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Sex Scandal Involving CBLDF's Charles Brownstein Leads to Women's Empowerment Fund
excerpted from The Comics Journal #276
By Michael Dean
Posted May 1st, 2006

The story of a young comics creator who could not muster the strength to break the grip of a prominent industry figure's hand on her left breast has been circulating through the comics community and formed the basis of a new "empowerment" fund announced April 7 by Friends of Lulu. The fund is intended to give victims of sexual assault or harassment in a comics-industry context the strength to fight back legally if not physically. But the very case that inspired the fund -- an alleged incident in a hot tub at the November 2005 Mid-Ohio Con -- hints strongly at some of the pitfalls Friends of Lulu may run into with such an undertaking.

On the message boards, some have praised the establishment of such a fund, while some have warned that the idea seemed rushed, half-baked. As much as organizers have worked quickly to research the legalities of the fund and place it on firm ground, it's hard to deny that it has come about out of desperation; it is the result of a profound wish to have something good come out of the sordid misery that in tiny increments and one unretractable leap has overtaken the lives of at least two people.

One of these people is Taki Soma, a 30-year-old Minneapolis-based beginning comics artist (Silent Forest for Silent Devil Productions, The West Side for Redoubt Studio). The other person is Charles Brownstein, who as the devoted and energetic executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, is a highly respected figure in the comics industry. Even after the information was leaked (in Ronée Garcia Bourgeois' Buzzscope Web column) that the man who allegedly victimized Soma was the "current leader of... a group which works diligently to help creators in need," Brownstein's name took a long time to rise to the top of an extremely short list of suspects. The reluctance to identify Brownstein's role in the scandal was so great that it was only after a detailed investigation, including questions directed to Columbus, Ohio, police officers, the CBLDF Board of Directors and each of the principals of the case that the Journal was able to obtain enough information to report unequivocally that he is the alleged aggressor in Soma's account. Most of those questions were greeted with "No comment," and the bulk of the answers that were allowed to slip out were off the record. The story that follows, including Brownstein's role in it, which was confirmed by police, has been pieced together from information obtained on the record from multiple sources.

Friends of Lulu Vice President (of Industry Issues) Ronée Garcia Bourgeois was responsible for bringing the incident to the public's attention Dec. 26, when she posted an angry if abbreviated account on her Buzzscope blog, What a Girl Wants. The details were skeletal: An industry professional -- the head of an organization aimed at assisting comics creators -- had taken an unidentified novice comics creator under his wing and betrayed her trust by groping her.

The reactions provoked by the post among followers of Bourgeois' column were predominantly compassionate but further subdivided into two categories: 1) the avowed desire to wreak Batman-like vengeance against the perpetrator, and 2) perplexity as to where to direct that vengeance or even what exactly was to be avenged. Referring to the alleged perpetrator as a "pervert" and a "leech," Bourgeois said, "I think he should burn. And as soon as I can, I will [identify him and his organization]."

Posters on the site took up the cry, using phraseology disturbingly redolent of an archetypal witch hunt: "Fire the bastard! Burn him at the stake!" (Posted by MiserableRainGod.) "Go to it Ronée! Consider my matches added to the fire ?" (Posted by Psychoweasel.) "Light the spark, start the fire, and smoke out the deviants, Ronée." (Posted by Joe Illidge.) The occasional posters who questioned whether enough of the full story was known to adequately judge it were generally shouted down. A police report had been filed, supporters were assured, and further details would be forthcoming. At the beginning of April, Bourgeois made good that promise, identifying the alleged victim as freelance artist Taki Soma and doling our a few more details of the incident -- this time in the words of the victim.

