The head of the British Council in Italy has won an unfair dismissal case after he was wrongly fired over unfounded claims he drunkenly groped a female embassy worker’s breasts while giving an ‘Italian farewell’ at a party.

Paul Sellers was accused of kissing the woman on the lips and ‘stroking’ her breasts with two hands when she left a Christmas party he hosted at his flat in Rome.

The respected envoy – whose art historian wife and children were next to him at the time – denied giving her anything other than a kiss on each cheek in the traditional Italian manner, known as a ‘saluto’.

But after she complained of sexual harassment, he was subjected to a ‘seriously flawed’ investigation and sacked from his senior role after 30 years’ service.

Paul Sellers was wrongly accused of kissing the woman on the lips and 'stroking' her breasts with two hands when she left a Christmas party he hosted at his flat in Rome

Paul Sellers was wrongly accused of kissing the woman on the lips and 'stroking' her breasts with two hands when she left a Christmas party he hosted at his flat in Rome

Paul Sellers was wrongly accused of kissing the woman on the lips and ‘stroking’ her breasts with two hands when she left a Christmas party he hosted at his flat in Rome 

An employment tribunal concluded that investigators ignored evidence, dismissed the accounts of six witnesses who saw nothing untoward, and instead chose to believe the ‘hazy’ account of the woman despite admitting they were not ‘100 per cent sure what happened’.

Now, Mr Sellers, who previously held senior posts in India and the United Arab Emirates, has successfully sued the British Council for unfair dismissal and is due to receive compensation.

The hearing in central London heard Mr Sellers was appointed British Council country director for Italy in 2014 – a post that usually comes with an £80,000 salary – and lived in Rome with his wife Isadora Papadrakakis.

Around 50 people attended the Christmas party he threw on December 16, 2018, and the tribunal heard Mr Sellers drank ‘two or three’ glasses of wine and was seen dancing.

His accuser, named only as ‘ZZ’, said goodbye to Mr Sellers in the kitchen area around 4.30pm as she left and the next day alleged she was sexually harassed.

ZZ, who said Mr Sellers was ‘quite drunk’, claimed: ‘At about 4:30 pm as the party was winding down I decided to leave and I went to thank Paul.

Pictured: Sellers' wife Isadora Papadrakakis

Pictured: Sellers' wife Isadora Papadrakakis

Pictured: Sellers’ wife Isadora Papadrakakis

‘As I went to kiss him goodbye he kissed me twice on the side of my mouth (rather than the cheek) and then he stroked my breasts with both his hands.

‘I was very shocked so I didn’t respond immediately and left the party. There were other people in the room but I do not know if they witnessed it.’

After the complaint was made, Ken O’Flaherty, the embassy’s deputy head of mission, said the alleged groping was ‘clearly deliberate’ and even said Mr Sellers had been ‘erratic and uncharacteristically emotional’ in recent months and warranted investigation.

Mr O’Flaherty added: ‘ZZ judges that Paul was ”quite drunk”. He had previously being salsa dancing with a female intern…

‘Paul regularly drinks at professional/social events. I have not seen him incapacitated, but he does show the effect of alcohol and consumes more of it than many colleagues.’

Mr Sellers was left stunned when informed about the allegations and vehemently denied them.

‘People would get a kiss on both cheeks’, he told investigators as he explained he was busy giving Italian farewell greetings – salutos – to people as they left his flat, adding that he had ‘no specific recollection’ of saying bye to ZZ.

His wife said ZZ was ‘new and not really integrated into the embassy’ and ‘had the impression ZZ was not in high spirits’.

Ms Papadrakakis was ‘certain Mr Sellers wouldn’t lay a hand on [ZZ], believed ZZ was ‘disgruntled about embassy work’ and said ‘she may be conservative about the Italian style of greeting’.

Deputy chief executive of the British Council, Kate Ewart-Biggs, headed-up the investigation which led to Mr Sellers’ dismissal in May 2019.

But the tribunal found Ms Ewart-Biggs took a ‘narrow view’ of the incident, failed to explore the alleged contact and the circumstances surrounding it, made no attempt to interview possible witnesses and assumed nobody else saw it.

The British Council in Rome and their roof garden. The Government-backed council promotes British culture around the world by dispatching the country's great artists and is an example of 'soft power'

The British Council in Rome and their roof garden. The Government-backed council promotes British culture around the world by dispatching the country's great artists and is an example of 'soft power'

The British Council in Rome and their roof garden. The Government-backed council promotes British culture around the world by dispatching the country’s great artists and is an example of ‘soft power’

She accepted ZZ’s account even though it had changed throughout the investigation, the panel concluded. Text messages that may have backed up her claims were also not sought by investigators.

Ms Ewart-Biggs said: ‘I found the allegation to be true. I had no reason to believe that ZZ was lying or had a motive to do so.

‘I listened to the significant impact it had had on her, her wellbeing and her anxiety levels.

‘I had spoken to both her and Mr Sellers… In essence, I asked myself whether I believed ZZ or Mr Sellers.

‘I found that on the balance of probabilities, I did believe ZZ and I did not believe Mr Sellers.

‘I accepted that I was never going to be 100 per cent sure about what had happened.’

Mr Sellers provided witness statements to back up his version of events at the appeal stage – but his case was thrown out by Sir Ciarán Devane, then head of the Council.

One onlooker, Monica Marziota, who was next to the pair as they said goodbye, said she saw a ‘completely normal Italian farewell greeting or ‘saluto’ ‘.

She said: ‘They exchanged a few words, smiling, and then said goodbye with a kiss on each cheek followed by a hug.

‘The limited physical contact was brief, friendly and straightforward.

‘The interaction took place in direct proximity and clear view of a number of other guests including two of Paul’s children… not a single one of whom appeared to register anything remotely unusual.’

But Miss Marziota’s account – along with evidence from five other witnesses – was not considered, the tribunal heard.

Employment Judge Graeme Hodgson slammed the British Council’s investigation and ruled Mr Sellers had been unfairly dismissed.

Judge Hodgson said: ‘In this case, the investigation is characterised by serious oversights and unreasonable assumptions.

‘No reasonable employer would have failed to seek the relevant contemporaneous documentation, or to explore the circumstances of the alleged assault, or to seek relevant evidence from witnesses to the alleged incident.

‘It follows that when considering whether there were grounds to support the belief, I conclude that Ms Ewart-Biggs took a narrow view and failed to consider the relevant surrounding circumstances.

‘Ms Ewart-Biggs’ made her decision based on her opinion of who was telling the truth… It was clear that she based that decision on a very narrow view of the evidence.

‘The evidence [from witnesses], on its face, is relevant, clear, and compelling. If that evidence had been accepted by the British Council, I can see no rational basis on which it could continue to find there had been a sexual assault, as described by ZZ.

‘Sir Ciarán Devane’s suggestion that the evidence was not ‘on its face is compelling that the conclusion of the investigation was a mistake’ is unsustainable.’

A British Council spokesman said: ‘We are committed to investigating all complaints of sexual misconduct thoroughly. We are disappointed by the decision of the employment tribunal. We are unable to comment further on individual cases.’ 

Compensation will be awarded to Mr Sellers at a later date. 

Source: Daily Mail

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