Perception Puzzle: Courtship Or Harassment? -- Former Consultant For Kiro Files Lawsuit Against Station President

A 44-year-old woman who worked as a consultant for KIRO television has accused station president Ken Hatch of enticing her with a job, then sexually harassing her, according to a lawsuit filed in King County Superior Court.

Although Hatch calls the charges "blatantly untrue," both he and his accuser agree on many of the facts behind the complaint filed Friday.

But they draw very different conclusions about the meaning of what happened, and about what sexual harassment really is.

Ann Avery and her attorney, Judith Lonnquist, say Hatch is an amorous media executive who lured the woman from New York to a job in Seattle and then showered her with ardent letters, unwanted invitations to travel and inappropriate gifts intended to get her into a relationship she didn't want. She says she rejected or rebuked him each time.

"All I wanted was a nice job and a future. I feel betrayed," Avery says. "I was treated like an object. I felt like prey."

For their part, Hatch and his attorneys, Mark Marshall and Gordon Conger, describe Avery as an opportunist - a former Miss Alabama and media-wise jet-setter who teased the older Hatch with suggestive gifts, then rejected his attentions. All the time, they say, she was gathering evidence to take him to court for money to replenish her dwindling savings.

"I feel used," said Hatch, 56. "I didn't do anything wrong. In my own opinion, I think money is the name of the game."

The lawyers on both sides say the suit will test some aspects of the state's sexual-harassment law, including whether a consultant is considered an employee under the law.

Certainly it illustrates the difficulty of sorting out intentions, perceptions, personal styles and reputations.

Avery migrated to New York for a stage career in 1970 but landed a job at ABC News instead. In 1975, she married her boss, Roone Arledge, then president of ABC Sports, and quit her job. The marriage ended in 1985, but not before Avery became part of a social set. One glossy magazine photo shows her at a posh New York restaurant with Ivana Trump and six other well-heeled women, although she says it was a set-up photo, not a gathering of her close friends.

By November 1990, Avery needed a new job and was anxious to leave Manhattan and the expensive, hectic life she led as executive assistant to a TV producer. She sent out resumes to four Seattle television stations, including KIRO.

After interviewing her, Hatch offered to give her auditions for on-air work as well as an interview for other work. The TV executive, who was raised in a small Utah town and has worked for the same organization for 34 years, was in the final stages of a divorce from his second wife. Avery, he says, seemed attractive, intelligent, well read and "fast with words and phrases."

Although he says he wasn't romantically interested in Avery yet, he flew her to Seattle in mid-December 1990, paying for the ticket with his own frequent-flier miles.

In January and February 1991, Hatch helped her find a Pike Place Market area rental condominium and arranged for work at McKnight and Co. Inc., a public-relations, marketing and advertising agency that worked for KIRO.

Most of the $50-an-hour work Avery did for KIRO was supervised directly by Hatch, according to firm president Jeanne McKnight. The work included research and video projects involving promotions and consumer trends.

Hatch, KIRO president, also does the station's TV editorials.

Avery says she rejected Hatch's romantic attentions three times, including once in January 1991 before she moved to Seattle and two times after she was a consultant. Hatch says he was rebuked twice, but not as early as January.

Both parties agree there was never any sexual activity, but Avery's attorney says that is not a requirement for a sexual-harassment lawsuit.

All that's required is for a person in authority, such as an employer, to push unwanted romantic attention on someone.

Avery does allege that Hatch commented he'd like to be next to her body, and inappropriately touched her waist and neck.

Hatch denies that. And his attorneys scoff at the harassment claim, saying the law requires a reasonable person to find the behavior inappropriate, but no serious-minded person would see Hatch's actions that way.

"This is nothing Hollywood would ever make a movie about, even in the 1930s," attorney Marshall says. "Attempted courtship. Not illegal."

Hatch and Avery exchanged gifts, the symbolism of which has become a key point of contention. One Christmas, Avery gave Hatch a wristwatch with a photograph on the face showing Avery standing in a rock-star pose holding a guitar between her legs. Hatch says the watch was a sexual come-on that made him believe Avery was interested in him.

"You can imagine how a middle-aged guy who considered himself pretty unattractive reacted to the come-on and the attention from this younger, attractive, sophisticated jet-set woman," says Conger.

