Maddie Waldeck’s family has been entwined with the city of Kansas City, Kansas, for six decades.
Her grandfather was an assistant fire chief and her dad spent 35 years at the Board of Public Utilities. Both of her brothers work for the city and her sister-in-law is a deputy police chief.
So when Waldeck got a job at the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, in 2013, she was over the moon.
“There was no other place that I wanted to work other than there,” Waldeck said. “This is what I want to do, this is the dream.”
That dream was short-lived.
One night last spring, her boss, a high-ranking official who has worked for the government for 21 years, allegedly slammed her against a wall. Waldeck, 32, no longer works for the Unified Government, but her old boss still does.
‘Something I’ll never forget’
It was around 5 p.m. last May. On her way out of the office, Waldeck was chatting with a few co-workers, giving them advice.
“I said, ‘My trick is whenever you ask somebody to do something for you, you should put your hand over your heart,’” she said.
That’s when General Services Director Dennis “Tib” Laughlin allegedly walked up, grabbed her by the shirt and slammed her against a wall.
“He was gritting his teeth, and he's like, ‘This is how I put a hand over a heart,’” Waldeck said.
She said she can still see his face, and the way he was baring his teeth.
“That’s something I’ll never forget,” she said.
Laughlin has been charged with battery over the incident. Two eyewitnesses declined to talk on the record because of Laughlin's criminal trial, which starts today in Wyandotte County District Court.
Laughlin, through his lawyer, declined KCUR’s request for comment. In a statement, the Unified Government said the alleged incident was investigated by the Human Resources Department and appropriate action was taken, although it didn’t elaborate because it said it was a confidential personnel matter.
As it turns out, the May incident may not have been an isolated one.
‘A loose cannon’
Waldeck called the two years she worked with Laughlin the “most stressful and heartbreaking” of her professional life.
She started documenting every encounter that made her uncomfortable after the 2016 State of the Government address. That's when Laughlin approached her table, she said, and asked if she’d heard the rumor they were sleeping together.
At the time, Waldeck was deputy treasurer for the UG, and Laughlin had just invited her to co-chair a new government-wide initiative called SOAR. The initiative was meant to tackle issues like vacant and poorly maintained properties, in part by improving government communication with residents.
A year later, she took a job as delinquent real estate division manager under Laughlin.
“He was somebody I knew held the key to my dream,” Waldeck said. “So when he would say things to me that were inappropriate in my mind, I really just ate it.”
Inappropriate things, she said, like comments about his sexual or romantic relationships or about how she looked.
Waldeck wasn't the only one who felt uncomfortable. Bloomberg Philanthropies filed a complaint to the UG about Laughlin’s conduct during a conference for What Works Cities in New York City in March 2017, according to an email between Waldeck and a county administrator.
Later that same year, Waldeck said Laughlin hit her on the arm during a work trip to Nebraska, in front of other members of their staff. She said he told her he was joking.
“I mean, you spend 10 minutes with him and you'll understand. He is a loose cannon,” Waldeck said.
It wasn’t all bad all the time, she said.
“He's smart, he does have good qualities,” she said. “He does provide results, but it's at the expense of the people that work for him.”
“It’s not something hidden,” said a UG employee, who requested anonymity because she fears losing her job. “You know when you have something that just bristles up on the back of your neck? It’s not just that [Laughlin] makes sexual connotations about women in general. There's just always something inappropriate.”
Another government employee, who also requested anonymity, said she was “warned early on not to spend any time alone with him.”
“People said, ‘Watch what he says and watch where you are with him,’” she said.
Waldeck’s parents, Loraine and Mike Waldeck, said when she first got the job working directly under Laughlin, people in the community told them their daughter “needs to be careful.”
“He's a liability, and [at the UG], they all know it,” Waldeck said.
‘Good ol’ boys club’
At least three times, Waldeck said she documented meetings she called to raise concerns with the UG about Laughlin’s behavior. The last thing she wanted to do, she said, was hire a lawyer.
“The Unified Government to me is a family, and I'm trying to tell you that right now, in our family, we have some issues,” she remembers telling a county administrator once. “I'm trusting you to take care of that.”
But, she said, they never did. So, Waldeck gave up.
“I was applying for jobs at Quiktrip, making $10 an hour. I didn't care, I just wanted out of there,” she said.
It was after she told her staff she was resigning that Laughlin allegedly slammed her against a wall. That’s when she said the UG really dropped the ball.
After she reported the incident internally, she said they placed her on paid leave. She felt like she was being punished.
“I did nothing wrong. When I needed your help, you did nothing for me, and now you're denying me the one thing that I've asked for, which is the opportunity to walk out of there with my head held high,” she said.
Employment law attorney Kim Jones, who is not involved in Waldeck’s case, said when sexual harassment in the workplace isn’t properly addressed, it can make things worse.
“That can create a real spiral in terms of folks feeling that this individual is untouchable, that it does not do any good to complain about these kinds of issues,” Jones said.
Waldeck felt that’s what happened at the UG.
Her older sister, Cassie Waldeck, whom she contacted after every incident and every meeting she had with an HR or a county administrator, said the UG created a culture where people are allowed to behave however they want. A “good ol’ boys club,” she called it.
For months after she left, Waldeck said she got calls and texts from staff complaining or expressing concerns about Laughlin.
An anonymous letter sent to KCUR — signed “Sad and Scared in Wyandotte” — said people are “very scared to work with Tib.”
Living in and working for Wyandotte County was something that made Waldeck proud. She remembers telling Laughlin about it in her first interview with him.
“His words were, ‘Well, I'm not from here, thank God,’” she said. “He calls people that are from here ‘Dumb Dottes.’ That was really hard to hear.”
Waldeck has since taken a job in Johnson County, sold her house in KCK and moved away. A few months after she left, her dad called to check on her during a storm.
“He goes, 'You know, Maddie, I think after all this stuff comes down, you should just come on home,’” Waldeck said. “KCK is my home. And I don't know if I could ever do that now.”
“They will never fully understand what they took from me,” Waldeck said. “They'll never get it.”