Greg Shenkman, CEO of a San Francisco software company, allegedly used work visas to import an Eastern European woman as a sexual plaything, according to a former assistant who is charging him with sexual battery.
Shenkman's company, Exigen Group, has 2,000 employees stretching from Latvia to Australia. Like many offshore IT firms, it uses cheap overseas labor to deliver software and IT services more cheaply than local firms can. But Iryna Kharchenko, Shenkman's former executive assistant, has accused her boss of seeking other services overseas.
According to a lawsuit filed in California Superior Court Monday, Shenkman systematically harassed Kharchenko over the course of almost five years, starting with a job interview where she says he stared fixedly at her breasts, and leading up to an alleged sexual assault in the office. Kharchenko's charges against Shenkman include sexual battery, harassment, discrimination, wrongful termination, and retaliation.
Shenkman is a wealthy software entrepreneur who sold a telecom startup to Alcatel in 1999 for $1.5 billion. Leslie Stahl profiled his workaholic habits for 60 Minutes. When he demonstrated his in-shower email display to Stahl, he accidentally wetted the newswoman down.
Kharchenko, like Shenkman, is a native of the Ukraine. She says she dreamed for years of finding a job in the U.S. She won a scholarship to a South Carolina college and then returned to the Ukraine to work. In January 2004, she applied for a job at Exigen in Moscow. After a group interview in a room full of "model-like women," she got the job on an H-1B visa, and Shenkman moved Kharchenko to an apartment he owned just outside San Francisco.
H-1B visas are popular with Silicon Valley employers like Exigen. Unlike more general work permits, they are tied to a specific employer, making the employee dependent on a boss's good graces. Kharchenko's complaint charges:
Defendants Shenkman and Exigen appeared to be abusing the immigration visa system in order to procure a steady stream of young, eastern European women to satisfy Defendant Shenkman's sexual desires.... these young women would find themselves tied to Exigen ... trapped thousands of miles from home without families or friends, and at the mercy of a wealthy and influential sexual predator who does not know how to take "no" for an answer.
Among other incidents of sexual battery detailed in the complaint, Kharchenko alleges that Shenkman touched her vagina, groped her breasts, ordered her to give him a hand job in his home, and threw her up against a wall and pressed his body against her at the office. Kharchenko says that she tolerated the harassment for years because she feared losing her job.
Kharchenko plans to present evidence that Shenkman fraudulently abused the H-1B program which requires that foreign workers only be granted visas if they possess skills unavailable in the U.S. Her application describes her as an "executive legal analyst." Yet the job she applied for was that of an executive assistant, and her duties were those of an executive assistant.
According to Kharchenko, she knows of as many as eight women at Exigen who were harassed by Shenkman. She says that three complied with his demands for sexual favors. Five, like Kharchenko, resisted. According to her complaint, one woman gave Shenkman massages with his shirt off in the office. He routinely unbuttoned women's shirts and rubbed their stomachs, Kharchenko says.
Why did the alleged harassment persist for so long? It could have something to do with the fact that Exigen's director of human resources, Tanya Veshnyakova, was formerly Shenkman's executive assistant — and was also in the U.S. on an H-1B visa. She frequently accompanied Shenkman on business trips to New York. When she returned to the San Francisco office with new outfits, Veshnyakova told Kharchenko that Shenkman had bought them for him and called him her "sugar daddy."
When Kharchenko told Veshnyakova of her concerns over Shenkman's harassment, Veshnyakova told her that she had gone through "similar experiences," and said that every employee must make her own decision on how to handle it. Kharchenko filed a complaint with California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing in September 2008. In December, she was fired.
Veshnyakova is still the company's director of human resources.
Update: A source inside Exigen tells us that the company held a three-hour sexual-harassment seminar last week for all employees, conducted by outside lawyers from Silicon Valley law firm Wilson Sonsini.
Excerpts of the complaint:
The full complaint: