HOMESTEAD — The director of Homestead’s largest city department has been suspended for misusing his city-issued Blackberry following the discovery of sexually explicit text messages and a racially derogatory email he sent using the device.
Robert Landen, director of the city’s Parks & Public Works Department, is also a reserve police officer. He was asked on Thursday to clean out his desk and surrender his police equipment and city identification.
City officials have not issued an official memo to Landen, but sources say it is forthcoming. The suspension followed questions from the South Florida Times to city officials about the explicit messages.
Landen and countless other city personnel engaged in the practice of sending and receiving sexually explicit messages, but only Landen has been targeted so far in the city’s investigation, which involved contracting the services of a private investigative firm.
For example, in one discussion Landen had with a woman on his city-issued Blackberry on Nov. 27, 2009, he asked, “How was ur [sic] turkey day? Did [sic] get enough breart [sic]?”
The woman, who has not been identified, replied, “My breast could be sucked.”
He responded, “I need to see them.”
That exchange led to an even more graphic discussion in which the woman honored his request to send him “some pics,” or pictures, in texting lingo.
Many of the text messages obtained by the South Florida Times are too graphic for publication. The topics include sex toys, masturbation and oral sex. There were repeated requests in the messages sent by Landen for “pics.”
Landen also received and sent at least one racially derogatory email on his city-issued Blackberry. His department has been the subject of several racial discrimination complaints from black city employees, including complaints that black workers were forced to sit on opposite sides of the office from white employees.
“OMG!! [Oh my God] Ur not going to believe this [expletive]!!!,” reads a Nov. 26, 2009 email sent to Landen, which he forwarded to other people using the city’s Blackberry device. “I got a tattoo of a [N-word] on my shoulder, and now my [expletive] arm quit workin [sic]!”
The sex messages and racially derogatory language are culled from thousands of text messages and emails sent and received by Landen on the device.
Landen declined comment.
“I’ve praised Robert Landen’s work ethics, and so I’m very disappointed,” said the city’s lone African-American council member, the Rev. Jimmie L. Williams III.
“Even though I like his work, this is totally unacceptable and can’t be tolerated,’’ Williams said. “He has demonstrated his feeling toward blacks, and in a diverse work place such as Homestead’s, I question if he can ever be effective in the work place again.”
Sex-laced text messages are commonly referred to as “sexting.” Sexting is the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photos from one mobile phone to another.
Sexting has led to the arrest and imprisonment of at least one public official in recent years. Lying under oath about sexting with a staffer with whom he carried on a sexual relationship helped lead to the downfall of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in 2008.
Franklin Investigations, Inc.
Landen’s messages are included in records compiled by Franklin Investigations, Inc. of North Miami Beach, a firm the city hired to investigate fired former City Manager Mohammad “Mike” Shehadeh. Investigators concluded that Shehadeh engaged in political activities, visited risqué websites – one of which was described by a council member as “pornographic” – and sent steamy messages to former Deputy City Manager Johanna Faddis.
Franklin Investigations’ records also contain thousands of emails and text messages between council members and city staff.
Yet documents show that Landen was one of the city’s most prolific senders and receivers of emails and text messages.
The South Florida Times has attempted to contact some of the people who sent and received messages to and from Landen, but none have responded to messages left on their cell phones seeking comment. The newspaper has not determined whether any of the message recipients are city employees.
In at least one case, another city staffer in Landen’s department used racial slurs.
In response to a dinner invitation on Oct. 14, 2009, former employee Jaime Cervera replied, “Nah gotta go drag and line two fields now cause these [expletive N-words] are stupid and didn’t do it."
Efforts to reach Cervera, who resigned about a month ago for reasons unrelated to Landen’s suspension, were also unsuccessful.
Landen, 44, has been employed with the city of Homestead for over 26 years. City officials have not yet released his annual salary. City hall sources say he has a clean employment history and is a respected family man in the community.
The city’s Parks & Public Works Department has been the subject of racial discrimination complaints and lawsuits. Among them are complaints by black workers alleging disparities in promotions, unfair discipline, maintaining a segregated workplace and harassment.
“I’m not at all surprised. He should be fired. No training, simply fired. This is the way he has been for years,” said James Gold, a 49–year-old former city solid waste foreman, after learning of Landen’s racially derogatory email. “Human Resources knew about this and helped cover it up. For a department head and police officer to behave this way just shows you what a racist department he runs.”
Gold was fired in 2008 after 29 years when Landen and a police officer photographed his work truck parked outside a gym. Gold said he only took a break to go inside to buy a sports drink, and was not loafing. After a hearing, Shehadeh rejected Gold’s explanation, and terminated him.
Gold filed a lawsuit, which Homestead officials settled for $50,000 in January.
During a Feb. 11 city council meeting about Shehadeh’s termination, Councilwoman Wendy Lobos, without naming Gold directly, referred to his case and said he had a long history of personnel problems, but she voted to settle his lawsuit anyway.
Other complaints about the department have been filed over the years, and some are pending.
“I remember we got complaints about [surveillance] cameras only being placed above the desks of the black employees, and not the whites,” recalled Pat Mellerson, former chairperson of the now dissolved Homestead/Florida City Human Relations Board (HRB).
“The cameras were eventually ordered to be turned towards the entire office,” Mellerson said.
But, she said, problems remain.
“I hear from employees all the time. I went to that office one time about the segregated workplace, and saw the black workers were all assigned to desks on one side of the office, and whites on another, and I just couldn’t believe it,” she said.
“When they fired me, blacks still could only sit on one side of the office, and nothing has changed,” Gold said. “Human Resources swept the complaints about it under the rug.”
Human Resources Director Marcie Heese has not responded to questions about the allegations. At least one civil rights expert said the revelation of the racially derogatory electronic messages could present a problem.
Civil Rights Expert
Randy A. Fleischer is an expert employment and civil rights attorney. He is also a member of numerous diversity boards, and chairs the Broward County Human Rights Board, which handles discrimination complaints in the county.
“The email and text messages could be admissible evidence in claims of discrimination or harassment,” Fleischer cautioned. “I am not sure the messages are actionable on their own – because I have not seen them – and because I do not know what claims have been filed.”
After a July 2008 South Florida Times investigation revealed racist emails distributed by Ann Barnes, the assistant director of the city of Wilton Manors’ Community Services Department, Barnes was abruptly suspended without pay, demoted, and later negotiated her retirement.
Acting Homestead City Manager Sergio Purrinos has not commented on the allegations. Some city council members expressed concern.
“He [Landen] deserves to have his day to provide an explanation,” Williams said. “It’s only fair. But it has to be addressed, and I’m waiting to see how the city manager handles it.”
Pictured above is Robert Landen.