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Criminal Justice & Legal System

Bernero asks judge to block recording from being used against him in sexual harassment lawsuit

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Former Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero is trying to stop an audio recording from being used as evidence against him in a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Liz Hart filed a lawsuit this summer alleging Bernero sexually harassed and assaulted her when she worked as his intern in 2013 and 2014.

Her attorneys say they have a recording of a conversation in which Bernero called Hart a “little girl” and says there’s “no question” he’d been “inappropriate” with her, according to court records.

In the recording, Bernero also said he was “feeling guilty” about his conduct toward Hart and he wondered whether she "enjoyed it” or not, Hart’s attorneys say.

Bernero allegedly said Hart deserved “an apology” and admitted to "owing an apology” to all the women he’s "hurt.”

Bernero lawyers: Recording was illegal

But Bernero’s lawyers argue the recording was obtained illegally and shouldn’t be used in court.

Political consultant Emily Dievendorf recorded the conversation, which took place in City Councilmember Kathie Dunbar’s office, according to court records.

Dunbar and Bernero's campaign manager, Elena Greer, participated in the conversation while Bernero joined the discussion over the phone, according to filings from Bernero's lawyers.

According to Bernero’s attorneys, Dievendorf did not directly participate in the conversation. Under Michigan law, a third party needs the consent of all parties involved in a private conversation before recording the conversation.

Bernero’s attorneys say Dievendorf failed to obtain that permission.

Judge to rule on use of recording next month

Judge Wanda Stokes will decide whether to admit the recording as evidence during a hearing set for October.

Greer said Friday she didn’t remember the conversation and declined to comment further.

Dievendorf, a friend and advisor to Dunbar, did not respond Friday to a request for comment.

Dunbar has been Bernero’s political ally in the past; she did not respond to a request for comment.

Bernero served as Lansing’s mayor from 2006 until 2018.

He announced in early 2021 he would run for mayor again. But he dropped out of the race on April 18. Dunbar announced her candidacy for the office that same day.

The following day, MLive published an article in which Hart and former Bernero campaign volunteer Emily Heverly described being sexually harassed by Bernero.

Dievendorf was also quoted in that article, saying that Bernero made crude comments about her appearance when she ran for City Council in 2015.

Former mayor asks for suit's dismissal

Bernero’s attorney Colline Cheltenham declined to comment on the content of the recording. She filed a separate motion on Thursday, arguing Hart’s lawsuit should be dismissed because it exceeds the statute of limitations.

“We believe fully that our legal position is quite clear in the pleadings that we filed with the court,” Cheltenham said. “Ms. Hart's allegations, if they're believed, they just don't meet the threshold and definitions required by statute.”

In his initial response to the lawsuit, Bernero denied sexually assaulting Hart on two occasions when he stroked her foot.

Bernero told Hart he had a foot fetish and that she had “beautiful feet,” according to Hart’s lawsuit.

Among other arguments, Bernero’s attorneys say touching someone’s foot, as described by Hart in her lawsuit, does not meet Michigan’s definition of criminal sexual conduct, which has a longer statute of limitations compared to assault and battery in general.

How Bernero responded to Hart's allegations

In court records, Bernero denied asking Hart to drink alcohol that he kept in his desk. However, he neither admitted to nor denied the following allegations from Hart:

  • That he asked Hart to expose one of her breasts
  • That he asked Hart and Heverly for a threesome
  • That he grabbed Hart’s hair and “tugged, touched, stroked her shoulders and neck” with sexual intent and without Hart’s permission
  • That he would call Hart late at night, forcing her to “fend off sexual conversations, advances and requests”

Meanwhile, Hart’s attorneys have submitted a preliminary list of at least 19 witnesses who they are seeking to call upon in a trial.
Along with Hart and Heverly, the list includes Bernero, his wife and one of his daughters.

City Councilmember Patricia Spitzley, who lost the mayoral primary race this August to Dunbar and current mayor Andy Schor, is likewise named as a potential witness.

Two reporters included on preliminary witness list

And the list includes two reporters — Emily Lawler and Sarah Lehr.

Lawler broke the news about Hart’s allegations in MLive’s story. Lehr interviewed Hart later that day for an article published in the Lansing State Journal.

Lehr now works as a politics reporter for WKAR.

In a message Friday, Hart’s attorney Manda Danieleski wrote to Lehr that “your name was listed because of your investigative work and we think statements made to the press may have some relevance. You were not listed for any reason outside of your reporting.”

Danieleski said she is “confident” in Hart’s case and declined to comment further on the lawsuit before additional motions are filed.

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