Latest Rustic Pathways News
Dec 2, 2015
Comments David VenningRustic Pathways CLEVELAND, Ohio -- A confidential memo lays out the case for why Rustic Pathways , a Geauga County-based student-travel company, needed to immediately separate itself from its founder and longtime leader. The document tells a story of Henry "David" Venning, 55, creating a sexually charged atmosphere at a company facility in Thailand where he lived part-time and coercing three low-ranking members of the company's Asian staff into sexual contact with him against their will. (Related: Leader of local student-travel company resigned after internal investigation found he coerced employees into sex acts, confidential memo says ) He rewarded employees, many of whom came from impoverished communities, who gave in to his advances with money and travel, and threatened those who dared to speak about his "personal relationships," according to the memo. A lightly redacted copy of the confidential memo, written in August 2013 by a law firm the company hired to review a six-month internal investigation into Venning's conduct, recently was obtained by cleveland.com. This article is drawn from the roughly 40-page memo, and includes printed excerpted passages. Venning, who remains the company's owner, declined an interview request for this story. In a statement shared with cleveland.com by his attorney, Venning said: "While I do not agree with all the findings of the investigation as they were relayed to me, I concluded more than two years ago that the best course for Rustic Pathways going forward would be for me to resign as chairman and CEO, to place my equity holdings in the company in a trust, and to step away from any operational, programming or management role at the company. That is exactly what I did. I will not be commenting any further on this matter. " 'Upset and distressed' student makes a call The chain of events that led to Venning's resignation started in February 2013, after a teenage student traveler told company employees she'd heard something disturbing, according to the memo. The Ricefields Service Base in ThailandRustic Pathways The memo said that as part of an extended trip chartered through Rustic Pathways, the student made a stop in Thailand, where she stayed at a sprawling, resort-like company complex known as the Ricefields Service Base , near the Thai-Laotian border. During peak travel months, the base serves as a major center of operations for Rustic Pathways, serving as destination for both students traveling through the company and a training center for employees. In the off-season, the facility functions as a hotel. The American student befriended the Ricefields staff, natives of Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos, according to the memo. Employees told her that Venning was paying male Asian staff members for "sex acts," and that a "rotation" of them stayed with Venning in his room at night, the memo said. According to the memo, she said Asian staff members told her they were aware of the arrangement, but were afraid to report it out of fear of losing their jobs, the memo said. The student, "upset and distressed," first reported what she said she'd heard to two female American employees, the memo said. She then called Chris Stakich, then the company's U.S.-based chief operating officer, according to the memo. Venning overheard the student talking to Stakich, the memo said. The company's U.S.-based human resources director, Orville McEacheron, filled in Venning on the details of the student's complaint and asked Venning to remove himself from the workplace, according to the memo. Instead, Venning: Venning, who is 6-foot-8, confronted the two female U.S. employees in their bedroom for 45 minutes, telling them it was time to "come clean" and that he wanted to "nip this in the bud," according to the memo. He later showed an increased interest in their work, by observing as they taught classes, asking to sit with them for dinner and offering to do them favors, according to the memo. During his meeting with the Asian employees, Venning said that two or three people in the room were going to be fired for having talked about his "personal relationships, according to the memo. " The memo said the company concluded this later made some staff reluctant to share what they knew. The investigation gains steam Meanwhile, in the United States, Stakich in March assembled a team to oversee an investigation into the allegations. He picked the company's next three highest-ranking officials: McEacheron, then-human resources director, Gabriel Porter-Henry, then-director of global risk, and then-Finance Director Ginger Bartholomew. But it wasn't until April 25, after the father of the American student called to demand action, that the company brought in the law firm to assist and assigned additional employees to the investigation, the memo said. In May, Venning agreed to temporarily step aside as CEO and chairman while the investigation was ongoing, with Stakich taking control of the company, according to company officials. The memo said the team interviewed 27 people, including Asian and American staff, and found: The 18-year-old employee had been advised by a senior Asian Rustic Pathways employee who was a former sexual partner of Venning's that "Mr. Venning was lonely and it would be good for [the employee] to become closer to Mr. Venning," according to the memo. Even though the employee was not homosexual, and even though he thought Venning was "too old," he decided to acquiesce to the pressure, the memo said. The memo also said, in Thailand: Both employees said Venning paid them following sexual encounters, according to the memo. The memo refers to the payments as "pocket money" or "tips. " Investigators also found that Venning arranged for the company to transport to the United States some of the men who gave him massages and engaged in sexual contact with him, the memo said. The 18-year-old employee said he was directed to sleep in Venning's bed while traveling, "but the sexual activity that took place was 'just holding,'" the memo said. According to the memo, this employee reported being paid by Venning