City officials say the head of the Frogtown Action Alliance is dodging them. Two former employees say he sexually harassed them. Leaders in the struggling St. Paul neighborhood fear Shem Shakir's bad karma is contagious.
If the Frogtown Action Alliance is to emerge from the current turmoil, the group will have to do so while facing a second sexual harassment lawsuit. On July 21 Marion Whitlock, who worked as Shakir's administrative assistant for almost two years beginning in early 1998, filed a suit against Shakir and the organization in Ramsey County District Court. Whitlock hired Webber's attorney, Alf Sivertson, and her complaint reads a lot like her predecessor's. Whitlock alleges that her boss constantly touched and caressed her calves, breasts, and other body parts, and that he made demeaning statements such as, "Come here with those big titties." When she rebuffed Shakir's advances, he retaliated by screaming at her and belittling her.
"During that time I would come home from work and I would be very irritable and I would holler and scream at [my son] for no reason," Whitlock recalls by phone from Philadelphia, where she has since moved; she now works as a research recruiter at the University of Pennsylvania. "I didn't have a social life. I would go in my room and shut the door and go to bed. I stopped taking care of myself."
Whitlock quit her job at the Alliance on December 21, 1999. She says the only reason she stayed in the job for so long is that Shakir had convinced her that she was so incompetent that nobody else would hire her. "I was losing my mind, basically, is what it was," she says today. "When you do the best that you can do, and when you know that you've done the best you can do, for someone to come back and holler at you and make you feel stupid, that's enough to make you question who you are."
In their written responses to Whitlock's complaint, Shakir and the Frogtown Action Alliance deny all the allegations. Further, the nonprofit group has filed a counterclaim alleging that Whitlock embezzled more than $3,500 from the organization; they seek in excess of $50,000 as compensation. Attorney Alan Weinblatt, who is representing Shakir and the Alliance in the matter, says that it is too early for him to comment on the case, beyond what is available in the court filings. Whitlock refutes the embezzlement charges, and claims that she didn't even have access to the organization's accounts. "I had control of nothing," she says. "[Shakir]'s a control freak. You can't do anything without his permission."
As the Alliance confronts this most recent allegation, officials at some other Frogtown nonprofits fear the cloud that has descended over the economic-development group will hamper their own ability to raise funds and fulfill their missions. "There has always been this sort of sense that in Frogtown they don't have their act together," says Mike Samuelson. "And when an organization like this screws up, then the broad brush can be painted with all the other organizations. If there is this constant mismanagement of funds, who is going to give any organization any money to do other work that might be needed in the neighborhood?"
Perhaps the most important unanswered question is whether Shakir can continue to run his organization. With only three ostensibly active members, the group's board is unlikely to move to replace him. "I can't tell him to go or leave," exclaims Ramsey County Commissioner Janice Rettman, who notes that the Alliance receives no county funds. "But I think that's one of those questions that the board better wrestle with."
Liz Stevens, who chairs the board of directors of the Greater Frogtown Community Development Corporation, puts it more bluntly: "If I was the chair of the Frogtown Action Alliance, Shem would have been terminated, or I would have resigned."