They are photos you would expect to find on a porn site or in hate mail, not in corporate headquarters. But a Fox Chicago News investigation has found racist and sexist e-mails being circulated through the offices of a major city contractor.
Our story begins two years ago, when Olivia Roberts got the office manager's job for a suburban contracting company. She was riding high, she recalls. "I was trying to fit in," she said, "and then I started seeing these e-mails."
The e-mails were from top company officials. Pornographic e-mails, lurid photos, women engaging in oral sex. Over the next year there would be racist e-mails ridiculing Hispanics. Offensive jokes about President Obama's race. One e-mail was even titled, "Jokes to Offend Everyone."
More Investigative Stories
"I have collected at least six inches of e-mails on this type of behavior," Roberts said, "What does that say?"
Roberts worked in the Texas office for Harbour Contractors. It's a family-owned business based in Plainfield, Illinois. They've earned millions from city contracts at O'Hare Airport, many of them no-bid.
"They said one thing, behaved one way, and then behind closed doors this is what they said and this is how they acted," Roberts said.
And so, for example, the Chicago Public Building Commission had no idea that on the very day it gave Harbour Contractors $30 million to build a new police station, a manager e-mailed a Christmas greeting showing topless women to executives, saying "Breast Wishes for Christmas."
Mayor Daley chaired that PBC meeting and voted for the deal. The Harbours and the Daleys have been long-time business acquaintances and reportedly, friends, a tie the Mayor laughed off at a recent press conference.
"Everybody is a friend with my family. I just want to tell you everybody's a friend. I just met these individuals. They'll be friends too," he said.
Companies doing business with the city must comply with federal laws banning discrimination. Mayor Daley explained how he would expect this situation to be handled.
"You take action against that individual," Daley said. "That's what they did, I understand, is fire the individual."
But someone must have misled the Mayor. Harbour's attorney says no one was fired for sending offensive e-mails. He says the company just recently became aware of the full scope of the problem. But one of the e-mails was sent three years ago, to Harbour's owner and CEO, Patrick Harbour. It's called "Let's Play Border Patrol." It's a video game for shooting undocumented workers.
No one from the company would speak on camera. But in a statement, the company admits a few disparaging e-mails went to Patrick Harbour, but added; "... he has no recollection of seeing any of the offensive material."
After a few months on the job, Roberts says she complained to her boss about the e-mails. But when they didn't stop, she says she was too intimidated to raise the issue again.
"The issue is whether you have the right to bring that stuff into the work place and force it on women -- force it on African-Americans, says John Hendrickson, supervising attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's Midwest office. "You don't have that right," says Hendrickson. He would not comment on Roberts' case, but he says higher-ups typically set the tone for all of the employees in the workplace.
Hendrickson says, "And if they see that managers are engaged in that conduct themselves, and we have plenty of those cases, or managers are aware of it and don't put a stop to it, boom! There you go. It's going to metastasize like cancer, shoot through the workplace."
At Harbour, a vice-president and human resources director sent a sexist e-mail, with a photograph, to Olivia's boss.
"I have one that he forwarded, of a woman naked... picking up a beer keg," says Roberts. "This is the HR director. This is the person that, who authored the employee relations manual telling me what is allowed and not allowed."
The company's technology expert, who Olivia says co-authored the manual on how the computers were to be used, sent out a slew of offensive emails.
"It's unacceptable," says Mayor Daley. "Any type of conduct that gets any employee that deals with sexual or sexual relationships, anything is unacceptable. By your company or my company, the city of Chicago, by anyone."
Harbour, in its statement, says it regrets that its "internal polices and controls failed." It said the company works to treat employees and businesses fairly, adding it "... is strongly opposed to racial, sexual and all other offensive behavior such as was depicted in some of these e-mails."
The apology comes too late for Olivia Roberts. The e-mails continued until the spring of 2009, when the project in Texas finished, and her job was phased out. She later filed a complaint with the EEOC. "I had to become invisible," Roberts says, trying to hold back her tears. "And, I'm sorry. It just changed who I was. It was really hard."
Roberts says she was not satisfied with the EEOC handling of her case, so the agency has now given her permission to proceed on her own, with a federal lawsuit, which she may be filing soon.
A spokesperson for the Chicago Public Building Commission told us, "The alleged misconduct, while it does not appear to be related to any PBC project, is unacceptable." One PBC Commissioner, Adela Cepeda, told us she finds Harbour's behavior "absolutely abhorrent," and has asked PBC attorneys "to determine what steps PBC can take on this."