after three massages in Thailand. The first time, he said Venning made no advances, and paid him "a significant amount" afterward, the memo said. The employee told investigators that he resisted Venning's progressively aggressive advances in the second and third massages, the memo said. Following the second and third massages, the employee said, Venning paid him a smaller amount each time, according to the memo. Reached by cleveland.com, the now-former employee said in a message that nothing bad happened to him during his time with the Rustic Pathways. He also praised Venning as a great "boss, [teacher], a father for me. " Company officials told cleveland.com the former employee left for personal reasons unrelated to the investigation. Other attempts by cleveland.com to reach Asian employees identified as victims in the memo were not successful. A senior American employee also told investigators that an Asian staff member had reported feeling that Venning was sexually pursuing him in a way that made him feel "confused and uncomfortable," according to the memo. Venning gave the Asian employee "a number of gifts, including a motorbike and a cell phone," the memo said. Venning instructed the American employee not to share what he termed as his "hanging out" with the Asian employee, according to the memo. But the memo said that when interviewed by the company, the Asian employee didn't mention any of the gifts, and only said Venning once told him that he was lonely. The memo said that employees who gave in to Venning's advances said they were not homosexual, and only complied because they felt they were directed to, citing the cultural severity in Thailand of saying 'no' to the boss, according to the memo. In addition, the law firm said in the memo that "the money, additional food, gifts and evident travel provided to these men in exchange for sexual acts or staying physically in shape is significant, in light of the backdrop of the impoverished community. " In the early days of the investigation, the memo said Venning admitted to what he characterized as consensual sexual encounters with the two employees who the memo said were coerced into giving in to his advances. The memo states Venning also said he'd had relationships with two other higher-ranking employees spanning the majority of his 31 years of running Rustic Pathways. (The company agreed these two relationships were consensual, according to the memo. ) But on two separate occasions, the memo said, Venning also disclosed to company investigators sexual encounters with as many as four additional subordinate employees. He later denied making those statements, the memo said. In his responses to company officials, Venning continually compared his "relationships" to those that existed between employees within the company, according to the memo. He also said the massages were necessary to treat his back condition, and said he didn't remember any of the massages leading to sexual contact, the memo said. But the memo said Venning denied paying his employees for sex acts, saying any payments were unrelated gifts. The investigation did not uncover any evidence that Venning had sexual contact with anyone who was under 18, according to the memo. But the memo states that while the employee with whom Venning was in a "relationship" was 18 at the time of the investigation, company investigators found that both the employee's and Venning's responses to questions "caused them to be suspicious of the truth of their assertions that [the employee] was 'over 18' when the conduct occurred. " The investigation did not find that Venning's alleged sexual misconduct involved any students traveling with Rustic Pathways, according to the memo. But it did find that as part of one program, students ages 16 through 18 were taken at Venning's direction to sexually oriented entertainment venues, including strip clubs and places where men, marked with numbers, could be solicited as prostitutes, according to the memo. At one venue, the students witnessed "live sex acts," according to one parent who complained later, according to the memo. Company officials told cleveland.com the trip to Bangkok's Red Light District was improvised by Venning during a program through which students interviewed people from various impoverished backgrounds. "It's not something that we condoned as a company or would condone," Stakich said in an interview. Company officials told cleveland.com parents were notified of the trip to the red-light district shortly before it happened. All the students, with the exception of those who went on to college, ended up traveling through Rustic Pathways again. "Continued pattern of improper conduct" The memo said Venning did not allow the investigators to access his computer, from which he said he'd deleted files. Still, the law firm found that Venning's actions could provide a basis for him or the company to be sued or criminally prosecuted. The law firm said in the memo this was despite Venning's repeated efforts to manipulate the investigation's outcome. Venning, even while under heavy ethical scrutiny, continued to display inappropriate behavior, the law firm said in the memo. The memo said this includes requesting that the company pay to transport "young Burmese staff" to accompany him to the U.S., and "apparently threatening retaliatory action, including legal action, against the subordinate members of his own organization in the event they believe the information provided by witnesses, rather than believing his own self-serving, contradictory assertions. " Removing Venning would limit the company's future legal liability by showing Rustic Pathways took action to separate him from "any position of continued control over the victims of his sexual advances," the memo states. Anything less than a full separation, the law firm said in the memo, would imply that Venning "retains authority to repeat egregious conduct and bully his subordinates into tolerating and even assisting it. " This story was corrected to reflect that Rustic Pathways officials said parents of students taken to the Red Light District were notified shortly before the trip occurred, not afterward.