Ex-staff describe ‘rich stew of grossness’ at Vanguard Public Affairs

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Lansing political consultant TJ Bucholz and his firm Vanguard Public Affairs have made headlines following allegations of sexual harassment from more than a dozen former employees. But the story runs deeper than sexual innuendo and allegations of a “creepy” boss.

Several former employees described a hostile and toxic day-to-day work environment and an unpredictable man at the helm. Their last days were filled with constant worry that Bucholz would flip from gregarious laughter to explosive anger. Some also described bigoted comments about race and how employees at the firm were actively discouraged from getting pregnant — all while a steady stream of politicians wandered in and out of the offices, leaving the women with the perception that those politicos were aware of the “toxic” working environment.

That perception of support by powerful politicos made it harder to speak up or leave, some women have explained.

In a text message Tuesday, Bucholz declined to comment for this story, citing a perception of bias in reporting. (See full statement on P. 16)

For more than a week City Pulse spent hours speaking with seven former employees of Vanguard Public Affairs. Five women have agreed to have their names included in this story. One woman and one man have asked to remain anonymous, but their identities were verified by City Pulse.

Together, their stories paint a picture of a workplace on the edge: emotionally and financially. They also illustrate a protective network of political power players — “good ol’ boys” — who control political contracts, influence and paychecks.

Abby Clark, 38, was one of the more experienced employees at Vanguard. She thinks that a firm staffed almost entirely by women was a savvy business maneuver for Bucholz. But it also raised eyebrows. At least one outsider jokingly referred to the firm as “Hooters,” Clark recalled.

“I honestly thought it made him a little bit smart. Such smart, hard-working people for bargain prices. You can get a more talented woman that will work longer hours at a lower rate. Everybody knows that,” Clark recalled of the all-female employee situation. “And I will say, he told us how smart and talented we all were. He really did have an eye for talent. And you know, it’s flattering to have your talent recognized. I think that’s how it starts for everybody.”

Another former employee, Ashlea Phenicie, described to City Pulse a series of incidents involving Bucholz that made her want to leave the company. But calling out sexual harassment and an abusive atmosphere, she feared, would only tarnish her capacity to take another job.

“As I was there wanting to leave, I was really afraid that a lot of people who are in positions of power knew that TJ treated young women like this, and I was really afraid that they would see that I had been promoted several times and attribute that to something other than my work, assume that I had given him sexual favors or done something else like that,” Phenicie added.

There was no sexual contact described between Bucholz and Phenicie — or any other woman interviewed for this story. But many of them faced a variety of sexually inappropriate conduct.
Phenicie, for instance, said she was provided a “graphic” description of Bucholz’ vasectomy while in the car. Bucholz also brought his handgun into her office and asked her to “touch it.”

“It felt like a power move with a sexual innuendo implied,” Phenicie said of the gun incident, noting that Bucholz would also encourage his staff to accompany him to the shooting range.

Another former staffer, Mariah Prowoznik, said Bucholz flashed his gun to her while she drove them to a meeting near Detroit. He kept it in the center counsel of his BMW, she explained.

One unnamed woman shared graphic text messages from Bucholz with the Eclectablog in which he asked for explicit pictures. Prowoznik also received an unsolicited photo from Bucholz of him shirtless in a bow tie. He had been discussing wearing a bowtie to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s inaugural ball in Detroit but had complained he didn’t know how to tie one.

Each of the women shared individual stories and text messages that, taken alone, could be dismissed — but taken together they painted a picture of a toxic workplace.

All of the women shared stories of Bucholz’s calling them into his office and discussing what television hosts were wearing and whether it was flattering. He would also comment on appearances of women at staff meetings, according to at least one former employee.

Another former staffer, Chelsea Coffey, recalled a series of inappropriate texts from Bucholz, including a marriage proposal after she sent him a picture of a loaf of bread from his favorite bakery and another in which he discussed how she looked “um… healthy” in another image.

The comment was in response to an image of her holding open a jacket to show off her shirt in what she called a “superman” pose. Coffey presumed Bucholz’ comment was about her breasts.

In a performance review, Phenicie remembered being directed to spice up her wardrobe and to always be “camera ready” in the office. That review was performed by an employee, who was based in Texas and had no daily contact with Phenicie or supervisory responsibility of her. She, as well as the remaining staff and contractors quit the firm on Monday. In a statement they denied knowledge of any of the allegations leveled by former employees. 

