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Criminal Justice & Legal System

Hart: Settlement did not make former Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero accountable

Virg Bernero, former mayor of Lansing.
Steve Carmody
/
Michigan Radio

A woman who settled a sexual harassment lawsuit with Virg Bernero says she's relieved the case is closed, but doubts the former Lansing mayor has been held accountable for his actions.

Bernero agreed to pay former intern Liz Hart $4,500 and to send her an apology letter.

"I don’t think Virg Bernero’s apology was a sincere apology to the trauma he caused," Hart said in a statement released Thursday. "I think it was an apology for himself so that it could all be over."

In her lawsuit, Hart alleged Bernero harassed her on a daily basis when she worked for him in 2013 and 2014. She says that included sexual comments, unwanted late night phone calls, a request for a threesome, and unwanted touching, according to the suit.

"I am deeply sorry for the pain and hurt that I have caused you," Bernero wrote to Hart as part of the settlement. "This was never my intent. I should have known better, and I do now. I wish you nothing but the best in the future."

The litigation process was invasive and traumatic, Hart said.

"Hart was petitioned to submit to unnecessary and violating exercises, such as full physical exams and a complete listing of her sexual history, that had no relevance to her degrading experiences with Bernero," her statement says.

The case was closed Tuesday, before Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Wanda Stokes had a chance to rule on a motion from Bernero's attorneys to dismiss the case.

"In the end I lost confidence and faith in my attorneys," Hart wrote in the statement. "I didn’t feel that they would fight for me after I spoke with them about the settlement; it felt like they weren’t willing to fight for my interests anymore."

One of Hart's attorneys, Neal Wilensky, defended his performance Friday and said he wishes Hart the best.

"We were facing a motion where there was a good chance that case was going to be thrown out of court," Wilensky said. "We aggressively defended the motion. But the law on the statute of limitations issue was difficult."

Hart's other attorney, Manda Danielski, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Hart's attorneys brought the case by citing Michigan law, which allows people to sue within 10 years for certain types of criminal sexual conduct. They said Bernero subjected Hart to unwanted neck and shoulder rubs and that he once "touched her sexually" while telling her he wanted to know what her lips tasted like.

The suit also alleged Bernero told Hart he had a foot fetish and that he sexually assaulted her on two occasions when he stroked her foot.

But Bernero's attorneys argued such actions didn't meet Michigan's definition of criminal sexual conduct and said it was too late to sue over those claims. They noted that Michigan lawmakers expanded the statute of limitation for sexual assault lawsuits to 10 years in 2018, but said the expansion was not intended to take effect retroactively.

"Through this process it became clear to me that the definition of sexual assault in state statute needs to be reexamined," Hart wrote in her statement. "Sexual assault is any unwanted touching. It shouldn’t be exclusive to specific or certain areas of the body. I believe the assault that happened to me was sexual in nature, he said to me right after he was stroking my foot that he had a foot fetish."

Bernero, Lansing's mayor from 2006 through 2017, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

The Lansing Democrat filed to run for mayor again this year, but withdrew from the race amid harassment allegations from Hart and other women.

Hart took a job at the Lansing Board of Water & Light, a city-owned utility, after working for Bernero, but eventually left the BWL because she continued to run into Bernero professionally, according to her lawsuit. She now works as an urban planner in Idaho.

"The settlement is a shock to many today as the case came to fruition after a long-time of silence over a devastating harassment that ruined a career that resulted in the plaintiff moving across the country to start fresh," Hart's statement said.

Hart called the settlement "an acknowledgement to what he believes happened, not to what happened." Her statement requests that people donate to The Firecracker Foundation, a nonprofit assisting survivors of childhood sexual violence.

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