Touching Story

Businessman Jim Blythe lends a hand in the wrong places, employees say

The Russian musician who played at The Old Warsaw restaurant impressed Jim Blythe. When the music stopped, the Russian and the rest of his quartet took a break, sitting at a table near Blythe's group.An immigrant, the Russian lamented that his job at a grocery store paid little and occupied much of his time. It kept him from his music, he said.

Jim Blythe heard him. It was the kind of hard-luck story that Blythe, the business half of Blythe-Nelson Management Services and Systems Engineering of Dallas, is known to love. He likes to help. Blythe offered the man a $2,000-a-month job as a consultant on the spot. The grateful musician accepted.

Several female Blythe-Nelson employees were seated at the table with Blythe that day and watched the heartwarming event unfold. It brought tears to their eyes.

Peter Kuper

People say that's just the kind of guy Jim Blythe is.

One of the women, an attractive 40-something who had recently been hired to a top post at Blythe's firm, was among those moved to tears, and she told him so. She describes what happened next in a sworn statement filed in court:

"Mr. Blythe then took his left hand and slid it between my legs, touching my vaginal area. I was shocked. I moved Mr. Blythe's hand back, looked directly into his eyes and asked what he was doing.

"Mr. Blythe laughed."

She fled the table to the bathroom and spent 10 to 15 minutes there before leaving the restaurant and work for the day.

That, some former employees claim, is also the kind of guy Jim Blythe is.

To the public, Blythe is known as a charismatic 50-year-old who has carved out a profitable niche in the last decade with the Dallas-based Blythe-Nelson telecommunications consulting firm. He's also widely known as a guy who likes to help those who need a break -- something described at length in a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal two years ago.

That's what makes allegations of extreme sexual harassment contained in a federal lawsuit against Blythe seem remarkable. Three former Blythe-Nelson employees -- Shirley Turner, Nicole Townsend, and Alyssa Wright -- are jointly suing their former boss for sexual harassment.

Court documents and a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determination state that Blythe publicly fondled and humiliated his female underlings. Blythe responds in court documents and in a written statement to the Dallas Observer that no witnesses corroborate any account of harassment and that he has more than a dozen witnesses who can discount the stories.

No matter who turns out to be telling the truth, the lawsuit brings trouble to what would seem to be an otherwise unblemished homegrown success story.

Blythe, a graduate of Texas Wesleyan University, and partner Mart Nelson left major corporate jobs and launched their corporation in 1980 from a small rented office with a leased word processor. Their idea was to assist large corporations such as J.C. Penney and Arthur Andersen with the management and application of new technologies. Blythe-Nelson today employs about 50 and recently posted annual sales of between $15 million and $20 million, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Blythe is responsible for Blythe-Nelson's, "internal management, client development and client interaction" and has management skills that rank "second only to his people skills," according to company literature.

In the lobby of the St. Paul Place office building is a beneficiary of Blythe's people and financial skills. His name is Harry Jackson, also known as the shoeshine guy.

Though the affable 78-year-old has been shining shoes for the last seven years or so, his trade is singing the blues. His career was in its heyday in the 1960s, but his singing voice never left him. People say he still turns heads when he breaks into song. Jackson's singing career was mostly a memory by the time he crossed paths with Jim Blythe in 1997.

Blythe, a customer, invited his shoeshine man to the 1998 Blythe-Nelson Christmas party, and that's where their friendship began to blossom when Jackson spontaneously broke into song and was invited to join the evening's hired singer. After that, Blythe arranged a regular gig for Jackson at Beau Nash, a jazz club in the Hotel Crescent Court.

Asked about Blythe, Jackson takes off his white polyester foam "Cahokia Flour Co." baseball cap revealing thinned salt and pepper hair and says somewhat solemnly, "I never met so fine a person as Jim. He seems like a father to me."