Some the Journal spoke with referred to the multiple perspectives on the events of the evening in question as a kind of Rashomon scenario, but in fact, the accounts the Journal has heard are much more compatible with one another than they are divergent. Soma was quoted as saying, "The incident happened late in the year of 2005 during pre-convention prepping and partying." Though she didn't identify the location or exact date, it wasn't hard to figure out that she was talking about Friday night, Nov. 25, at Mid-Ohio Con. At the end of the evening she would end up alone in hot tub with two men she described as "my friend Ken" and "a person I had met during a convention a little over a year ago and had developed an acquaintanceship from seeing him around at all the conventions I attend." Ken was Ken Lillie-Paetz, Canadian founder of Monkey Pharmacy Productions (which publishes Elsinore and other comics) and volunteer con assistant for the CBLDF. It was Lillie-Paetz who had introduced her to her year-old acquaintance: Charles Brownstein. "He knew everyone," Soma said in her online statement, "and [had] introduced me to the Editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, given me advice on my art, shared amusing tales about the industry, etc. -- I thought he was definitely someone I'd want to keep within networking relations, or so I thought..."

Those who know Brownstein can picture him earlier in the day: clean-shaven, conservatively groomed, probably wearing a suit and tie. At 27, he's been called the youngest 40-year-old in comics. But as the socializing phase of working the con circuit kicked in that evening, he began drinking -- first beers and later mixed drinks. It was Soma who was invited by friends to a hotel pool party and who convinced Brownstein and Lillie-Paetz to accompany her. "I was invited down to the pool in the hotel I was staying at by friends," Soma said, "but I turned the invitation down per I didn't have a bathing suit with me, but after some coaxing, it was decided that it was okay to go in my clothes -- But instead of swimming, there was an attached hot tub sectioned off in the pool, where everything is wide open and we all gravitated towards the hot tub to sit and just talk about comics and movies etc. I was thrown into the pool area by surprise a couple of times by this one man, which made me quite unhappy and uncomfortable."

"This one man" was Brownstein. The nature of his work frequently put Brownstein in socializing situations and Lillie-Paetz as a CBLDF volunteer had often seen him with a drink in his hand, but this evening he seemed to drift into an alcoholic fog deeper than any Lillie-Paetz had observed before. According to Soma's account, Brownstein (this individual)'s state of inebriation manifested itself in prankish roughhousing directed at her, much to her annoyance. "After a while," Soma continued, "most others went to their rooms and the remaining people were this individual, my friend Ken and myself..."

Lillie-Paetz told the Journal he climbed out and swam in the adjacent pool until he noticed "something weird happening" in the hot tub.

In her Buzzscope narrative, Soma said, "I excused myself and started to leave, but before I succeeded in getting out of the tub, this man grabs my shoulders from behind and started to massage me there, then slip his hands under my shirt, felt around my back and then slipped his left hand toward my left breast. He had his hand cupped on my breast when I pried him off of me. Ken, who was swimming, must have noticed what was happening and came in from over the ledge. I then stated again that I am leaving and started to get out of the tub when he grabs onto my shirt with his right hand and attempted to remove it off of me."

Lillie-Paetz told the Journal, "He was not letting her go and I had to pull his fingers back from her shirt without losing her shirt and without breaking his fingers. I had to kind of guess at how far I could pull his fingers back without breaking them." Asked if an attempt was made to reason with Brownstein, Lillie-Paetz said, "He was totally out of it."

Soma continued, "Ken grabs the man's offending hand to try to remove it while I grabbed the shirt down to keep it on me. I kept warning the attacker to let go, don't do this, etc.; and all three of us struggled for maybe 10 seconds, it was an awkward struggle because Ken and I are both trying to remove this man's hand away without having my top ripped or slipped off of me. Ken overpowered him and got his hand off of my shirt. Ken then told me to run back to my room."

The immediate aftermath saw Soma locked in her hotel bathroom, as Brownstein, gradually realizing the seriousness of his actions, attempted to apologize. The severely upset Soma refused to speak to Brownstein and he was walked back to his hotel room by Lillie-Paetz. No one was willing to talk about that walk on the record. All Lillie-Paetz would say was that, "He was very shocked at the extent of what he had done and very shocked that the police were called."

