultures, rife with sexual harassment and assault, including in many national media offices.

But we didn't know to what extent Farrow would report that NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack, President Noah Oppenheim and others may have pandered directly to Weinstein's requests for them to shut down Farrow's work. 
"[A]s I witnessed firsthand during the year I spent at NBC News after Ronan published our reporting in the New Yorker—and as Ronan has further documented in his forthcoming book, 'Catch and Kill'—Lack and Oppenheim were the ones who were lying," his NBC producer Rich McHugh claimed in Vanity Fair today. "They not only personally intervened to shut down our investigation of Weinstein, they even refused to allow me to follow up on our work after Weinstein's history of sexual assault became front-page news. As the record shows, they behaved more like members of Weinstein's PR team than the journalists they claim to be."

NBC executives are denying that they helped Weinstein kill the story.

One of the main things I appreciate about Farrow's work in this arena is that his goal is clearly not to just to out bad actors, but to change a sick system that creates seemingly invincible forts around those who seem to spend good parts of their day trying to figure out how to be the biggest player in the room, using their power to control and sexualize women, and sometimes men, around them like they're on some big-game hunt. Men like this not only prey on victims they consider too weak to stop them, but demonize and distance women strong enough to do something to stop it or be close enough to find out about it. A primary goal is clearly to keep women, or other men, who might blow up the scam at a distance or too marginalized for anyone to take seriously. And women who try to ring the bell are ignored or smeared.

This is a major reason why many board rooms, newsrooms and corner offices have so few strong women running them. Too many men in charge don't want women who will challenge them and their habits or a culture they believe benefits them.

NBC: Many Afraid to Speak Out

NBC is a textbook example. We knew even before Farrow's new bombshell book that it has long been a culture where everyone was afraid to speak out about, say, Matt Lauer trapping women in his office with a door-lock button on his desk, or about their own boss Lack's reported propensity for affairs with NBC women, followed by payoffs and non-disclosure agreements. Farrow's new book has interviews with women willing to speak out about this decades-old cycle.

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The executives, and Lauer, are saying in statements that the new allegations aren't true, at least parts of them. Lauer claims the anal sex was consensual (lubricant or not), and while Lack isn't denying his own affairs, he is denying that he and other executives intentionally withheld information about the rape from staffers when the company announced it was firing Lauer in late 2017, soon after allegations went public. Oppenheim told staffers that the executive repeated how the attorney of Lauer's victim was characterizing the rape.

Lack wrote to the NBC staff upon the firing, indicating that it the first he and other executives had heard about Lauer's "inappropriate behavior":

"On Monday night, we received a detailed complaint from a colleague about inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace by Matt Lauer," Lack wrote. "It represented, after serious review, a clear violation of our company's standards. As a result, we've decided to terminate his employment. While it is the first complaint about his behavior in the over twenty years he's been at NBC News, we were also presented with reason to believe this may not have been an isolated incident."

NBC executives apparently indicated then that Lauer had committed no "crime," but staffers are now pushing back on that, considering that they were unaware of the alleged rape. In a call to staff yesterday (that Lack was not on), staffers pressed NBC President Noah Oppenheim on exactly what the executives knew about the Lauer accusations in 2017, and whether they involved rape.

On Wednesday, Today Show host Hoda Kotb was clear that staffers did not understand that Lauer was accused of rape in 2017. "[T]hese are not allegations of an affair, there are allegations of a crime, and I think that’s shocking to all of us here who have sat with Matt for many many years," she told viewers.

NBC executives had assured staff then they had no knowledge of earlier Lauer transgressions, which Farrow now says he can prove was false, even telling George Stephanopolous on "Good Morning America" today both that NBC execs knew about previous Lauer problems and even had earlier secret NDAs with Lauer victims, among others.

Farrow said in the same interview that NBC had ordered a “hard stop to reporting."

“They told me and a producer working on this that we should lot take a single call. They told us to cancel interviews," Farrow said this morning. "The question for years has been, ‘Why?’ because every journalist at that institution didn’t understand why. And I think the book answers that question. This was a company with a lot of secrets.”

We'll see more when the book drops next week.