The Beau Nash engagement isn't as regular as it was last year but Blythe still tells Jackson when he's got a gig for him. And the friendship between the two, fueled by Blythe's ready giving, continues. He recently offered Jackson the use of the luxury box at the ballpark.

Blythe does not contain his munificence to musicians and blue-collar workers. For the last three years, Blythe-Nelson has supported the annual Boys and Girls Clubs of Arlington golf tournament, described by its president as a "humongous" fund-raising event for the nonprofit organization.

Don Kromer, head of the Arlington club and its 23 sites, practically gushes when Blythe's name is mentioned. "There are others that have probably done as much or more, but he certainly is among the top five among the long and consistent supporters," Kromer says.

During the last three years, Blythe-Nelson's golf tourney sponsorship helped the clubs raise between $20,000 to $30,000, and he often offers his skybox for the children or as an auction item to raise money, Kromer says.

Blythe also supports the Mammogram Foundation, the Women's Leadership Conference, Rainbow Days and many other charitable organizations. He is, in other words, considered a kind and generous man by many touched by his giving. Those who say Blythe touched them in less welcome ways tell another story.

Among them is Shirley Turner, who claims she suffered repeated professional and personal embarrassment at Blythe's hands.

A 30-year AT&T employee, Turner was drawing more than $100,000 a year in salary and benefits as the North Texas business manager before Jim Blythe recruited her in 1997, she says in her affidavit filed with the federal lawsuit in Sherman.

Almost right away, Turner realized something was terribly wrong.

Besides learning that she wouldn't be given partner status as she says Blythe promised, she found Blythe's interest in women at the office was unusually high. (Blythe claims he's interested in all of his employees, not just the women who make up about half the Blythe-Nelson workforce.)

"Mr. Blythe's conduct was outrageous based on his pervasive attitude and actions of engaging in sexually explicit, demeaning, and degrading conduct toward the female employees and contributed to a sexually hostile work environment," Turner's affidavit says. "It became quite clear to me that Mr. Blythe's obsession with sexuality toward BN's female employees was an inherent part of the BN culture and environment."

Turner says that "between five to eight female employees" were given company-financed gifts from Victoria's Secret and allowed to train for hours at a time during the workday at the Exchange Athletic Club (sometimes under Blythe's eye).

During her first month, she attended a Ranger's game at Blythe's luxury box.

"I went out on the balcony to talk to Mr. Blythe, who was standing next to Mr. Chester [a partner] and thanked him for the opportunity to work with BN. Mr. Blythe grasped me, kissed me, closed mouthed, on the lips," her statement says.

"Mr. Blythe did not release me and stated that he wanted me to give him a French kiss so he 'could taste my tongue.' I pulled away from him, stating that I was not going to French kiss him and he should go back to watching the game."

A few minutes later, she left the game.

The next week, she says, Blythe asked about a photograph of Turner's oldest daughter. He wanted to know when he was going to be introduced because, "she looked like she was built like her mom, while using his hands to depict big breasts."

In August, Turner fell and suffered a possible hairline fracture of the pelvis. She told Blythe that she would need time to meet with doctors and possibly work at home.

"Mr. Blythe immediately asked if I was sure I had fallen or whether or not I had a weekend of 'hot sex.' I remained professional and restated the fall. Mr. Blythe asked if he could 'kiss it' to 'make it better.'"

In September, at a dinner at The Old Warsaw restaurant with Blythe-Nelson clients, Blythe repeatedly asked that she remove her jacket to show her breasts and upon leaving the restaurant, shoved a wine bottle up her skirt, she claims.

Turner, who would not agree to be interviewed personally for this article, further states in her affidavit that she sought the help of Mart Nelson but was rebuffed and told that Blythe is merely "gregarious."

After that, she says in documents, she was "constructively" fired for refusing to attend the company's social events.

She suffered "emotional anguish" as a result of her experience at the company and became bedridden and housebound, she says.