It wasn’t that Phenicie was dressed in a t-shirt and jeans — she was in business wear with light makeup and her hair in a bun. But being “camera ready” she was told meant to wear dresses, wear her hair down and having full make up. She noticed that when she complied, she was given more work.

Clark said she dealt with a barrage of outbursts from Bucholz — including instances of yelling and berating staff — but she did not receive any of the direct sexual harassment from him that other former staffers have outlined. She dodged the worst of Bucholz’ behavior, she said.

“What came out first was abusive behavior, erratic, unpredictable moods and a temper. People would get screamed at,” she said. “It starts to get everybody a little scared and a little on edge.”

Clark was not alone in experiencing erratic and abusive behavior. Coffey, who since moved from Michigan to Florida and left political work altogether, also recalled an unpredictable Bucholz.

“He would fly off the handle at any little thing and start yelling and swearing,” Coffey said.

Rachel Felice, another former employee, had similar recollections.

“He was very high some days, in a great mood, calling everybody buddy, calling everybody pal, ‘Let’s go out to lunch,’ ‘Let’s have a couple beers on the patio,’ and then the next day he could come in and just be very verbally abusive and take out his behavior on others or anger on others,” Felice said. “And so, if he owed you money, you had to wait until the right moment to ask him, because depending on his mood, it could go one way or the other — so we just had to be careful of what mood he was in.”

One of the few men who worked at the firm also confirmed common screaming outbursts and door-slamming incidents. Trent, who asked not to be identified by his real name, said he wasn’t regularly in the office, so he often heard about Bucholz’ behavior from his female colleagues.

When Clark wasn’t in the office, she would also get phone calls from staff about his behavior — actions ranging from loud outbursts to temper tantrums. With more experience under her belt, she felt obligated to protect her fellow coworkers by being in the office as much as possible.

Other stories about Bucholz from ex-staffers at Vanguard ranged from inappropriate text messages of a sexual nature to strange requests that he be driven places in his own BMW. Prowoznik said she was often pulled away from time sensitive projects in order to drive him on non-work-related errands and to client meetings. 

Others also described instances where Bucholz would encourage staff to drink during the day.
Phenicie took a job at Vanguard as a communications associate in 2016. She said the initial round of job interviews didn’t raise any red flags, but soon after starting, things felt out of place.

“The first thing that was strange to me was that they had a bar in the office and TJ would encourage people to drink at the office,” she said, noting that Bucholz specifically said he would not consider hiring anyone under the age of 21, so the open bar “wouldn’t be a problem.”

Mariah Prowoznik left the firm shortly after her promotion to creative director. She said she also saw — and participated — in the day drinking during her time at Vanguard. The downtown office was always stocked with alcohol, including cabinets with various whiskeys and beer, she said.

Prowoznik recalled raising concerns to Bucholz after an underage intern, the son of a client, cracked open a Corona while she was the only other employee in the office. The intern was forced to dump the beer. The next day, he was called into Bucholz’ office but not fired, she said.

And that was not the only instance of underage drinking. When Prowoznik got engaged to City Pulse Managing Editor Kyle Kaminski while working at Vanguard, Bucholz offered to throw a celebration for the couple on the agency’s balcony. Unbeknown to Prowoznik, Bucholz invited his wife and two children — as well as his 15-year-old niece who was staying with them.

Everyone was served champagne, including the underage people present. One staffer, a recovering alcoholic, refused to drink, but Bucholz attempted to bully her into a glass, Prowoznik said. Clark also confirmed the story. 

As creative director, Prowoznik had some hiring responsibilities at Vanguard. She recalled a discussion with Felice about a desire to bolster racial diversity among the staff in the office.

“I made the comment where we should have some diversity, because it was very clear to me that we were all white people and white women, and I said we should focus on diversity and hire some good candidates,” Felice remembered. “His response was: ‘Yeah, totally down for that,’ but he said that he hates Asians and he would never hire an Asian to work for him.”

Prowoznik recalled the same incident — including Bucholz’ anti-Asian sentiments.

“I don’t remember fully, but I think he just straight up said, ‘I don’t like Asians. I would never hire an Asian,’” Prowoznik recalled. “I just kind of looked at him like, ‘I can’t believe that came out of your fucking mouth.’ Rachel, I think, laid into him and was like, ‘You cannot say that.’”

