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‘Someone else’s problem’: Six women learn the confusing, ambiguous reality of confronting an alleged harasser

Ann Elise Trafford alleges that she was sexually harassed by her manager while working at Acqua al 2 when she was 17. (Lauren Justice/for The Washington Post)

Everyone else was posting their #MeToo stories last October, and that’s when Ann Elise Trafford realized she had one to tell, too. “#MeToo for the first time when I was 17, by the manager of the restaurant I worked at,” she wrote on Facebook, but it was so much more complicated than that, in ways she would soon understand.

It wasn’t long before other former employees of Acqua al 2, the Capitol Hill restaurant where she used to work, began to message her: “Me, too.”

She hadn’t named the manager, but other women knew the one she meant. They alleged that he would make comments about women’s bodies and tell teenage hostesses to wear sexier clothes. One alleged he reached under her skirt when she was an 18-year-old hostess in 2011.

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They wrote a letter to the restaurant’s owners, because the manager still worked there and they didn’t want it to happen to anyone else. But they were also rethinking what had happened to them: how what they had written off as a terrible high school job was beginning to feel, in the current media climate, like something more insidious. They hadn’t done anything about it then. It happened so long ago. They had all moved on to college and careers, and besides, some of them were friendly with the owners, and even their alleged harasser. Coming forward now would be messy and difficult, and yet, they hoped, it would end with the justice they thought they deserved.

Six women alleging harassment told their stories in the letter, beginning with Trafford’s assertions: How the manager, 11 years her senior, asked her for a back rub; how she went to his apartment — “I was super naive,” she said later — and gave him one; how their encounter escalated to intercourse, even as she initially resisted. “I specifically said to him, ‘No, I’m not having sex with you.’ ” Days later, she said, it happened again on a restaurant table after hours, and he “used the dining napkins to clean it up, and took them home so no other staff would see.” She said he would grope her in the coat closet, then “walk out as if nothing had happened, while guests are right outside of the door.”

“I’m shocked by these allegations,” the manager, Sajmir “Saji” Rragami, now 34, would later tell The Washington Post in an email. “While I have made mistakes, these claims consist of mischaracterizations and gross fabrications. This is deeply troubling especially that they are coming from people that I remained close with for a long time and well after the supposed incidents occurred.”

There were even more claims from Trafford, 23, in the letter: How she had consensual sex with Rragami over the next four years, she said, which compromised her credibility in making the accusation. The continued entanglement with Rragami, she said, was her way of “trying to reframe it as . . . a relationship.” But this left her confused, she said, grappling with an eating disorder, in therapy, and afraid to come forward. What changed was that #MeToo acknowledged all kinds of stories, even imperfect ones like hers. “I felt like there was a greater understanding, so the time was finally right,” she told The Post.

The women sent the letter to Mindful Restaurant Group’s owners, Ari and Stacy Gejdenson, on Dec. 13. One week later, Ari Gejdenson responded. The women’s email inspired “soul searching.” Their requests, he wrote, “are things that we have been speaking about recently and are very eager to implement.” Gejdenson, who with his wife owns eight restaurants, also forwarded the women a section from the company’s employee handbook stating a “zero tolerance” policy “for any harassment or discrimination.”

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That policy, the women said, didn’t seem to apply to Rragami. Gejdenson told the women Rragami would be suspended from Acqua al 2 while an outside law firm investigated. They demanded his firing in a Jan. 7 email. Then, the women learned from other employees on Jan. 23 that Rragami had returned to work at Sotto, another Mindful restaurant.

“While terminating Saji’s employment might provide a measure of punishment that you expressed, doing so would not serve a productive purpose and would potentially make the issues you raised ‘someone else’s problem’ given the high likelihood that Saji would find employment . . . in the industry,” Gejdenson replied in his email to them.

It left the women wondering: To whom does “zero tolerance” apply? And what’s the point of #MeToo, if your employer, while trying to keep an alleged harasser from becoming “someone else’s problem,” protects him?

Trafford approached The Post with her story in January, three months after she posted her #MeToo statement on Facebook, and shared the emails between the women and the company. She and the other hostesses declined to be quoted in this story until late March, after the company completed its investigation. But it was not Trafford's story alone that tipped the accusations against Rragami over the edge: The Post spoke with an additional 18 former and current employees, many of whom said the company was a place where sexual comments about colleagues, especially from Rragami, were frequent. Four of those women alleged that Rragami engaged in inappropriate behavior that wasn't only verbal. The company's reaction to all the allegations — seven in total — was dependent on the timing of each incident, Rragami's friendship with the Gejdensons and the role the media play in arbitrating sexual harassment claims, the women would later learn.

In a statement to The Post in early May, Mindful said it was “shocked and deeply concerned” to hear the additional allegations. The company acknowledged it “should have been more systematic” in implementing sexual harassment policies in its early days but said its “policy has always been to respond swiftly when any complaint is received.” Mindful told The Post that Rragami had been suspended without pay for 5½ weeks.

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Victoria Rodriguez, the company’s former public-relations coordinator, said Rragami commented about her breasts and showed her a video of horses having sex in 2016. Mindful said in its statement that it had “never heard of this before” The Post’s inquiry. One hostess, who worked at Acqua al 2 in 2012 at age 17, said Rragami frequently touched her buttocks. Another former employee alleged that Rragami kissed her without her consent in 2011. Mindful did not respond to these two allegations.