'Lack was sounding like 'Father Knows Best''

But here's what we know already: Bossman Andy Lack—the founder of the Mississippi Today website during the 2016 presidential campaign—has been monstrously clueless on gender issues and what equality looks like for decades now. Just read the response to an infamous media call he hosted back in 1997 about their "The Sex War: The Tension Between Men and Women" week-long package when he was president of NBC News. There was a rather obvious problem.

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"What Lack was unable to explain, ironically, was why the top NBC News executives gathered to discuss 'The Sex War: The Tension Between Men and Women' were of one sex. Male," Howard Rosenberg, who listened in, wrote afterward in the Los Angeles Times.

When a "TV Guide man," as Rosenberg called him, pointed out all the testosterone on the call, Lack responded that “a lot of women” from NBC News had actually helped create “The Sex War." He then said, “If you think we [he and the male executive producers] produce the shows instead of the women mentioned on this show, you don’t understand our business very well.”

Ah, so the male executive producers were getting the top-level credit—and the women doing the work? A New York Post man pressed Lack—so did he mean that women didn't prefer to be top executive producers? The pushback irritated Lack, Rosenberg wrote.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand the thrust of your question,” Lack replied. And then: “I think it’s one of the most thankless jobs in this business,” he said about being an executive producer. “I think these titles are kind of silly.”

Lack asked if Mr. New York Post was married. No. “Then,” Lack retorted, “I think you probably don’t understand that they [women] are in charge.” Oh: the old pivot-to-the-happy-wife trick when someone brings up sexism. Seen it a million times.

This is how Rosenberg later characterized Lack, then 50, in his column: "Was this the ‘50s? Lack was sounding like 'Father Knows Best,' seeming to redefine relationships in terms of that old saw about men having the trappings of power, but women—knowing how to wind those big lugs around their fingers—really controlling things."

Hal Boedeker, the TV critic for the Orlando Sentinel, was even more brutal in his column, "Executives at NBC–Men Behaving Cluelessly" (a headline that seems still sadly true today). As for the exec's sexist responses to the male journalists: "Lack's misreading of the TV news business was only surpassed for idiocy by his take on the sexes." He added in a stunningly prescient statement: "So the next time you wonder why NBC seems to be making asinine decisions, consider the executives. They offer the real-life version of Men Behaving Badly." The New York Times got in on the critique, too, extending it to the silly "Sex War" series Lack was so proud of, which of course included a segment on sexual harassment at work.

I now use these pieces about the "Sex War" call in a guest workshop I do for a Mississippi State University journalism class on gender and media. The students of all genders quickly see how such attitudes can create a climate for bad behavior and cover-ups—in no small part because people at the top, like Lack then, could not articulate why women might want better access to executive producer spots, or how they—we—can improve the coverage, the business and the culture rather than just quietly do the grunt work.

What the 'Sex War' Means for Mississippi Media

Lack's gender blind spots, or whatever you want to call them, are important in Mississippi because he came down here and started a supposedly "world class" website that hires a lot of young women, a good number of men of a certain age and experience, but with no experienced or older women editors or reporters in the mix. He has only hired men over 40 (an educated guess; it's probably closer to 50) as the five top editors who have run the newsroom since 2016. It's not a slap on all those men to state the obvious: Even if the age disparity between genders at Lack's Mississippi website is somehow accidental, there is no excuse for this look in a state that desperately needs better representation of strong women leaders in media, newsrooms and beyond.

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There is a basic disconnect here, and it's not hard to see how it could come directly from the man credited on the website as the "founder" who envisioned the website as his "brainchild," as fundraising materials put it. Likewise, Lack's appearances in the state (often with other NBC stars including also-accused Tom Brokaw) on male-dominated stages do not allay those concerns. Nor did his network's wall-to-wall coverage of Donald Trump, which drew Lack major criticism nationally. He even criticizing Hillary Clinton on a stage at Ole Miss for being unlikeable on the debacle that was Megyn Kelly—even after her long history of racist remarks at FOX News.

This problem isn't just about Andy Lack, but he clearly represents a systemic and viral male-dominated culture that believes from within that it has the right to continue, but it must change. He also is the national-media tentacle that hits closest to home in Mississippi, which already has a tremendous misogyny-in-media problem without a network celebrity wandering down here now and then and providing cover for more of it, intentionally or not.

Email story tips to Editor-in-chief Donna Ladd at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @donnerkay. Her Dossier now appears every Friday. They will all be collected soon at jacksonfreepress.com/dossier.

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