One of Vanguard’s higher profile clients was Shri Thanedar, a South Asian American who ran for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018. In a phone conversation, Thanedar denied any knowledge of an anti-Asian bias at the firm and noted he had “terminated” his relationship with Vanguard before the primary. He said the decision to terminate the contract was purely business, noting he had hired his own staff to do the work Vanguard was doing.

Former employees said Vanguard also nearly took on a contract to do public relations for convicted sex offender Larry Nassar, but women in the firm talked Bucholz out of the decision. That was later used by Bucholz as evidence of a collaborative working environment, they said.

Prowoznik also recalled Felice leaving the room mid-meeting with a high-profile client who was involved in a racial discrimination lawsuit. She said the clients had used racist language in a client consultation.

Afterwards, Prowoznik said she blocked her access to that client’s files on the company’s internal project management system. The particular interaction also bothered Prowoznik enough for her to approach Bucholz and ask to kill the client contract, a request to which she said Bucholz replied: “Oh, it’s too much money.”

Felice declined to discuss the contract citing an NDA. But according to several other former employees interviewed by City Pulse, money was always a constant issue at Vanguard. 

Kersten Kruse, who worked at the company for nearly a month, said she constantly answered phone calls from people demanding bills be paid. Several of the women saw “inch thick” envelopes from the IRS arrive on a weekly basis. Prowoznik, at one point, said she found a filing cabinet full of notices from the IRS while looking for office supplies. Afterwards, she was chastised by Bucholz and asked to show up the next morning at 7 a.m. and return the keys that had made that particular filing cabinet accessible.

Others were also berated for discussing the issue, which was never fully disclosed to staff.

Some staff also described payroll issues, including bounced checks and not being paid for bonuses owed. Clark specifically said Bucholz, at one point, had owed her thousands of dollars.

And while Bucholz did not cover health insurance for everyone, some women said he would pay their monthly premiums out of pocket — but only by going to Bucholz and asking for the cash. Some women said they often timed their requests around Bucholz’ unpredictable behavior.

Former staff also said internships and other low-level positions would suddenly appear without notice, often fueled by an inordinate number of graduates from Central Michigan University.

Clark said Bucholz appeared to use his connection with Steve Coon — a college friend, journalism professor at CMU and senior adviser at Vanguard — to help recruit young women. At least two former employees told City Pulse they were referred to the firm under Coon’s advice.

“There is this revolving door of young women from CMU,t and it seems like the well never runs dry even though the turnover is so high,” Clark said. “I think that’s partially the industry. And yet, also somehow men never appear in this doorway either. And, again, I’m sure the department is more female than male, but I just don’t think it’s a coincidence. I think it’s like a little routine.”

Coon was placed on leave by CMU last week following inquiries by City Pulse about his role in encouraging women to work for Vanguard and has not responded to questions via Facebook.

Kruse also told City Pulse that she had heard rumors of issues at Vanguard in terms of toxic workplace, finance and managerial abuse. But she said Coon assuaged those concerns, claiming that the rumors were fueled by Bucholz’ competitors to stop him from succeeding.

Kruse said she believed him, but resigned after less than a month at the firm, in part because she was not being paid and was not doing the workload that she was promised. Much of her time at Vanguard was spent on the phone with people demanding unpaid bills be paid, she said.

The CMU investigation also expanded to another staffer after it was revealed that student newspaper adviser Dave Clark was told by Kruse and Prowoznik that Bucholz was a “creep.” Clark said he hadn’t referred anyone to Vanguard in “a long time.” Still, his failure to report those concerns to university administrators could lead to more consequences than a temporary leave.

CMU announced Tuesday it has hired outside counsel, Matthew Schneider of Honigman LLP, to conductive investigation.

Clark could not be reached for comment. He has also been suspended from the board of the Michigan Press Association, which City Pulse is a member, because he does not currently represent a newspaper. The MPA Board said the suspension was not a judgment on his role, just a decision required by an association bylaw that board members must be able to “actively” represents their organizations. His suspension will hold until CMU has completed its investigation, and the board of the Press Association may take further action depending on that outcome. 

The “rich stew of grossness,” as former staffer Abby Clark defined the working environment, became too much and she, Prowoznik and Felice plotted their escape during the summer of 2019. By October 2019, they had all left for different jobs, carrying the wounds of their time at Vanguard and unsure of who, when or if they could ever tell their stories. And now, they have.

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