The former chief risk officer of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) says she was subjected to a campaign of harassment and discrimination before she was unlawfully fired because she is Chinese and a supporter of the Democratic Party.
Sue Lee was appointed as the PCAOB’s first chief risk officer in February 2019, promoted to serve as the board’s acting chief administrative officer in July of that year and named permanently to the position in late 2019.
But in February 2020, just as the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic was becoming clear, Lee claims PCAOB Chair William Duhnke III, her direct superior, began a “xenophobic and racist campaign” against her.
According to a lawsuit Lee filed Monday in the District of Columbia, the PCAOB and Duhnke unlawfully fired her in October 2020 “on the basis of her Asian ethnicity, Chinese national origin, and political affiliation with the Democratic Party in violation of the D.C. Human Rights Act.”
Lee is seeking back pay and damages as part of the lawsuit, which names both the PCAOB and Duhnke as defendants.
A spokesperson for the PCAOB called Lee’s claims “baseless.”
“We look forward to responding fully to the allegations in court and expect to file one or more counterclaims against Ms. Lee,” PCAOB spokesperson Jackie Cottrell said via e-mail.
Starting in February 2020, Lee said Duhnke began referring to the pandemic as the “kung flu” and “Chinese flu” in her presence and making frequent remarks to her and other PCAOB employees about her Chinese ancestry and overseas birth. He mocked her for wearing a face mask in the office and ordered her to remove her mask when speaking to him, she said.
Lee said Duhnke also objected to her support of the Democratic Party and Black Lives Matter movement and alleged he favored replacing liberal PCAOB staff members with those who were more conservative.
Duhnke also called the PCAOB a “frivolous organization” that he felt should be combined with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which oversees it, according to the lawsuit.
Lee said as part of her duties as chief administrative officer she was required to travel to Boston regularly to oversee the PCAOB’s regional office’s move from expensive city office space to cheaper suburban space. The Boston regional office, along with four other regional offices, were later closed, with all PCAOB employees working remotely as part of the plan to reduce employee exposure to COVID-19 infection. Lee said the moves were made with the approval of the PCAOB and Duhnke.
In October 2020, the PCAOB and Duhnke suspended her work e-mail and cell phone and fired her four days later. According to Lee, Duhnke told her she was being fired “due to charges of misconduct filed against her.” He cited her regular trips to Boston as the issue and that she was an “at-will” employee who could be fired at any time without reason, according to the lawsuit.
The firing was conducted “in violation of the PCAOB’s policies and procedures,” Lee said in her lawsuit, and was in stark contrast to the way the organization treated other senior employees.
According to the PCAOB spokesperson, the PCAOB’s Office of Internal Oversight and Performance Assurance investigated Lee’s performance, and she was fired “after consultation with the full five-member Board.”