Jody Owens, managing attorney of the Mississippi Southern Poverty Law Center

Several women who have worked with incoming Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens said he sexually harassed them during his tenure over the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Jackson office.

The allegations were published by The Appeal, a national criminal justice publication, Friday morning.

The article details a number of alleged incidents including inappropriate touching, unsolicited comments on physical appearance and unwanted advances, citing interviews with 17 people who had worked or considered working in the civil rights organization’s Jackson office. Ten of those interviewed told The Appeal they had experienced, witnessed or had knowledge of Owens harassing female employees.

One former employee also filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission this summer. The complaint includes “both specific interactions she allegedly had with Owens and a culture in the office in which, she said, his behavior was allowed to continue unchecked,” according to The Appeal.

Those alleged interactions included Owens repeatedly touching the employee’s leg under the table at a dinner, as well as commenting on the employee’s body. The Appeal reports that the woman reported the harassment to to Lisa Graybill, the SPLC’s deputy legal director of criminal justice reform, and Twyla Williams, the director of human resources. Neither responded to requests for comment from The Appeal.

Owens, who was managing attorney for the Jackson office from 2011 until he stepped down in June, denied the allegations in a phone interview Friday morning with Mississippi Today, saying that he strongly disagreed with “the content and the accuracy” of the article.

“The Southern Poverty Law Center takes all allegations of discrimination or harassment from staff seriously, conducts thorough investigations into each complaint that is received, and takes appropriate disciplinary actions, including the removal of employees,” a statement released by SPLC Friday afternoon reads. “We are committed to our staff and fostering an environment where they feel safe and can thrive and develop as professionals.”

A spokesperson for the organization said SPLC does not comment about personnel matters, which it considers to be confidential.

Still, the accusations have not swayed Owens from his incoming position as Hinds County district attorney. He is unopposed in November’s general election.

“I don’t condone touching anyone or unwanted behavior and we certainly are ensuring that we’ll put additional protocols in place to ensure that no one ever feels that they’ve been violated in any way,” Owens said in an interview. “The principles of our work has been a career fighting against all forms of discrimination of any kind. And we certainly think that our record and you know, the hundreds of employees we manage, the vast majority will agree that that is how we manage and how we’ve led.”

Owens confirmed he still intended to appear on a panel – “Immigrants and Incarceration” – scheduled Friday afternoon at Tougaloo College, which is hosting a National Mass Incarceration and Slavery Conference this weekend.

The allegations against Owens follow recent turmoil at the SPLC’s Montgomery, Alabama headquarters, where employees described a work environment rife with sexual harassment, sexism and racism. The organization fired its co-founder and chief trial lawyer Morris Dees in March.

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Michelle Liu was a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms. She covered criminal justice issues across the state from June 2018 until May 2020. Prior to joining the Mississippi Today team, her work appeared in the New Haven Independent.