Insurers for Dane County and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums have agreed to pay a combined $2.8 million to a former UW-Madison researcher who accused Vilas Zoo Director Ronda Schwetz of sexually assaulting him during a 2018 work trip to Seattle and later retaliating against him for reporting it, according to the final draft of the civil suit’s settlement obtained by the Wisconsin State Journal.
Schwetz and the AZA do not have to admit wrongdoing under the settlement, but court documents from the case, filed in King County Superior Court in Seattle, show Schwetz made other sexual advances toward men in a bar during the AZA conference in Seattle, which led to a verbal reprimand by AZA leadership.
The AZA then failed to act after it learned that Schwetz sabotaged the researcher’s employment at a different zoo, according to a letter to members drafted by the AZA under the terms of the settlement, reached in December.
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Schwetz also joked that she needed “a hit man” when friends asked how they could help her handle the criminal charge and civil suit filed against her by the researcher, according to text messages that were court exhibits in the case.
Under the settlement, Dane County's insurer must pay $500,000 to the researcher. The insurer for the AZA, an independent accrediting group for the country’s zoos, must pay $2.3 million. The payout is for damages related to the alleged discrimination, retaliation and distress experienced by the researcher.
The former UW-Madison researcher, who the State Journal is not naming because he is the victim of an alleged assault, said Schwetz drunkenly groped and laid on top of him while they shared a room together during a 2018 AZA conference in Seattle.
Schwetz denies the researcher’s allegations and said Monday that she’s happy the civil suit has been resolved.
“I have agreed to settle the case so that my family and I can move forward with our lives,” Schwetz said in an email.
“It is time for me to focus my full attention now to the important work of wildlife conservation and education in our community,” she said.
Greg Brockmeyer, Dane County director of administration, emphasized that the agreement between Schwetz, the AZA and the researcher is a disputed claim and that none of the parties have admitted wrongdoing.
“As such, the county’s position regarding Ms. Schwetz’s employment has not changed,” Brockmeyer said in an email.
County Executive Joe Parisi did not respond to a request for comment about Schwetz’s continued leadership at the county-operated zoo.
‘Took no action’
In a letter to its members, the AZA said it did not live up to its “zero tolerance” policy for sexual harassment and retaliation in its handling of the matter. During 2018 and 2019, the AZA received “credible complaints about sexually inappropriate conduct at conferences” by Schwetz but “took no action at all.”
At the time, the UW-Madison researcher had an office at Vilas Zoo and Schwetz was his supervisor. The two shared a hotel room during the Seattle trip due to budget constraints.
Ten months after the alleged assault, the researcher reported it to former AZA Executive Director Kristin Vehrs. Days later, he told Vehrs he had taken a job with the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.
But he was fired just days into his new position, his lawsuit alleged, after his supervisor reported hearing concerning things about the researcher’s character from individuals associated with the AZA.
In its letter to members, the AZA said Schwetz and her close associates on AZA committees had interfered with the researcher’s work and employment opportunities.
“Once we learned of the attack and retaliatory conduct, we should have worked to prevent retaliation by these individuals,” the AZA said.
“Because we did nothing, we failed our membership in this regard as well,” the group said.
The researcher reported the assault to Seattle police in 2020. But a municipal court there dismissed criminal sexual assault charges against Schwetz in October 2021 on the condition that she go through alcohol and drug information school and follow other rules.
Marty McLean, the researcher’s lawyer, said the settlement sends a powerful message to those who engage in discrimination and retaliation.
“Expertise should be the way people advance in their careers, not whether they are willing to submit to sexual harassment,” McLean said.
Under the settlement, Schwetz cannot attend AZA conferences for three years and has to resign from AZA committees.
The AZA must create a system for third-party reporting of sexual harassment and the investigation of complaints.
Told to get help
Despite Schwetz’s contention that she did not assault the researcher, the AZA said in the civil suit’s discovery phase that AZA Chair James Breheny witnessed her “sexual touching of males at a bar” during the Seattle conference, according to depositions from the case.
Vehrs, the former AZA executive director, reprimanded Schwetz for the conduct, threatened to bar her from attending future conferences and told her to get help with her drinking problem, according to documents.
In text messages, Schwetz and friends involved with the AZA made jokes about the researcher and insisted he was lying about the assault.
After being asked how they could help, Schwetz told the group: “a hit man lol... or woman, I’m not sexist.”
Schwetz and the others claimed the researcher had a pattern of suing “for a settlement every job he leaves,” with Schwetz texting that the “AZA and I are next in line.”
During a court hearing where the researcher testified, Schwetz said “he is coming off as crazy,” adding he was on ADHD medication and seeking mental health treatment for suicidal thoughts.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct one of the requirements that the Seattle court said Schwetz needed to follow to have her charges dismissed. Schwetz was required to go to alcohol and drug information school and follow other rules. An earlier version also failed to note that the insurers for Dane County and the AZA have agreed to make the payments, not the county and the organization itself.