A second of the three women suing Blythe-Nelson is Alyssa Wright, whom Blythe hired in 1994 to manage the company's hospitality suite at The Ballpark at Arlington, according to EEOC documents. Two years later, Blythe, who apparently had become struck with Wright, harshly admonished her for talking to a former boyfriend. She quit after Blythe bawled her out, but then agreed to stay on with the company.

Later, at The Old Warsaw restaurant, Wright told the EEOC, he pinned her against a wall, put his hand up her skirt and said he wanted to know the color of her panties.

The next month, (December 1997 and after Turner filed her complaint with the EEOC) Blythe left Wright voice messages in which he said her job had been eliminated because she had not produced business, and he expressed surprise that she might back Turner's claims.

"...You know, Alyssa, you were my biggest defender. You were my closest friend. You were my right arm. For you to turn on me is worse than 'et tu, Brute,' Blythe said in one message transcribed in EEOC documents.

"You better grow up, you better learn what you should do, when you say what you're supposed to do. I cannot believe the way I supported you...The way I supported you throughout the time you were in the firm that you would do this to me, Alyssa."

Blythe would not agree to an interview but in written comments to the Observer, he denies allegations that he acted improperly toward any of the women.

In court documents, he says he has plenty of witnesses, such as employees, clients, and staff members from The Old Warsaw, who back him up. Blythe says Blythe-Nelson's employees wholly disagree with Turner's statements about the hostile work environment or that he cultivated some sort of harem.

"...All of the employees of Blythe-Nelson, male and female, voiced their disagreement with Ms. Turner's characterization of the work environment and of his treatment of women employees in a letter to the EEOC," Blythe told the Observer.

According to the EEOC, at least some of those employees lied.

Blythe-Nelson, "has provided affidavits of other employees and non-employees who contradict Ms. Wright's allegations, along with affidavits of employees and non-employees who contradicted Ms. Turner's allegations. Ms. Turner has provided transcripts of secretly taped conversations which she had with several of the same persons who provided affidavits. These individuals, apparently at Blythe's request, provided false and perjured affidavits to the EEOC," a Dallas-district office memo from the EEOC says.

As for Turner, Blythe denies the kiss at The Ballpark and both the groping hand and wine bottle incidents at The Old Warsaw. He says he wasn't even sitting next to Turner when he gave the musician a job and that wine bottles are moved off of tables by waiters not by patrons.

He says he never heard of Turner's hairline fracture, that he never made comments or gestures about her breasts or urged her to remove her jacket with any greater insistence than he would have for the others, male and female, who were seated at his table.

And, he says, Turner quit on her own, "without notice."

Similarly, he denies he was ever smitten with Wright or that he acted inappropriately toward her. He wholly denied the incident at The Old Warsaw restaurant. At the advice of his lawyer, he declined to comment about the messages he left on Wright's machine.

At the typically tight-lipped EEOC, Reginald Welch, a spokesman in Washington, D.C., would not comment on the specifics of the complaints against Blythe.

But, he did say that the complaint, which was actually filed only by Turner and Townsend, is a necessary first step that must occur before a federal lawsuit is allowed under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which is supposed to protect employees from sex discrimination. (Townsend could not be reached for comment, and her complaint was not detailed in court records.)

The EEOC said the women's charges "would appear to be a suitable litigation vehicle."

But, if as Blythe says, the claims are groundless and can't be backed up, why are the three women suing him?

"There's probably the motivation for a lot of people that sue, and that is for money," says Tom Lillard, Blythe's lawyer. "There are lots of suits that are filed that have no basis for them. We disagree with their allegations clearly, but I can't speculate into each one of these individuals' minds."

Mediation, which might have resulted in a settlement, has already failed, he says.

Homer Reynolds III, Turner's lawyer, says she is most interested in justice. "Anybody that knows Shirley Turner will tell you that she does not take an enterprise like this lightly. It has been a major, devastating event in her life. There was sexual harassment of a nature that was systematic and prevalent throughout the company at the time she was there," he said.

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