The head of the British Council in Italy won a case of unjust dismissal after he was wrongly fired for unsubstantiated allegations that he was touching the breasts of an embassy worker during a drunken “Italian farewell” party.
Paul Sellers was accused of kissing a woman on the lips and “stroking” her chest with both hands as she left the Christmas party he was holding at his apartment in Rome.
The respected envoy – whose art historian’s wife and children were beside him at the time – denied giving him anything but kisses on both faces in the traditional Italian way known as “saluto”.
But after complaining of sexual harassment, he underwent a “seriously wrong” investigation and was fired after 30 years of service.
Paul Sellers was wrongly accused of kissing a woman on the lips and “stroking” her chest with both hands as she left the Christmas party he was holding in his apartment in Rome.
The Labor Tribunal concluded that the investigators had ignored the evidence, rejected the testimony of six witnesses who had not seen anything wrong, and instead chose to believe the woman’s “foggy” narrative, despite admitting that they were not 100 percent sure what had happened. “.
Mr Sellers, who previously held senior positions in India and the United Arab Emirates, has now successfully sued the British Council for unfair dismissal and is seeking compensation.
At a hearing in central London, it was heard that Mr Sellers had been appointed British Council Provincial Director for Italy in 2014 – a position that usually comes with a salary of £ 80,000 – and lived in Rome with his wife Isadora Papadrakakis.
About 50 people attended a Christmas party on December 16, 2018, and the tribunal heard that Mr. Sellers drank “two or three” glasses of wine and was seen dancing.
His prosecutor, named only “ZZ”, said goodbye to Mr. Sellers in the kitchen around 4:30 pm when she left, and the next day claimed that she had been sexually harassed.
ZZ, who said Mr Sellers was ‘quite drunk’, said: “At around 4.30 pm, when the party was over, I decided to leave and went to thank Paul.
Pictured: Sellers’ wife Isadora Papadrakakis
“When I went to kiss him goodbye, he kissed me twice on the side of my mouth (rather than on the cheek) and then stroked my chest with both hands.
“I was very shocked, so I didn’t react immediately and left the party. There were other people in the room, but I don’t know if they witnessed it. “
Following the complaint, Ken O’Flaherty, the embassy’s deputy head of mission, said the alleged groping was “obviously intentional” and even said Mr Sellers had been “unusual and atypically emotional” in recent months and needed an investigation.
Mr O’Flaherty added: ‘ZZ thinks Paul was” pretty drunk ”. He used to dance salsa with an intern …
“Paul drinks regularly at professional / social events. I did not see him incapable, but he has the effect of alcohol and consumes it more than many colleagues. “
When Mr. Sellers was informed of the allegations, he remained stunned and vehemently denied them.
“People would get a kiss on both cheeks,” he told investigators, explaining that he was busy handing out Italian farewell greetings to the people as they left his apartment, adding that he “had no specific memory” of saying goodbye to ZZ. .
His wife said ZZ was “new and not really integrated into the embassy” and “had the impression that ZZ was not in a good mood.”
Mrs. Papadrakakis was sure Mr. Sellers would not reach out [ZZ]he believed that ZZ was “dissatisfied with the work at the embassy” and said that “she can be conservative about the Italian style of greeting”.
The Deputy Director-General of the British Council, Kate Ewart-Biggs, led the investigation, which led to the release of Mr Sellers in May 2019.
However, the tribunal found that Ms. Ewart-Biggs had taken a “close look” at the incident, failed to investigate the alleged contact and circumstances surrounding it, tried to hear possible witnesses, and assumed no one else saw it.
The British Council in Rome and their roof garden. Government-sponsored council promotes British culture around the world by broadcasting the country’s great artists and an example of “soft power”
She accepted ZZ’s account, although it changed during the investigation, the Senate closed. Investigators also did not look for text messages that could support her claim.
Mrs. Ewart-Biggs said: “I have found this statement to be true. I had no reason to believe that ZZ lied or had a motive for that.
“I listened to the significant impact it had on her, her well-being and her level of anxiety.
“I talked to her and Mr. Sellers … Basically, I asked myself if I trusted ZZ or Mr. Sellers.”
“I found that based on the balance of probabilities, I trusted ZZ and I did not trust Mr. Sellers.
“I accepted that I would never be 100% sure of what had happened.”
Mr Sellers gave testimony to support his version of the appeals – but his case was rejected by Sir Ciarán Devan, the then head of the Council.
One onlooker, Monica Marziota, who was next to the couple as they said goodbye, said she saw a ‘completely normal Italian farewell salute’ or a ‘salute’.
She said: ‘They exchanged a few words, smiled and then said goodbye with a kiss on both cheeks, followed by a hug.
“Limited physical contact was short, friendly and direct.
“The interaction took place in close proximity to the clear view of a number of other guests, including Paul’s two children … neither of them seemed to register anything remotely unusual.”
But Miss Marziot’s trial – along with evidence from five other witnesses – was ignored.
Employment Judge Graeme Hodgson criticized the British Council’s investigation and ruled that Mr Sellers had been unfairly released.
Judge Hodgson said: “In this case, the investigation is characterized by serious oversights and unreasonable assumptions.
“No reasonable employer would fail to find relevant current documentation or to investigate the circumstances of the alleged attack or to obtain relevant evidence from witnesses to the alleged incident.
“It follows that, considering whether there were grounds for supporting this belief, I conclude that Ms Ewart-Biggs took a narrow view and did not take into account the relevant circumstances.
“Mrs. Ewart-Biggs” decided based on her opinion of who was telling the truth … It was clear that she based this decision on a very narrow view of the evidence.
“Evidence.” [from witnesses], is relevant, clear and compelling. If the British Council were to accept this evidence, I see no rational basis on which to continue to find sexual assault, as ZZ describes.
“Sir Ciaran Devane’s claim that the evidence was” prima facie convincing that the conclusion of the investigation was a mistake “is untenable.”
A British Council spokesman said: “We are determined to thoroughly investigate all complaints of sexual misconduct. We are disappointed with the decision of the labor court. We cannot comment further on individual cases. ”
Compensation will be awarded to Mr. Sellers later.