The incident allegedly occurred around 3 a.m. A couple of hours later, police filed a report on the matter. Lillie-Paetz said he waited "around the corner" while Soma recounted the incident to investigating officers. He expected to be questioned, but instead police left without speaking to either him or the accused. Little can be learned from the report available to the public, virtually all information having been redacted, including the victim's identity and the incident narrative. The offense comes under the category of "molesting" and is described in the report as a "sexual imposition," making it a misdmeanor. The alleged perpetrator's name doesn't appear in the report because Columbus Police elected not to make any arrests, one of the biggest initial mysteries in the case.

"This is where it gets complicated," Soma said in her Buzzscope statement; "the incident happened in Ohio, I'm in Minnesota, my witness, Ken is in Canada and the individual in question is in yet another state -- these factors have made it very difficult for me to obtain legal representation or to seek legal advice. I have made countless phone calls, researched, and all I get is the runaround and speculation as to what to do. Every single attorney I spoke with, civil, pro-bono, even the D.A.'s office in Ohio were unsure of how to advise me confidently -- I've also contacted various organizations, including those who give support to sexual violence victims, artists in need of legal advice, and even their contact attorneys -- and still, no solid legal advice."

Of course, as the victim of an alleged crime, Soma shouldn't be the one in need of legal counsel. And despite Soma's suggestion that the case was dropped by authorities because the principals in the case were all out-of-state residents, the state commonly extradites defendants across state lines, according to the Franklin County Prosecutor's Office, with one recent felon coming from as far away as Afghanistan. Detective David Phillips of the Columbus Special Victims Unit told the Journal, "There was a specific reason the case was closed and that is not it. If it's a misdemeanor, the defendant might not be extradited, but he could be arrested if he came back to Ohio. That is not a reason charges will not be pursued."

Phillips said he could not divulge the reason for the case's closure without permission of the victim, but, asked what kinds of circumstances under standard operating procedure would result in police dropping a case, he named only two possibilities: Either the victim has chosen not to press charges or there is a lack of evidence. "In the case of a misdemeanor, in our code, we are required to have corroborating evidence in order to prosecute," Phillips told the Journal.

Based on Soma's account on Bourgeois' blog, her molestation has the corroborating evidence of a witness -- her friend Ken, who helped wrestle her free from the groper's clutches. But Phillips said no witness was reported to police. Without a witness, he said, such incidents make for "hard cases. If somebody says, 'He put his hand under my top and tried to pull it off,' how in the world do you prove that before a jury?"

Though police told the Journal only the victim could give permission for redacted information in the report to be released, Lillie-Paetz said he and Soma were told the case was closed and its contents could not be revealed even to them. (In another odd discrepancy, Soma, who was 29 at the time, is identified as a 20-year-old in the report filed with Columbus Police.)

As a result, Soma reported on Buzzscope, "I felt overwhelmed and powerless... how can I not have any answers? -- I've been told to move on, I wasn't raped, it's no big deal, by a few... but it is a big deal to me. I understand fully what occurred, and I'm not here to say that my experience was as horrendous as rape cases are, but I was nonetheless wronged."

If Soma was feeling frustrated, Lillie-Paetz was also in an awkward position, torn between his loyalty to Soma and his loyalty to the CBLDF, of which Brownstein is the public face. With Lillie-Paetz as the intermediary, Brownstein made further apologies and offers of penance to Soma in the form of a donation to the charity of her choice and a promise to stay away from conventions where she was in attendance. From Soma's point of view, however, the man she had struggled with was a threat to other women like herself. "I also know that my incident was not an isolated case by this person," she told readers of Bourgeois' column, "but repeated behavior that has been escalating each time. I wouldn't forgive myself if I remained silent and just hoped it wouldn't happen again to someone else."

Lillie-Paetz's faith in the CBLDF was such that he convinced Soma to seek a solution through the organization's board of directors. From the beginning of the Internet speculations about the identity of the sexual predator at the head of an organization "to help creators in need," the CBLDF had maintained an understandable silence. When approached by the Journal, however, and told that this article would identify Brownstein as the individual in Soma's account, CBLDF President Chris Staros gave the following response on behalf of the board: "Certain allegations were brought to the Fund's attention. The board of directors has been dealing with the issue since the day after the incident, and has taken the matter very seriously. The board retained an outside investigator to conduct a thorough independent investigation, which has concluded. Appropriate actions have been taken based on the results of the investigation, but to protect the privacy rights of all the parties involved we cannot comment further."

