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New Orleans City Hall.

Calling it a "cesspool" where sexual harassment was allowed to flourish for years, Mayor LaToya Cantrell has swept out the leadership of the city's Property Management Department and said she hopes new city rules and training sessions on harassment will help prevent a repeat situation.

The allegations center on Herman Hogues, the department's longtime operations manager, who recently retired after being suspended without pay in May amid complaints of harassment by at least three women. Two of Hogues' bosses also have been terminated.

While the complaints about Hogues are not the first accusations of harassment to be made at City Hall, they appear to be the first to cost a manager there his job since a wave of similar claims began toppling high-profile men from Hollywood to Washington, D.C., in the past two years. 

A month after Hogues was suspended, Cantrell's nascent administration gave the boot to the department's director and deputy director, George Patterson and Edward Sens.

In a rambling interview with The Advocate, Hogues, 73, acknowledged he was unusually close with female colleagues, saying he would often lend a sympathetic ear to their complaints about workplace spats and low pay. Inside his office, he added, some would even pull up their dresses and dance for him, displays he said were “innocent horseplay.”

“One thing is, I am an older guy, but I play,” said Hogues. “Not sexually, but I do play. They come in and they ask me advice: ‘Do you know anybody that can help me? Help my children? I need a better job. I need some money, Mr. Herman.’

“They come in and they play, they do the booty pop, and show themselves, they would do that,” he said.

Hogues then changed course, saying he could recall only one woman who had ever actually exposed herself to him — the one whose sexual harassment claim got him suspended in May. He went on to say that she was the one doing the harassing, calling himself the victim of a plot by top city officials to protect the woman.

Patterson backed his former operations manager last week, claiming that none of the accusations against Hogues, who is married, were proven. Patterson said he and Sens were fired after investigators wrongfully accused them of ignoring complaints about Hogues’ behavior.

“At some point, they tried to claim that myself and the deputy had knowledge of it, and that’s certainly not true,” said Patterson, who had led the Property Management Department for 11 years. “I’m sure that may have gotten to the mayor, and (Cantrell) must have given them the benefit of the doubt without talking to me.”

But Sens, who was hired in 2010, said he was never comfortable with how Hogues treated the office’s female employees. He said he told Patterson and city Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Courtney Bagneris about the behavior, but nothing was done until recently. He believes he's a scapegoat and was fired unjustly.

“What I know from the beginning, was George and I had an ongoing problem with Herman being too familiar with the girls,” Sens said. “I would tell him personally, ‘Don’t do it.’ George would tell me that he would handle it. And Herman would report to George.”

Among the improprieties Sens noticed: Hogues telling women, most of them in their 20s, “Oh, you really look good today, babe,” and giggling with them. They’d also go into Hogues’ office and close the door, Sens recalled.

“I can only tell you this — they didn’t come hang in my office," Sens said. "And I was very nice to all the ladies. But no one ever came and sat in my office."

Hogues told The Advocate his relationships with women on the job were close but never inappropriate. 

For now, the investigation into Hogues is mostly being shielded by city officials, who declined to provide records sought by the newspaper, citing a state law that allows them to withhold documents that could be used in potential litigation.

Still, Cantrell was frank about the matter in an interview last week, calling it proof of a "cesspool" culture of harassment that her administration is determined to clean up.

"There was no accountability," Cantrell said in an editorial board meeting with The Advocate, adding that she has since tapped interim leaders to replace those she ousted. A “complete overhaul” is in the works for the Property Management Department, she said.

That overhaul includes comprehensive training for all city workers on preventing sexual harassment, a step already required under a state law that was passed this spring.

The law was passed after a state audit found that the state had no uniform policy for preventing sexual harassment, and after the resignations of former Secretary of State Tom Schedler and Johnny Anderson, a former top aide to Gov. John Bel Edwards who had been accused of harassing women over several years.

The City Council approved a local counterpart to the state law in June, giving city employees clearer guidelines for what constitutes sexual harassment.

Under the local law, harassment is defined as any "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature" by supervisors in charge of employment decisions, or any other conduct that creates "an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment."

It bans "sexual innuendos, suggestive comments, insults, humor and jokes about sex," along with repeated requests for dates and other possibly offensive behavior.

Officials have until January to enact new complaint procedures, penalties and employee training, which Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño said would be robust, given the issues found in the Property Management Department.

The problems in that office came to the attention of top officials in Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration, but apparently near the end of Landrieu's tenure.

It started when a former employee accused Hogues, over a roughly two-year span, of making inappropriate sexual remarks to her and asking her to have sex with him in his office. The woman also said Hogues exposed himself to her, according to a May 3 letter from Judy Reese Morse, a deputy mayor under Landrieu. Landrieu left office four days later.

The woman declined to comment when contacted by The Advocate last week.

Two other former employees also said Hogues acted inappropriately with them, Morse said in the letter.

In an interview, Hogues insisted he did not directly supervise at least three of the women he said complained about his behavior. He said women from all over the department would routinely come into his office to vent about their supervisors or their pay.

Sometimes, they would talk about sex, he admitted. Other times, "They would come in and just grab me." He got some of them jobs in other departments, because "I was a sucker," he said.

Later in the interview, Hogues said that only one woman grabbed him and exposed herself to him. He said she did so eight times over the course of one year, though he never said anything, because he thought it was no big deal. Later, he allowed her to use him as a reference on a job application.

Hogues said he believes the whole matter was a setup, and he is preparing an official complaint of his own to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

But Sens said the most recent accusations were part of a pattern of problematic behavior by Hogues.

“This has been going on for a long time,” he said. “Eight years, as I can remember. And we’ve gone through three different sets of ladies.”

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.