Central WA veterinary charity fined $1.5 million for sexual harassment

(The central square) — The owner of a small Washington-based nonprofit veterans organization is in trouble after a jury on Thursday ordered him and the company to pay about $1.5 million for sexually assaulting 12 women.

The decision follows a civil rights lawsuit filed by the state’s Attorney General Bob Ferguson in 2022. In his complaint, he alleged that Thelbert Lawson Jr., CEO and founder of Operation Veterans Assistance & Humanitarian Aid, violated Washington state anti-discrimination law.

Lawson’s OVAHA operates two stores, the Veterans Warehouse Thrift Store in Wenatchee and the Veterans Thrift Store in Kennewick. Both are governed by a board of directors consisting of himself, his wife, and other family and friends.

“What happened at OVAHA is abhorrent, inexcusable and illegal,” Ferguson said in a press release. “I want to thank the workers, volunteers and members of the public for their courage in speaking out. My team fought for them and together we won.”

The jury found that Lawson had sexually harassed seven of his employees by making unwarranted physical contact with them and frequently questioning their sex lives.

According to the press release, Lawson asked the women “how often they had sex, whether they used sex toys, whether they requested sexual favors, and whether they asked employees to expose their bodies to him.”

However, after being turned away by a co-worker, Lawson called her to tell her she was no longer on the roster, warning her that he was “untouchable” and “knew cops and judges,” the press release said.

The jury also found that Lawson had sexually harassed and even assaulted some volunteers and other people shopping at the stores. One woman in particular managed to get a restraining order after Lawson “locked her in a basement room with him and forced her to run past him to escape,” the press release said.

He was later convicted of assault in 2021 after trapping a person in his office and forcibly dry humping them. According to the press release, OVAHA paid Lawson’s bail for the appeal shortly afterward, so he only spent 75 days in jail.

After his release, Lawson returned to OVAHA despite everything that had happened.

However, he likely knew that an even worse fate awaited him. According to the press release, Lawson held a staff meeting after learning that an employee had contacted an attorney about the incident.

“Don’t make me angry, I know how to make your life hell,” Lawson told his employees at the meeting, according to the press release.

Thursday’s ruling required Lawson and OVAHA to pay $1.45 million to the 12 women he harassed and to pay employees just over $17,000 in back wages.

Ferguson expressed his intention to file a motion after the hearing that could prevent Lawson from assuming a position of power in the future where he could supervise or harass women.