Former server Sophy Bunchamroeun told The Post that one night in 2012, a customer who knew Rragami told her that he had run into Rragami’s wife and asked Bunchamroeun to say hi to Rragami for him. When she went back to relay the message, unaware that mentioning Rragami’s wife was apparently a trigger for him, Rragami slapped her in the face, she alleged, “with strength.”

As she cried, she said, Rragami told her, “I wish I had slapped you harder.” Four other employees, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Post they remembered Bunchamroeun crying that night and telling them about the incident, although they did not witness it.

In its statement, the restaurant said the allegation was not reported, and if it had been, “Such conduct is grounds for immediate termination.”

But Bunchamroeun, who was not involved in the hostesses’ letter, told The Post she reported the slap to Gejdenson the day after it happened and that he told her Rragami was “going through a difficult time with his wife,” so the comment from the customer had aggravated him. She said that Gejdenson asked if Bunchamroeun wanted him fired, but she demurred: “I was afraid of confrontation.” Another former employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he works in the industry said he urged Gejdenson to act in response to the slap.

Other women say they also complained about Rragami to restaurant owners over the years. The hostess who alleged that Rragami had groped her said she reported his behavior in 2011 to Ralph Lee, who has been identified in previous company media materials as a co-owner. The company responded to The Post that Lee is a former “salaried employee” and “did not report any alleged complaint.” Lee has not responded to requests for comment.

In August 2016, according to one current server who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared repercussions in her personal relationships, Rragami exposed his penis when she went outside for a cigarette break. She said she reported it to a fellow server, and later to a manager.

The server said she assumed Rragami would be fired, but added, “I personally do not hold anything against him.” She said Rragami has behaved professionally toward her since.

Mindful told The Post that it learned of the 2016 incident weeks after it happened and that it required Rragami to undergo sexual-harassment training and notified him that future misconduct would lead to termination. “The two women involved . . . stated they were satisfied with the actions taken,” the company said. But the other women — the ones who wrote the letter — later discovered that this incident was the only one that carried weight. Any incidents that came afterward would have consequences for Rragami, but no incidents before it would count.

Trafford said she knew her encounters with Rragami were inappropriate, but because she was ashamed, she initially didn't tell anyone other than a high school friend, who corroborated details of her account for The Post.

A statement Mindful released in May in response to questions from The Post emphasized that Trafford’s relationship with Rragami was consensual, that it continued even after her employment ended and that she “continued to seek and return to employment with us as recently as August 2016.”

Despite her continued contact with Rragami, Trafford contends that her lack of consent when it began meant the relationship could never be considered appropriate. Consent “can only occur free from coercion. Coercion is about power and control. Saji was my direct supervisor,” she said. When she returned to the restaurant in 2016, she said, it was after years of therapy. She had interviewed at six other restaurants, but Acqua al 2 offered her significantly higher pay, and she was determined to face Rragami and enforce professional boundaries with him, ending their physical contact. Given their complicated history and her shame, she did not make any complaints.

“I know him as a person, as well,” she said. “It’s harder when someone is more human to you than if it’s a total stranger.”

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At the time, she said, “I thought I was the only one that this had happened to.” And if she had indeed been the only one, given her history with Rragami, perhaps the restaurant could have safely dismissed the entire thing.

After the 2016 incident, she learned about the other women, and after her #MeToo post, she learned of even more. But because she had stuck with the restaurant, even seeking employment despite her mistreatment, the decision to speak out was emotionally fraught.

Mindful told The Post it “addressed all of the complainants’ suggestions” in its initial response to the women. That included sexual-harassment training sessions for all staff members.

For the women, though, the question remained: In a company that purports to have a zero-tolerance policy, why wasn’t Rragami fired?

Mindful acknowledged in its statement to The Post that Gejdenson and Rragami “were good friends over the years.”

Despite the escalating number of old allegations that have recently surfaced, the company said it did not fire Rragami after the women’s letter because their allegations were about incidents that occurred before his 2016 warning, and because it had received no allegations of misconduct that occurred since then. The company said Rragami was “reassigned to a new restaurant, under the direct supervision of Stacy, under strict conditions.”

Once she had learned Rragami was still working for Mindful, Trafford wrote two more emails. The first one excoriated the company and Rragami. Days later, she followed it with another email, this time saying the company’s response seemed “merciful and holistic.” It was, she later told The Post, her attempt to let go. “I couldn’t carry a bunch of anger with me,” she said. “I wish I hadn’t sent that email.”

On April 20, after learning that The Post was working on this story, and after hiring a crisis PR consultant, Gejdenson sent the hostesses another email. “I am writing to inform you that, as of Monday, Saji Rragami is no longer employed by Mindful Restaurants.” A month and a half later, Gejdenson was named restaurateur of the year by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington at its recent RAMMY awards.

Trafford and her former colleagues got what they said they wanted. But then, Trafford realized what she had actually wanted all along: for the restaurant to treat her like a person who had been harmed, and not a situation to be managed.

Firing Rragami “was the right thing to do, but it was so clear that they only did that because they knew that this story was coming out,” she said. “It’s not like they did it for me, or for anyone else who was hurt, or because it was the right thing to do. I think they just did it so their business wouldn’t suffer.”

As it turns out, Rragami has not become “someone else’s problem”: He has found new employment as a salesman at American Custom Embroidery and Screen Printing, according to Adam Carr, who identified himself as the owner. The company is in the Ivy City neighborhood, near some of the Gejdensons’ restaurants, and a photo gallery shows branded shirts made for Ari’s Diner, Ghibellina and others in the Mindful group. That’s because, according to the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, the company is run by the Gejdensons. They did not respond to a request for comment on Rragami’s new job.

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