WHITEVILLE, N.C. (WECT) - WECT has obtained a copy of a letter accusing the Columbus County manager of sexual harassment. The letter was written by a county employee and dated June 6.
It included a cover letter from Columbus County Board of Elections Director Carla Strickland, and a four-page timeline written by board of elections employee Portia Bowen detailing the allegations. The letter and attachments were sent to every county commissioner as well as the entire county elections board.
According to the timeline provided by Bowen in that letter, she had a series of disturbing interactions involving County Manager Mike Stephens that she says began in January of this year.
In early January, Bowen wrote that Stephens came to see her twice at the Board of Elections. She said on the second visit, Stephens asked her for a tour of the office, and she said his “body language was questionable” and that he didn’t seem interested in the tour but was looking at her instead.
On January 7, Bowen said in her letter that Columbus County resident Calvin Norton came to her office, and “informed me that he had been sent to me by Mike Stephens to check me out and let me know that Mike Stephens was interested in me sexually.” Bowen said Norton called Stephens on his cell phone in front of her and she could hear them discussing her. She said she felt upset and insulted.
Before he left that day, Bowen said Norton “promised that they could get [her] a raise and Director Carla Strickland’s position.” She said she never pursued their proposal, but told the acting director of her office about the interaction.
A week later, Bowen said Norton came back to the office and asked why she hadn’t called, to which she replied that she was not interested.
“He went on to tell me how he has gotten raises and positions for others in the County through Mike Stephens,” Bowen wrote in her timeline of events shared with commissioners. She added vivid details about what she termed the “indecent proposal.”
On January 17, Bowen said Norton scheduled a conference call between the two of them and Stephens. She said the call happened at three that afternoon, and she had a co-worker listen in on the conversation to corroborate what transpired.
“During the call Mike Stephens said that he would recommend to the board chair that he wanted me for the Director’s position and that he would give me a raise,” Bowen wrote.
In the wake of sending this letter detailing the allegations against Stephens and Norton, Bowen, as well as a fellow employee who was aware of some of these alleged interactions, turned in their notice of resignation. We’re told Bowen plans to work through the end of July.
We reached out to County Manager Mike Stephens on Thursday, asking if he could respond to the allegations made in the letter.
“No, I would refer you to the county attorney,” Stephens told us. “I wish I could say more. I can’t at this point. I will vigorously defend any allegations against me.”
We also spoke to Norton Thursday morning about the allegations leveled against him in the letter. He staunchly denied sexually propositioning Bowen for Stephens. He acknowledged participating in the January 17 conference call about her potential promotion, but said it was “strictly business.”
WECT has spoken to three county commissioners about the letter. None of them denied receiving it, and Commissioner Jerome McMillan said he "was told not to talk about it because it was a personnel matter.”
Bowen has so far declined to speak with us about the allegations, but told us through a relative that she stands by the accusations in the letter and hoped that by releasing it she would encourage other women to come forward.
County policy requires an investigation in situations like this, and the UNC School of Government confirmed that it recommended an attorney that Columbus County could use for an independent investigation of these allegations. It is not clear if that investigation has started yet.
Columbus County Attorney Amanda Prince told WECT Mike Stephens is still serving in his position as County Manager. He has worked for the county since 2009, and was originally hired as the county attorney.