Oshkosh Examiner photo
The Winnebago County Coroner's Office operates from a suite in the basement of the Orrin H. King Building.
The recently surfaced accusations against Winnebago County Coroner Barry Busby of sexual harassment are not the first time that these kinds of charges have been made against the highly popular official.
In 2012 the county took steps to keep Busby from meeting in person with a female deputy coroner who said that she had received unwanted sexual advances. “The few years that I have had to put up with you grabbing my ass and making sexual comments repeatedly have made it almost impossible for me to even want to continue with this job,” said Donna L. Francart in an Oct. 24, 2011, email to Busby.
The next day Francart, who worked weekends as a deputy coroner, wrote to Peg Raugh, the county’s human resources manager. “I desperately need to talk to you regarding a situation that I’ve been enduring for a couple of years,” she wrote. Francart added that she was unable to go to her full-time job that day “because I’m physically ill from the stress & afraid.”
Francart, who was later fired from the coroner’s office, was a divorced mother of two sons who worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. In her complaints to county officials, she described how Busby would visit her when she was off duty from the county and working at private employers, in one case a travel agency and in another case a funeral home.
“The fact that you came to my place of employment and sat there for a half hour facing me while I had clients at my desk was very unnerving,” Francart wrote in the 2011 email to Busby. “It continues to amaze me that you would feel that you have the right to touch me or talk to me like that.”
The county investigation was unable to substantiate the claim of sexual harassment, which Busby denied. But officials were apparently concerned enough about the situation that they set up a dropbox at the Neenah Police Department so that Francart and Busby could exchange paperwork without meeting face to face, according to a letter from the county’s outside law firm, Godfrey & Kahn.
Busby declined to comment for this article and referred questions about Francart’s later dismissal to the county’s personnel office.
In a letter dated Jan. 30, 2012, county officials told Busby that they “were unable to find that you discriminated against Ms. Francart on the basis of her gender or any other protected class.” But they also said they had concluded “that the complainant acted in good faith” and warned Busby against retaliating.
In a separate letter to Francart, also dated Jan. 30, 2012, the investigators identified eight specific allegations of harassment by the deputy coroner against her boss, ranging from touching to inappropriate comments to veiled requests for sex.
In one case, Francart told county staffers, Busby reacted to the death of an elderly woman who died after falling while getting dressed. “That’s the problem,” Busby is quoted as saying. “Women are always trying to put their pants on when they should be taking them off.”
In another case involving a pedestrian who was hit by a vehicle on I-41, Francart told investigators that Busby showed her a photograph “of a deceased man’s torso and said, ‘There’s his penis.’”
County investigators also took note of multiple times when Busby is alleged to have asked for sex with Francart, on one occasion complaining about his lack of intimacy with his wife.
Francart later complained that the county investigation was not very thorough and did not involve attempts to interview coworkers or others who had contact with the coroner’s office. But Michael Collard, the Winnebago director of human resources, defended the county’s efforts.
“I was not with Winnebago County during the investigation into Ms. Francart’s 2011 sexual harassment complaint, but I have reviewed the investigation file, and believe that the investigation was handled by Human Resources staff in a thorough and professional manner,” he wrote in an email message. “I don’t know what they could have done differently.”
Collard also pointed out that at the “conclusion of the investigation there were steps taken to eliminate the need for any in-person interactions between Ms. Francart and Mr. Busby, so as to ensure that Ms. Francart had a safe working environment.”
At the time of her sexual harassment complaint, Francart had been working in the office for about 4½ years and was viewed as hard working and competent.
“Donna is an exemplary employee who learned quickly,” according to a letter of reference from Cathy S. Wood, a fellow deputy coroner who also served as the administrator in the coroner’s office. Francart “has a passion for the position, and also has a heart of gold which is evidenced in her sincere compassion for families in mourning,” Wood said.
But in 2015 Francart was fired from her county position following three accusations of misconduct, which she says amounted to an effort to frame her in retaliation for the earlier sexual harassment complaint. One of the charges was dropped because of inconsistent documentation, and Francart has contested the other two, which involved an alleged mishandling of a question from a nurse about a dying patient and an alleged breach of confidentiality.
After she was fired, Francart filed a formal complaint with the state Department of Workforce Development. She detailed her concerns about Busby’s behavior in a March 2016 letter to a state investigator. “This was not a couple of isolated incidents of sexual comments and grabbing my butt,” she said. “This went on for a period of two years.”
She said that Busby grabbed her three times “in the butt and on ... one occasion had his hands raised coming towards me to touch my breasts.”
In her state complaint Francart identified two women by name who worked at a local funeral home and said they had been harassed by Busby.
In one text-message exchange that is included in the state file, Francart asks a female funeral director about her experiences with Busby. “If only every woman that has been harassed by him would step up,” the woman replied, according to the case file. “He has always been perverted, handsy and abused his authority. I can’t stand that guy.”
Francart then asked the woman if Busby had touched her. “Yeah he touched me, invited me on vacations. He’s sick,” the woman wrote in a reply text.
Ultimately the state dismissed an allegation of sexual harassment on the basis that it was not filed on a timely basis and dismissed an allegation of retaliaton after finding no probable cause. Francart said that charges against her were “false,” the state investigator on the case acknowledged. But he also found that Winnebago County “provided documentation and statements taken during its investigation that corroborate its version of events.”
Collard said the county’s investigation into Francart was set up “to insulate” the proceeding “from any possible claim of retaliation” and that it was ultimately his decision to fire Francart.
Francart’s description of Busby’s behavior tracks with a 2017 allegation of sexual harassment that the Wisconsion Coroners and Medical Examiners Association has under review. In the 2017 case a female physician assistant said that she was approached at a conference-related dinner and subjected to “explicit unwelcomed sexual comments” from Busby, who also grabbed at her hand at one point.
Busby, who ran unopposed for coroner last year and was re-elected with the largest vote total of any candidate on the local ballot, has been urged to resign by a variety of local officials. They say he has been cheating local taxpayers by spending extensive periods of time out of state.
A committee of the county Board of Supervisors has announced plans to investigate the situation.