The board handled the matter very carefully and by the book, refusing to divulge any details of its investigation to either the complaining victim or the accused employee. All that is known is that an outside attorney was brought in who questioned some of the women that Soma alluded to with her reference to "repeated behavior." What kind of repeated behavior? Nothing the Journal was able to discover, even among the worst hearsay and online gossip, amounted to more than instances of overly familiar touching and one unwanted backrub allegedly given to a volunteer. The board evidently concluded there was no reason to believe that whatever had transpired between Brownstein and Soma was likely to recur. If Soma had hoped her story would lead the board to permanently dismiss Brownstein from his post, that goal was not achieved. In fact, it was hard for her to see exactly what she had achieved, since the board could not tell her what actions it had taken without illegally violating the privacy of its employee. From Soma's point of view, the board's response must've boiled down to: We conducted an investigation and handled the matter internally. Now go away.

Having come up against what seemed to be unsympathetic brick walls in the bureaucratic responses of the police and the CBLDF board, not to mention a string of unhelpful lawyers, Soma turned to Friends of Lulu, the comics-industry support group for female professionals and readers. If the police and CBLDF had been impassive in their responses, Soma encountered the opposite extreme in FoL Vice President Ronée Bourgeois. The next thing Soma and Lillie-Paetz knew, even before the CBLDF had completed its slowly grinding investigation, Bourgeois had posted an outraged protest of Soma's alleged sexual harassment and subsequent stonewalling by "the powers that be." Bourgeois stopped short of naming names, but professed herself eager to do so: "I just want this organization and the man behind all of this to be warned. This WILL come out and I am gunning for him."

In a subsequent column, Bourgeois revealed, "At the age of 15, I was a victim of sexual assault. No tit grabs, no harmless flirtation... I was raped. And I was lost. The few people I told either did not believe me or told me it was my fault for letting him drive me home. Like I should have known that meant he would want to take my virginity as the price of the ride".

The hints dropped by Bourgeois' column, however, had an unforeseen consequence. The growing swarm of rumors and suspicions flew right past Brownstein and settled on Jim McLauchlin, director of A Commitment To Our Roots. A.C.T.O.R., which is aimed at helping indigent comics professionals, fit Bourgeois' description as well as the CBLDF, and its leader, who was not as familiar a public figure as Brownstein, was apparently more easily imagined as the villain in Bourgeois' scenario. McLauchlin was glad to be able to report that he'd been nowhere near Ohio at the time of the alleged incident.

Horrified by the extremity of some of the online responses and the fact that innocent people were being targeted for vengeance, Soma and Lillie-Paetz determined to set the record straight by posting a statement via Bourgeois' column identifying themselves and the alleged perpetrator. At the last minute, however, it was decided that the accused should not be named until Soma had gotten solid legal advice on the matter, and instead, Soma posted the account of her experience described above.

By that time, Brownstein's name was no longer above suspicion, but no one, not even his alleged victim, seemed to want to acknowledge his role in the incident in public. It was as if as long as the story remained on an abstract level -- brutal harassment, heartless industry cover-up -- the silhouette of the man who had allegedly clutched Soma's breast could stand in for every rumored industry harasser, every unreported assault on a comics creator who was too afraid to make trouble. And there are many such anonymous stories, though they seem to evaporate as one gets close to them. If the online bloodlust that followed Bourgeois' initial column seemed over-the-top, it may be because the posters weren't directing their rage at Brownstein, at a single accused harasser, but at a figure that stood as a symbol of all sexual violence and industry injustice. If they had only known it, the same people vowing to "stick his nuts in a blender," had probably earlier sung his praises as a tireless First Amendment crusader on behalf of the industry. But denied a name, Brownstein could take all the sins of the industry onto himself. He could even, for a minute, be the man who drove the 15-year-old Bourgeois home one night.

