The human resources director at the city of Little Rock told the mayor and his chief of staff that the use of a racial slur in any context was prohibited by the city’s disciplinary action policy after an employee claimed City Attorney Tom Carpenter used a racial slur, records show.
In an email, Little Rock Chief People Officer Stacey Witherell went on to suggest that certain behaviors by supervisors and department directors could warrant termination instead of the 20-day workday suspension city policy called for upon a first offense.
Witherell sent an email to Mayor Frank Scott Jr. and his chief of staff, Kendra Pruitt, on Sept. 27, one day after Witherell learned that Samantha Wilson — then an Arkansas Freedom of Information Act coordinator assigned to the city attorney’s office — claimed Carpenter said a racial slur in conversation, according to a separate Sept. 27 memo from Witherell addressed to Scott and City Manager Bruce Moore.
In her email to Scott and Pruitt, Witherell attached a copy of the revised disciplinary action policy that became effective August 2021.
“One of the main changes was the adoption of a specific offense addressing the use of racial slurs,” Witherell wrote. “The policy and training were very clear the use of a racial slur in any context was prohibited and employees would face the highest level of disciplinary [action] beneath termination of employment on the first occurrence, i.e., 20 workday suspension.”
She added that while the policies applied to all city employees, “I believe supervisors and above up to and including Department Directors are to be held to a higher standard, and therefore, certain behaviors would warrant termination of employment instead of a suspension. Our role to set the culture and tone of the organization is too important to allow certain behaviors to occur or be tolerated and must be dealt with at a higher level and warrant termination.”
In her memo delivered the same day, Witherell wrote that Jennifer Brune, an FOIA coordinator who Wilson claimed was present when Carpenter said the slur, confirmed to Witherell that Carpenter said a racial slur to her and Wilson on Sept. 26.
“Ms. Brune confirmed the context made by Ms. Wilson in that Mr. Carpenter said you could call him anything behind closed doors but never in front of the client,” Witherell wrote. “Mr. Carpenter and I spoke on the phone where I made him aware of the allegation made by Ms. Wilson and confirmed by Ms. Brune about his use of a racial slur which he absolutely denied. He explained that he had never tolerated such behavior in his office and he would never say anything like that.”
Witherell wrote that she became aware of another incident involving Carpenter that allegedly occurred during the training of police recruits.
A police major assigned to training at the time confirmed to Witherell that “there was a documented case of Mr. Carpenter training police recruits when he gave them an example of something verbally offensive he advised the recruits could not say,” she wrote. “The example was offensive and inappropriate and derogatory toward African Americans.”
The memo did not identify the police official with whom Witherell spoke.
The same day Witherell sent the correspondence, Sept. 27, Scott called city board members into an executive session to discuss an undisclosed personnel matter. The private session lasted for two hours but resulted in board members taking no action.
Three days later, an attorney for Wilson provided city board members with a letter in which Wilson claimed Carpenter used the N-word, then proceeded to retaliate against her after she notified HR.
Wilson, who is Black, wrote that Carpenter did not direct the slur at her during the conversation.
Personnel records show Wilson was transferred effective Oct. 5.
Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for the mayor, said via email that Wilson is still employed with the city in the Human Resources Department. He did not provide her current job title.
When asked if HR conducted an investigation in response to Wilson’s claims or if an investigation pertaining to Carpenter was currently underway, Sadler wrote, “Your questions are in reference to what would be a personnel matter, and we do not discuss personnel matters.”
Carpenter did not respond to a request for comment via email regarding Witherell’s statements.