The testy exchange took place in a crowded courtroom, and Alexandria's former city manager Douglas Harman, normally known for his easygoing, gregarious style, looked grim and nervous.

"Did you ever ask city employees to go on dates?" demanded attorney Kerry Scanlon.

"No," Harman replied.

"Did you ever ask city employees to have sex with you?"

"No."

"Do you remember pinching women on their buttocks as they climbed over a fence?"

"I never pinched any woman," snapped Harman, whose wife Judy listened from the public gallery.

Now the city manager in Fort Worth, Tex., Harman testified last week in a federal lawsuit over alleged sexual harassment in city offices during his nine-year Alexandria administration. On Friday, the jury deliberated just over two hours before dismissing the charges brought by two female former city employees against Harman, four of his top appointees and the city itself.

Harman's reappearance here in the role of defendant, three years after his abrupt departure amid a divisive political controversy over the handling of a police drug investigation, marked a reunion of city officials who had grown bitter over past conflicts and suggested the "tar-baby" quality that ill will in smaller cities can sometimes acquire.

"To me, this is sort of chapter whatever in a saga that goes back many years," Harman said after the verdict. Alexandria's "cast of characters remains so stable or stagnant -- I'm not sure which -- that it's the same group of people fighting other people with only minor changes."

Harman, 47, left the city in bitter conflict with then-Mayor Charles E. Beatley and then-council member Donald Casey over the handling of allegations against then-Police Chief Charles E. Strobel. Casey, a bitter foe of Harman's, was called as a witness by the plaintiffs in last week's lawsuit, but was not allowed to testify by U.S. District Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr.

Current Mayor James P. Moran Jr. defeated Beatley in the spring of 1985 in part because of repercussions over the police drug investigation. And Strobel left his post last fall after a city investigation found mismanagement in the top levels of the police department in connection with a later drug investigation.

Harman, whose manner draws descriptions ranging from charismatic to flirtatious, said he did not know he would be questioned about his own sexual behavior at the trial. "You feel outraged," he said. "You just feel so helpless."

His treatment of women became an issue in the lawsuit because the plaintiffs -- Patricia Enneking, 34, a former city planner, and Elizabeth McKenna, 32, a former budget analyst -- alleged that, as Alexandria's chief official, he encouraged and participated in a work environment that tolerated sexual harassment, discrimination and innuendo.

During the weeklong trial, witnesses painted two different pictures of the Nebraska native. McKenna testified he pinched her buttocks as she climbed over a fence at Beatley's Warrenton farm, and two other women said he had made sexual advances to them.

In contrast, Assistant City Manager Michelle Evans and City Manager Vola Lawson, who both worked many years with Harman, testified they never saw him sexually harass women or discriminate against them.

Even Harman's cartoons, a longtime hobby, were at issue. Several female witnesses labeled his depiction of women "very voluptuous," saying they found it offensive and demeaning.

Asked about his cartoons, Harman testified: "In the cartoons I've done over the years, women vary as much in appearance as men. If anyone has become a stereotype, it's the city manager as short, balding and fat."

Harman, who denied the allegations of misconduct, also defended his record on hiring and promoting women in Alexandria.

Fort Worth officials said the allegations of sexual harassment aired last week -- and given prominent display in the media there -- are not in accord with the Harman they know.

"It's just total disbelief," said Ruth Ann McKinney, Fort Worth's senior assistant city manager who describes herself as "an avowed feminist." Harman "has been very supportive of women's upward mobility in the city.

"It's incredible the amount of support for Doug throughout the community," she added.

Said Fort Worth Mayor Bob Bolen: "Down here, he has a tremendous amount of support {including from} women members of his staff."