N.C. Democratic Party director steps down over sexual harassment allegations

The executive director of the N.C. Democratic Party resigned Sunday amid mounting questions about a secret settlement to pay a former staffer to keep quiet about sexual harassment allegations.

The exodus of Jay Parmley capped a drama that started Friday with the circulation in the media of internal party emails and intensified Saturday with moves to address the alleged scandal at county Democratic conventions.

The controversy threatens to complicate the party’s agenda, which includes keeping the Governor’s Mansion and defeating a proposed N.C. constitutional amendment next month that would reaffirm the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

It also comes at a time when the state’s Democrats are gearing up for the national political spotlight, with the 2012 convention in Charlotte and the battle to win for President Barack Obama what may be the most crucial swing state in the country.

Parmley, who became the state party’s top administrator last year after holding a similar post in South Carolina, denied harassing any employee and blamed right-wing political enemies for “spreading a false and misleading story.”

“Even though I have not done anything wrong, it is clear to me that I need to move on,” Parmley wrote in his resignation letter. “I refuse to be a distraction.”

But his quick departure did little to answer questions about the settlement or quiet critics of Party Chairman David Parker, a Statesville attorney. A number of party activists, both openly and privately, are calling for him to resign, too.

In a statement, Parker said he accepted Parmley’s resignation and defended his decision not to fire him, saying “there have not been grounds for termination for cause.”

“In this political world of rushing to judgment and the presumption of guilt, however, my legal and personal opinion has been outweighed by this having become a political distraction and issue,” Parker said.

The exact nature of the harassment remains unclear, but a report with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was allegedly filed.

Parker’s statement did not address the questions about a financial settlement and nondisclosure agreement with the former staffer who was fired in November soon after he complained about being sexually harassed by a senior party official.

“I think Jay did the right thing,” said Democratic consultant Perry Woods of Raleigh. “David Parker should join him.”

Watt Jones, a member of the state party’s executive committee, also said Parmley made the right decision for the party – and then went further.

“Clearly I think there are others who should resign, too,” Jones said.

In Mecklenburg County, Democratic Chairwoman Aisha Dew sought to put some distance between the party in Charlotte and the state party in Raleigh over what she called a “personnel matter.”

“We are separate entities  and we will continue to make that distinction,” she said of the county and state parties. “They did what they thought they needed to do. And we will keep moving forward in Mecklenburg.”

Asked if Parker should also resign, Dew said she didn’t have enough information to comment.

A complaint about the alleged settlement in internal party emails obtained Friday helped force the issue into the spotlight, but the documents did not identify the party official responsible.

According to Parmley’s resignation letter, they first surfaced in blogs associated with Art Pope, who bankrolls many conservative causes in North Carolina, and national conservative pundit Tucker Carlson.

In his statement, Parker declined to comment on any specifics of the allegations, citing advice of legal counsel, and defended Parmley’s tenure as party leader in South Carolina and Oklahoma earlier in his career.

The party’s turmoil made for tense conversations Saturday as local Democrats hosted dozens of county conventions across the state. At the Wake County event, Democratic activists introduced a resolution demanding Parker and Parmley resign or be fired. A similar resolution at the Durham County party convention called for a meeting to determine whether the party leaders should be removed.

In Wake County, Woods offered a resolution saying the party “must deal with sexual harassment claims in an open and transparent fashion.”

The party must be “not only beyond guilt but above suspicion, and even a hint or perception of a cover-up is damaging to the party’s credibility,” the resolution stated.

The resolution also said Parker’s statement Friday – which said the party won’t comment on the matter – only raised more questions about how it was handled behind closed doors, even out of the purview of other top party officials.

Muriel Offerman, treasurer of the state Democratic Party and a Parker ally, spoke against the resolution.

Woods pulled the resolution before a vote took place.

At Mecklenburg County’s Democratic Party convention on Saturday, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, a candidate in the May 8 Democratic gubernatorial primary, suggested party officials should resign or be fired if the allegations are true.

“We cannot tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace,” Dalton said. “If there’s any truth to the allegations, somebody should resign or be fired immediately. We won’t tolerate that.”

Charlotte Observer Staff Writer Jim Morrill and the Associated Press contributed.