Houston – Unwanted advances, unwelcome comments, and the report to Houston Airports System leadership went unanswered, according to a former employee who has now taken his claims of sexual harassment to the city’s Office of the Inspector General.
The former employee filed the complaint in September, accusing a program director of making comments about his appearances, kissing his cheek, and revealing intimate fantasies involving him.
“He was on eggshells all of the time,” said Steve Kardell, a Dallas-based attorney who specializes in employment and whistleblower cases.
Kardell represents the former employee, who KPRC 2 is not identifying because he claims to be a victim of sexual harassment.
The program director at the center of the sexual harassment complaint is Maricela Kruseman.
The accusations against Kruseman date back to 2019, according to Kardell. He says there was a “suggestion” in the summer of 2020 from Kruseman that they travel to Cancun, Mexico.
“Then she explained her fantasy as to what was going to take place once they got there,” said Kardell.
Kardell says his client asked her to back off, but says it had no effect. The former employee says when he showed no interest, Kruseman began spreading rumors, suggesting the reason he was uninterested was because he was gay.
KPRC 2 Investigates’ requests for an interview or a statement from Kruseman about the allegations have not been answered at the time of publication.
WATCH: Part II - Experts Weigh In
Former employee ‘haunted’ by what happened
In June 2021, the former employee said he had enough and reported the harassment to his supervisor, only to end up in a meeting facing the woman he accused.
Kardell said HAS Director, Mario Diaz, called the meeting, which involved senior leadership at the airport. The former employee said everyone was there, except Diaz.
During the meeting, the former employee said he read his victim impact statement out loud with Kruseman sitting in the room. He said he told everyone Kruseman’s actions “haunted” him.
“The idea was a confrontation, and maybe a Kumbaya kind of meeting and settlement, and all the grievances would go away at that point,” said Kardell.
Claims of ‘inexcusable conduct’ and retaliation
Kardell said his client later found out no one reported his claims and nothing came of the meeting. As a result, the former employee filed a misconduct complaint with the Houston’s Office of the Inspector General.
Days later, the employee sent a letter of resignation to Diaz and others citing, in part, “...the inexcusable conduct towards me by you and your subordinate girlfriend.”
The former employee said Kruseman, a program director, is the girlfriend of Diaz, the airport’s system director. Kardell said they are “intimately close.”
Diaz and Kruseman have traveled and socialized together. Kruseman has also publicly supported Diaz during big public events.
City records show Diaz signed off on Kruseman landing the job at the airport in 2014, where they created the airport’s music program, Harmony in the Air.
Their relationship has been a problem, according to the former employee.
The former employee names both Diaz and Kruseman in his complaint to the city’s OIG. While he accuses Kruseman of sexual harassment, the former employee says Diaz retaliated against him. He says Diaz passed him over for a raise after he reported the harassment claims.
KPRC 2 Investigates has made multiple attempts to interview Diaz to ask about his relationship with Kruseman and his role in how the sexual harassment complaint was handled.
In November, Diaz told Investigative Reporter Mario Diaz, on camera, that questions needed to be in writing and sent to his communications team.
“You will get my side of the story, so put it in writing, I’ll answer it,” said Diaz.
So, KPRC 2 Investigates emailed questions to Diaz and his communication team. Instead, Diaz’s team punted to the city’s legal department.
In an email to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office, where Diaz reports, a spokesperson confirmed there is an open Inspector General investigation, but declined to comment further. A city spokesperson did point to the city’s workplace discrimination and harassment policy for more information.
That policy prohibits unwelcome name-calling, sexual propositions, and retaliation.
HR Experts weigh in on best practices
“So many red flags have come up in looking at this information,” says Brian Hayes, an Austin-based human resources expert.
Hayes said one of those red flags is the June meeting called by Diaz, putting the former employee in the same room as the accused. Hayes said he would never call such a meeting and questions the lack of best practices.
Hayes, along with Houston employment attorney, Todd Slobin, says there needs to be an independent review of the facts in this case.
“The HR or human resources department has a duty to investigate and then take prompt remedial action to address any of the sexual harassment complaints that have been raised,” said Slobin.