"They are grasping at straws," retorts Lonnquist, Avery's lawyer.

Also at issue is the meaning of what happened after Hatch threw a surprise birthday party for Avery at the Columbia Seafirst Building in mid-March.

By that time, he admits, he was smitten with her. He presented her with 129 flowers, one for each day he'd known her, and afterward gave her silk pajamas, stereo speakers, a gold-bangled bracelet and athletic club membership.

Avery returned the gifts the next day, telling him they were inappropriate and that she was not interested in a romance with him.

"I told him I was shocked" by the pajamas, Avery recalls.

"It looked to me like a prelude to going to bed with him."

Hatch acknowledges the rebuke, saying she was very serious in her demeanor, but he says the problem was "modest-type stuff."

Hatch and Avery also exchanged letters.

In one written April 9, 1991, Hatch says, "I'm sorry for the discomfort I caused you. . . . I'm suffering a bit today. I'm sure that I should, because you are one of the last people I would want to hurt, or to even make uncomfortable.

"There's some thought in my mind that I'm behaving like a fool. Please forgive me."

Hatch says the letter was written after a rebuke.

For Avery's part, she has to explain a letter she wrote Hatch on March 19, 1991 - after the birthday party - in which she says: "Thank you seems too weak for all the caring and concern and joy you have exuded to and given me. . . . I cannot remember a man so thoughtful, self-examining, sensitive, and authentic as you. I am very happy you are part of my life. Love, Ann."

To Conger, the letter exemplifies the emotional roller coaster ride Avery was putting his client through.

But Avery says she was only responding to a conversation in which Hatch "was really forthcoming with a lot of private, personal information. It got to me. To see a man cry, I am a very compassionate person. I felt, finally this man is getting honest, revealing himself. I had compassion for him. I really thought that from now on our relationship will be platonic. There will be no more pressures.

"The next day, he asked me to go to Portugal, on a fishing trip to Alaska and to the Caribbean."

Avery says she quit her consulting job in mid-April 1991 because she was fed up with Hatch's behavior. The final straw, she says, was last July, when Hatch purchased a condominium in the same building where she was living.

Leigh Stowell, a friend, says Hatch had planned to buy the place before he met Avery. Hatch says that aside from contacting Avery to tell her about the purchase, he left her alone.

But Avery says that until she moved out of the condo on the last day of 1991, she felt "as if I had been hunted. I couldn't sleep. I was losing weight."

Last January, Avery's lawyer contacted Conger and Marshall and asked for $150,000 as a settlement to cover losses Avery says she suffered. Lonnquist says the woman had to relocate, be trained for a new job and get counseling, among other things. Conger says he made a casual offer of $20,000, which Lonnquist dismissed as a "nuisance-value offer."

A central legal argument in the case is whether the sexual-harassment law applies to a relationship between an executive and a consultant who is not technically an employee. Lonnquist says the law clearly does apply, and Avery was an employee who was stashed at the McKnight agency.

Marshall and Conger say the law doesn't apply, and they're willing to go to court to prove it.

KIRO has a sexual-harassment policy that prohibits supervisors from making unwanted romantic or sexual advances toward employees.

Lonnquist says Hatch was guilty of "casting-couch behavior . . .as damaging as having someone come right out and say, if you want to keep your job, or get a permanent job, you are going to have to sleep with me. Sexual harassment can be any kind of sexual conduct that creates an intolerable working condition. It can be posting dirty pics on the wall," she says.

Both sides in the case are gearing up for a battle in the media as well as the courts. Lonnquist, who has handled about 20 harassment cases, recently forced a state legislator to settle a well-publicized case. Marshall has been successful defending agencies against harassment claims.

Lonnquist recently hired Seattle public-relations consultant Laura Altschul to handle media in the case. Altschul, also a gay-rights advocate, briefly served as campaign manager for Sen. Brock Adams before he quit the race last month amid sexual-harassment charges.

While Lonnquist expects to settle the case before trial, Conger and Marshall say don't count on it.

"We said that there would be a vigorous defense and that in a media circus, that would be a two-way process," Conger said.

"Ken Hatch is kind of a target. It stinks."