One by one, more than a dozen employees of the Capital Area Transit System were called in last summer, seated before a high-powered labor lawyer, sworn in by a court reporter, and asked the same question: Did you see the sex tape?
And if so, who showed it to you?
What started as a workplace love triangle turned into a sweeping $50,000 investigation that roiled Baton Rouge's bus system and ended in the firing of eight employees — including four officers of CATS' labor union.
The agency said the union's leadership worked together to disseminate a coworker’s sex tape, an act of bullying and sexual harassment — and a fireable offense.
But union leaders say it was retaliation for criticizing workplace safety during the coronavirus pandemic. The union had repeatedly and publicly accused the agency’s top brass of putting the lives of its drivers and passengers at risk, citing filthy buses and a lack of masks, gloves and sanitizers.
On New Year’s Eve, the union filed a federal lawsuit accusing CATS’ CEO Bill Deville of using the “so-called” investigation as a cover for a larger scheme to dismantle the union ahead of negotiations for their upcoming contract renewal.
Deville declined to comment on the specifics of the investigation, or the union’s allegations of retaliation, saying he was bound by ongoing arbitration in the matter. A third-party mediator is expected to return a judgement in several weeks on whether the firings were justified.
But some details of the drama were revealed in hundreds of pages of sworn testimony that The Advocate obtained from CATS through a public records request. The documents detail a wide-ranging inquiry that focused not only on the sex tape, but also on several other ongoing disputes between CATS and its union. The interviews also depict an at-times toxic workplace, swirling with gossip.
“Everybody talks,” one worker told CATS lawyers. “The Young and the CATS, as in the Young and the Restless.”
'I ain't seen it, I heard about it'
Months before the investigation began, a male utility worker at CATS took a cell phone video of a sexual encounter he had with a female coworker, transcripts say. They filmed at least two videos, and their meet-ups occurred outside of work. For a time, their workplace affair remained under wraps.
But one night, while the utility worker was asleep, his girlfriend, Toye Hebert, said she discovered the video on his phone. Hebert also worked at CATS, serving as the union’s secretary, and she vented with colleagues about her boyfriend’s infidelity. Though she worked alongside the woman in the video, she said she didn’t immediately recognize her as a coworker.
The workplace entanglement soon became the talk of CATS.
Of more than a dozen employees CATS interviewed under oath, most said they had heard about the sex tape, but few said they had actually seen it first-hand.
“I ain’t seen it, I ain’t seen it, I heard about it, but I haven’t seen it,” one worker testified, describing the typical response among colleagues when the video came up in discussion.
With rumors swirling, Hebert and the other woman soon confronted one another, trading insults over the phone and talking smack behind each other’s backs, documents show. Later, they each filed police reports, claiming the other tried to start a fight, but the conflict never got physical.
Initially, CATS’ management seemed uninterested in the dispute between the two women.
Hebert in April texted CATS’ chief operating officer, Dwana Williams, asking her to intervene in her conflict with the other woman. But according to a transcript of their exchange provided by CATS, Williams said it was "you alls' personal business that should stay personal."
The agency’s HR Director eventually recommended mediating the spat between the two women, but what followed was much more expansive — and expensive — than an in-house mediation.
CATS had recently hired Baton Rouge attorney Murphy Foster as outside counsel to represent the agency in its negotiations with the union over the collective bargaining agreement. Soon after the contract was signed, rumors of the sex tape exploded, and Foster redirected his efforts.
Over several days in June and July, Foster grilled the agency’s workforce, calling them in one by one to the agency’s Donmoor Ave. offices and asking about a range of topics. He wanted to know who had seen the sex tape, but was also interested in several other disputes involving the union, including who had orchestrated a recent boycott of a CATS’ Juneteenth celebration, transcripts show.
The taxpayer-funded agency paid Foster $300 an hour for his work.
When the inquiry wrapped, CATS fired Hebert and three other union officers, along with four other employees outside of union leadership. In an email Deville drafted to CATS’ board explaining the terminations, he wrote that the investigation proved the union leaders were guilty of sexual harassment and lying under oath and said it was imperative to move swiftly and decidedly to terminate them.
Deville’s email, obtained by The Advocate, goes on: “To be clear, we are not condemning the union, but rather cleaning out the dirt, making room for better, more responsible leadership to take over.”
Hebert suspects that if she hadn’t been a union officer, she’d still have her job today. She said she never showed the sex tape to coworkers and only flashed a picture of the other woman, who she said she didn’t initially know was a coworker.
“They targeted the union. They brought false charges against us and they basically set out to humiliate us,” Hebert said in an interview.
'I don’t sit around watching sex tapes'
Last month, CATS appeared before an arbitrator to defend its decision to fire Hebert. The hearing was off-limits to the public, and Deville and Foster won’t discuss the evidence CATS marshalled to justify their decision to terminate the union’s leadership.
Still, in the course of the investigation, Foster interviewed more than a dozen employees, the transcripts of which were obtained by The Advocate, offering a peek into CATS’ reasoning.
The most damning testimony in those interviews came from a bus driver who said Hebert showed her the video at the Earl K. Long bus terminal in early April. The driver said that, after hearing rumors of the tape, she approached Hebert, who responded first by showing her pictures of the woman and then the sex tape itself.
Hebert said she never showed her the video, only a picture of the other woman.
A different employee said that the union’s president, Yvette Rhines, showed her the sex tape in the driver’s breakroom. Rhines said CATS has surveillance footage of this encounter, and that in reality, it shows her scrolling through her phone, not displaying a video. CATS declined to let The Advocate view the surveillance footage.
