Sunday, September 5, 2004

While admired by some at Enquirer, Collins no stranger to office gossip



By Dan Horn and Jennifer Edwards
Enquirer staff writers

Rebecca Collins embraced the idea of taking chances, of doing things no one expected her to do.

"Take risks," she once wrote in a column for The Cincinnati Enquirer. "And don't listen if someone says it can't be done."

Over time, some would see the risks she took as admirable, even inspiring. She was a single mom who worked her way through Northern Kentucky University and then law school, often taking her elementary-aged son to class with her because she couldn't find a baby-sitter. She earned good grades, held down a full-time job at the Enquirer, and pursued what seemed to many an unlikely dream of becoming a lawyer.

But even as she earned respect for her guts and accomplishments, Collins' willingness to take chances also got her into trouble.

She challenged bosses, argued with co-workers and behaved in ways that - fairly or not - made her the subject of office gossip.

And after joining the Hamilton County prosecutor's office in 1999, Collins took another risk: She had a 31/2-year sexual affair with Prosecutor Mike Allen, an affair she says was not her idea and was not always consensual.

"He was not only my boss, but perhaps the most powerful politician in town," said Collins, 33, who accuses Allen of sexual harassment in a federal lawsuit. He was "a man who could make or break my career."

Allen admitted the affair nearly two weeks ago, calling it consensual. He has steadfastly denied Collins' claims of sexual harassment.

When Collins met Allen in 1999, as an intern at the prosecutor's office, she was a 28-year-old law student who had spent her entire adult life balancing work, school and time with her son, Matthew.

Raised in Burlington, Ky., Collins attended Orchard Street Christian School in Elsmere - her father was a preacher - and graduated at the top of the Class of 1988, at age 16. She got married, gave birth at 18 to Matthew, then divorced four years later.

She started her career at the Enquirer in 1991 as a news aide and later became copy editor for the editorial page. Her boss, Peter Bronson, said he was impressed with her willingness to take on more challenging assignments.

The newspaper's human resources department would not release her personnel file, but Bronson described her as a good employee.

"I saw a hard-working single mom who was doing everything she could to advance herself and her career," said Bronson, now a Metro columnist and her boss when he was editorial page editor.

She also seemed at first to fit in well with a young newsroom staff, often attending weekend parties and poker games. "She's always been a pleasant, nice person," said Brian Gregg, a friend and a former Enquirer reporter.

From the beginning, Collins made it a point to get to know people outside her own department.

"She was good at networking. She looked for it, and a lot of people don't," Bronson said. "I wouldn't describe her as excessively ambitious, but she was alert to opportunities to meet people who could help her."

Some in the newsroom said those efforts made her seem manipulative. Collins acknowledges she was the subject of office gossip, most of which, she says, was ridiculous. But some of that gossip is now of interest to Allen's lawyers, who want to know more about Collins' past relationships and conduct in the workplace.

Of particular interest are any relationships she may have had with supervisors.

"Prior sexual behavior and prior statements ... can be very relevant as to someone's credibility and believability," said Michael Hawkins, Allen's lawyer.

Several past and present Enquirer employees say Collins was close to a former manager at the paper who was not her direct supervisor. When asked about the relationship Saturday, Collins described it as platonic.

"I think journalists, especially, are good at gossip," Collins said.

She left the newspaper in 1998 to attend law school at Boston University. She returned home a year later to enroll at the University of Cincinnati's law school after deciding the move East was too difficult for her son.

She needed a job, so Bronson, who considers Allen a friend, recommended her for an internship at the prosecutor's office.

"That carried a lot of weight here," said Karl Kadon, chief assistant prosecutor.

The affair with Allen began within a few months, in December 1999. Allen has said it ended in August 2003, but Collins said he continued to pursue her throughout this year.

Collins and Allen both insist she didn't get special treatment at work. But her personnel files portray her as an employee who flouted office rules and was never punished. She routinely arrived late to work, argued with co-workers and missed court assignments, those records show.

"Almost universally, all of my prosecutors who came through the division had problems with Rebecca's personality," said Rob Dziech, Collins' supervisor in the juvenile division of the prosecutor's office. "She is just not somebody who is very inviting. ... She had quite a bit of problems."

Collins said Dziech had a "vendetta" against her - a claim Dziech denies - and her lawyers say the criticism in her files is an attempt to "trash her reputation."

But others in the prosecutor's office describe Collins as combative and unreliable. And although her bosses insist they didn't give her special treatment because of the affair, some of her co-workers often did.

"To tell you the truth, I was frightened to death of her because of her relationship with Mike," said Christian Schaefer, an assistant prosecutor. "I didn't want to even look cross-eyed at her because she would run and tell Mike."

Collins complained last year that Schaefer sexually harassed her and said Allen and her supervisors did nothing about it.

After she made the allegation, Schaefer said: "This woman must be totally nuts."

As the scandal at the prosecutor's office continues to unfold, those who have known Collins over the years aren't entirely sure what to make of it. On one hand, they can see how her ambition and aggressive personality could lead her to risk everything.

But on the other, they have a hard time picturing the tough, determined woman they knew as the kind of person who would be coerced into an affair, as she claims in her lawsuit.

"That person described in the lawsuit doesn't sound like the same Rebecca Collins," Bronson said. "I saw her more as a strong-willed single mother determined to make a better life for her and her son."

Enquirer reporter Sharon Coolidge contributed to this article. E-mail dhorn@enquirer.com and jedwards@enquirer.com




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