Now that he has become Charles Brownstein, the difficult job begins of weighing what we've been told of Soma's suffering and the ugliness of an unconscionable act one night at Mid-Ohio Con against the flesh-and-blood reality of who Brownstein is as a human being and what he has done for the comics industry. Is he a potential serial molester who's only begun to show his true predatory nature? Is he an unpredictable alcoholic set up with a per diem expense account and sent by the CBLDF to one convention party after another? Is he a hard-working, dedicated fundraiser who one night happened to drink the wrong combination of whiskey and forget himself? What is his side of the story anyway and how might it vary from Soma's? Does he need help? Does he deserve to be forgiven or banished from the industry? Can he live down the scandal and continue to do good work for the CBLDF or will the fundraising ability of a valuable organization be hampered? People will undoubtedly draw different conclusions about these questions, but at least those conclusions will be based on people's impressions of a real, live person, not a faceless bogeyman.

To some, the knowledge that Brownstein is the accused individual will cast the crime itself in a different light. Posters on Buzzscope speculated about what might have happened in the hot tub if a third party hadn't intervened, suggesting a worst-case rape scenario, but how plausible is that if Brownstein is identified as the offender? Even if we can countenance him being a molester, do we believe him capable of rape? Uncertainty can cut both ways. The account recorded that night by police described the "sexual imposition" as an "attempted fondling," but what do we really know of Brownstein's intentions? It wasn't a rape that was interrupted, after all, in Lillie-Paetz's account, but a threatened stripping of Soma's torso. Did Brownstein in his drunken state think it would be an amusing prank along the lines of pushing Soma in the pool to threaten a flash of her breasts? Did he even intend to carry out the threatened flash? Not even Soma can know what was in Brownstein's mind at the time, (and given his then-inebriated state, Brownstein himself might not be able to tell us with certainty) but his potential intentions as she imagined them must've been so terrifying to Soma that they still haunt her nearly six months later.

Weighing the seriousness of what she suffered versus the reputation of Brownstein and, perhaps more importantly, the reputation of the CBLDF is a dilemma that Soma has been faced with from the beginning. Ultimately, she is the only one who can know how much or how little she has been damaged by her experience and what will be necessary to give her a sense of resolution.

As the Journal was going to press, contact was made with Columbus Special Victims Unit Detective Eric Wooten, who had been more closely connected to the molestation case than previous sources at the police department. The information Wooten provided solved the mystery of why the case had been closed and no witness reported, but raised an even bigger mystery. According to the un-redacted report, at the end of Soma's account of the incident to police, her last words were that she did not want to pursue criminal charges. To police, that meant the investigation was over. There was no need to talk to a witness, no need to talk to the accused.

Was it possible that Soma was so drunk herself that she didn't remember telling police she didn't want to press charges that night? According to Wooten, "If she was in that condition, it would've been noted in the report and we probably wouldn't even have interviewed her at that time."

Why would Soma call off police, then later express public frustration at the lack of official response to her molestation? Did she think that police procedure would have allowed for some satisfactory action short of criminal prosecution? Did she later find that the incident had done her more psychic damage than she had initially realized -- that she needed resolution more than she had thought? Soma is again the only person who can answer those questions, and for the time being, she is not talking on the record.

Update: After going to press, the Journal learned that Taki Soma has re-contacted police and, with the help of Ken Lillie-Paetz, is looking into the possibility of re-opening the investigation into Brownstein's alleged "sexual imposition." According to Lillie-Paetz, Soma had initially declined to press charges because he had urged her to give the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund a chance to resolve the matter. Though she was told by police that she could decide to press charges at a later date, Lillie-Paetz said, when Soma later called about the case, someone at the Columbus Police Department told her it was closed and nothing could be done. Soma re-contacted police in April after learning from the Journal the case could be re-opened up to six months after the incident.

[To read the rest of this story, please see The Comics Journal #276.]

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