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Friday November 24th, 2017 9:41AM

Star chef Besh steps down amid sexual harassment allegations

By The Associated Press
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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans celebrity chef John Besh stepped down from management of the restaurant group that bears his name after a newspaper reported that 25 women who are current or former employees of the business said they were victims of sexual harassment by male co-workers and bosses.

New Orleans media outlets said Besh's departure from the business he co-owns was announced to employees Monday. "John has decided to step down from all aspects of operations and to provide his full focus on his family," Shannon White, the woman who is stepping in as CEO, said in an email to staff.

The allegations were published Saturday by NOLA.comThe Times Picayune after an eight-month investigation. Women interviewed said male bosses in the Besh Restaurant Group touched or verbally harassed them and, in a few cases, tried to leverage positions of authority for sex.

Besh acknowledged a sexual relationship with an employee, saying in a written statement to NOLA.comThe Times-Picayune that it was consensual, despite the woman's assertions in a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that she felt pressured.

The allegations came to light in a time when sexual harassment allegations have been made against other famous men, including Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, the late Fox News executive Roger Ailes and comedian Bill Cosby.

Repercussions from the Besh story were being felt even before the allegations were published. Last month, Alon Shaya, a star chef who rose up through the Besh Group ranks, was dismissed as executive chef at Domenica, Pizza Domenica and his critically acclaimed namesake restaurant, Shaya.

Shaya had contacted NOLA.com in August regarding his concerns on how sexual harassment allegations were handled. "I do feel like I was fired for talking ... and for standing up," Shaya said in a follow-up interview Oct. 17. Current and former staff, meanwhile, said in the article and in social media that Shaya did not do enough to stop sexual harassment at the restaurants he ran.

On Sunday, Harrah's New Orleans Casino said it was severing ties with Besh and would rename its Besh Steak restaurant in the casino.

Nine women interviewed for the NOLA.com story agreed to the use of their names, including Madie Robison.

"After being immersed in the culture of the company, I realize my morals and values do not align with the daily practices," Robison wrote in a resignation email, sent to Besh, his business partner Octavio Mantilla and others.

In multiple interviews, Robison's complaints included persistent, sexualized comments from peers and supervisors. Robison claimed she also endured the uninvited touching of Mantilla for almost the entirety of her two years at the Besh Group.

Mantilla said he doesn't remember touching Robison. "I don't remember touching her at all, not on intention or anything," he said.

A Besh Group spokesman said none of the thousands of current or former employees has ever filed an internal complaint alleging sexual harassment in the company's 12 years of existence. Besh and Mantilla said during an Oct. 16 interview that in the past the company had lacked a human resources department to process such claims. The company has one now - its first ever director of human resources took the job Oct. 11, the spokesman told NOLA.com.

In his separate, written statement to NOLA.com, Besh said he was working to "rebuild my marriage" and publicly apologized to employees "who found my behavior as unacceptable as I do."

"I alone am entirely responsible for my moral failings," he added. "This is not the way the head of a company like ours should have acted, let alone a husband and father."

Raymond Landry, an attorney for the restaurant group, gave the news outlet a written statement as well, not mentioning specific allegations, but saying the company is implementing a better procedure for receiving and dealing with complaints.

"While we've had a complaint procedure in place that complies with all existing laws, we now recognize that, as a practical matter, we needed to do more than what the law requires and we have revamped our training, education and procedures accordingly," Landry's statement said.

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