“I don’t entertain that kind of stuff. I didn’t even want it in my phone,” Rhines said in an interview. “I don’t sit around watching sex tapes.”
CATS fired another employee who said he didn't see the sex tape, but was allegedly pictured on the surveillance footage with Rhines.
Rhines did, in fact, have the sex tape on her phone. As the union’s president, she’s often the go-to point of contact for employees experiencing issues in the workplace. She said that, after the dispute between Hebert and the other woman got “nasty,” the utility worker sent her the video, asking her to help defuse the situation with the management’s help.
Rhines said she approached Williams, the agency’s chief operating officer, with the issue, but said that the response she received was, once again, indifferent: “It didn’t happen on the job and I don’t want to deal with it.”
Williams, who oversees the agency’s fleet of drivers, declined to comment for this story.
Two of the union’s leaders implicated in the supposed sex tape scheme say they still haven’t seen the video they allegedly spread. They said as much under oath, but CATS, for undisclosed reasons, decided they were lying and fired them for insubordination.
Foster, who received a $75,000 contract extension from CATS’ board to shepherd the agency through arbitration, warned against making any conclusions based on the documents obtained by The Advocate. He said CATS presented additional evidence in arbitration, though he wouldn’t elaborate on what the evidence was.
It’s unclear how many workers actually saw the sex tape, or if the video itself was even disseminated. The woman who appeared in the video testified that the utility worker who filmed it could have sent it around, though he denied doing so.
But the topic no doubt became a potent source of gossip at CATS.
The woman in the video said she became the butt of jokes and harassment from coworkers. One said she deserved an A+ for her performance and others made crude comments. Three of the employees who were not part of union leadership and were fired as part of the investigation were accused of making such statements.
Hebert said that CATS didn’t step in until she filed a police report in June alleging harassment from the other woman. She said that CATS HR Director Jim Fight suggested sitting down with both women to talk through their issues in a way that would avoid terminations or discipline. That left Hebert surprised when she was called in and interrogated by Foster.
Fight declined to comment for this story, but weeks after the union leaders were fired, he quit, writing in his resignation letter that “the current structure, climate, and culture within the agency is not consistent with the values I align and subscribe to personally, professionally, and as a human capital practitioner.
Several of CATS’ witnesses had a clear disdain for the union from the start.
The employee who said Hebert showed her the video at the Earl K. Long terminal called the union a clique and said, “as far as I’m concerned, you can dig a hole and throw all of them up in it … I will walk through the hells of fire before I go get one of them to represent me.”
Another worker said she knew the union’s leadership was spreading the video, but didn’t have any direct evidence. She later said that they “probably just need to shut down the union because it’s unorganized … I can’t see where it’s being beneficial to anything because it holds a bunch of drama.”
A Juneteenth hazard pay boycott
While questioning the union’s leadership, Foster fixated on a dispute over hazard pay — and demanded to know who had organized a recent boycott among workers of CATS’ Juneteenth celebration.
In March, the transit system was given $17 million in federal relief through the CARES Act — a major windfall for an agency that is funded through roughly that same amount in property taxes from residents in the cities of Baton Rouge and Baker annually.
The union thought their workers deserved a chunk of that money. They asked CATS for at least $250 in hazard pay for each of their roughly 200 members as payment for putting their lives on the line to keep public transit available in the early, uncertain months of the pandemic.
When management rejected their request, the union staged a boycott of CATS’ Juneteenth celebration, attempting to embarrass management in front of the handful of local politicos in attendance. The event — which also commemorated the pioneering 1953 Baton Rouge bus boycott — featured remarks from Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome.
“Nobody showed up and they were mad,” Rhines, the union’s president, said of CATS leadership.
Foster repeatedly needled workers for information on who had spearheaded the protest.
The relationship between CATS and the union had deteriorated significantly in the weeks leading up to the inquiry. In May, the union held a press conference where they accused management of giving them watered down hand sanitizer. They also picketed outside the agency’s Florida St. headquarters, holding up signs that read “CATS, BATS and RATS,” referring to a supposed bat infestation at the site.
In December, CATS’ management sent a letter to employees saying that they didn’t plan on recognizing the union’s collective bargaining agreement in the new year because the union hadn’t shown proof that they represented a majority of workers.
The threat was quickly squashed after the union held an impromptu registration drive, but the union filed a federal lawsuit accusing the agency of engaging in retaliatory behavior and violating their First Amendment right to criticize management.
The lawsuit, now pending in the Middle District of Louisiana, argues that the CATS investigation was “out of all proportion” to the sex tape incident itself and accuses Deville of seizing on it months after the fact to “implicate and fire as many” union officials as possible, “even if they had little or no involvement with the video.”
For now, the labor dispute is in limbo as the arbitrator weighs whether to reinstate Hebert’s employment or uphold the agency’s decision to terminate her. Foster said that decision will be like a “cow bell,” and will help determine whether the agency moves forward in defending the terminations of the other union leaders.
On Friday, CATS agreed to rehire one of the union leaders, George DeCuir, who said he never saw the sex tape. The agency initially fired him for being untruthful.
But there are still other arbitration cases that CATS is facing from union-protected employees who say they were fired without cause. The agency’s CEO Bill Deville recently said that the backlog of labor disputes has prevented him from responding to a series of public records requests filed by The Advocate.
Hebert said she doesn’t fault her coworkers for testifying against her, even though she says they’re lying, and she also doesn’t blame the woman in the video.
Instead, she lays the fiasco at the feet of CATS’ management.
“They took something so personal and turned it into a circus,” Hebert said.