The chairman of a company that publishes six newspapers in Alabama has been accused of assaulting female employees by spanking them while he was a newsroom executive decades ago.
In reports published in Alabama news outlets, at least three women say H. Brandt Ayers, who became a nationally known voice of Southern liberalism during his tenure as editor and publisher at The Anniston Star, assaulted them in the mid-1970s, once using a metal ruler. The women and other former newsroom employees say Ayers had a reputation for spanking other women.
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Ayers — now 82 and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co., which operates six papers including The Star — issued a statement saying he "did some things I regret" when he was a "very young man with more authority than judgment."
An online publication, Alabama Political Reporter, first reported the allegations of former Star employee Veronica Pike Kennedy. The Star later published its own account quoting Kennedy and two other women who declined to have their names published; the Montgomery Advertiser also interviewed Kennedy and cited one woman who asked to remain anonymous.
Kennedy told the Advertiser she was working as a part-time clerk in a nearly deserted newsroom on a Saturday morning more than 40 years ago when Ayers after he asked her to read one of his columns and she jokingly asked who had written it.
"And he said, 'Oh, you are being a bad girl,'" Kennedy said. "'You know what I do to bad girls? I spank them."
Ayers forcibly pulled her out of a chair and whipped her with a metal ruler, Kennedy said. Kennedy said the episode led her to seek counseling years later.
"It was hard to trust anybody in authority for a long time after that," she said. "I had anger I didn't realize I had."
Mike Stamler told the Advertiser he was in the newsroom that day, working on a story. He said he remembered seeing Ayers and Kennedy disagreed about something, then saw the assault.
"I was stunned," he said.
Trisha O'Connor, a journalism professor who worked at the Star as a reporter and editor during the period, told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday that although she didn't witness or experience assaults, stories of Ayers' behavior were so numerous that she and other women at the paper would tell new female workers to avoid Ayers and stay away from his office unless accompanied by a supervisor.
"We took it to upper management and said, 'We need assistance. This is terrible.' Basically, from what we were able to see, nothing happened," said O'Connor, who teaches at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina.
Ayers did not return an email seeking comment. He addressed the accusations in a statement published by The Star on Monday:
"As a very young man with more authority than judgment, I did some things I regret," Ayers said. "At my advanced age I wish I could relive those days again, knowing the seriousness of my position and with the accumulated judgment that goes with age."
The incidents described are too old for any criminal charges to be filed.
Ayers stepped down last year as publisher of the Anniston newspaper. His successor, Bob Davis, did not return an email seeking comment on Ayers' position at Consolidated Publishing.
Ayers is a member of the Alabama Academy of Honor, which recognizes living Alabamians for their achievements. His syndicated column has been carried in papers statewide.
A longtime advocate of progressive policies in a deeply conservative state, Ayers has written articles for publications including The New York Times and was once a regular contributor to "Morning Edition" on National Public Radio.