A Midlands lawyer and former Lexington County Council member fostered a toxic culture of sexism and sexual harassment at his law office, according to a federal lawsuit filed by a former employee.
“I am your king. I am your god,” Lexington County Councilman Billy R. Oswald liked to tell his female employees, according to the lawsuit filed Sept. 8.
“You will do what I tell you to do as long as you work here.”
A former office manager is now suing Oswald, a prominent personal injury lawyer and Midlands political figure, alleging that he fostered a toxic culture of sexism and abuse at his law firm, Oswald & Burnside.
Among other charges, the lawsuit claims that the 74-year-old Oswald groped the employee, called female clients and workers “b—–s,” and performed “sexual acts” with prostitutes in the office conference room during work hours.
Oswald said that he had “no comment” when contacted by The State.
“We stand by the allegations in the complaint,” said the former employee’s attorney, Jack Cohoon.
The former employee alleges that Oswald, whose held multiple elected and appointed positions in the Midlands, created a workplace swirling with “sexual talk, innuendo, and gossip.”
The employee, who is not being named by The State because the lawsuit includes allegations that she is a victim of sexual assault, started working for Oswald around 2009. Hired as a paralegal, the employee eventually became an unofficial office manager at the Oswald & Burnside law firm with duties ranging from secretarial work to collecting rent from the tenants of Oswald’s properties.
On multiple occasions, Oswald grabbed the former employee’s breasts, placed “his hand near her vagina,” and exposed his genitals to workers.
The lawsuit describes a culture of overt sexism, where Oswald demanded sexual favors from female employees in exchange for raises. In one incident described in the lawsuit, Oswald allegedly told a group of female employees at a lunch that he would pay them $15,000 more a year if they performed “sexual acts on him several times a week.”
In another incident in February 2020, Oswald was in the employee’s office when she asked if she would get a bonus from cases that she helped settle. With the door shut, Oswald refused, allegedly telling her, “You all make more than enough money. You just need to take care of me.”
The employee alleges that over the years, prostitutes — some of whom were Oswald’s clients and tenants — performed sexual acts on Oswald in the office. In the lawsuit, the employee recounted hearing moans and recalled at least one incident when she saw a woman performing a sex act on Oswald through a cracked door.
In June 2020, the employee finally quit after Oswald denied her a raise. In response to her request, which would have been her first raise since 2014, Oswald allegedly called the employee an “ungrateful b—-.”
“You haven’t earned a raise. You don’t deserve it. The only thing you’re good for is laying on your back,” Oswald allegedly said.
The employee’s lawsuit also alleges that Oswald stopped paying her around April 2020. In the early months of the pandemic, Oswald grew increasingly “occupied with a scheme to make money by applying for unemployment benefits and CARES Act funds for people.” At the same time, Oswald ordered all of his employees to file for unemployment while continuing to work for the firm, according to the lawsuit.
In November 2020, the employee filed a discrimination complaint with the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission. In it, she alleged sex discrimination and retaliation.
The lawsuit was allegedly filed after the employee attempted to reach a resolution with Oswald.
Through his decades-long career in Lexington County, Oswald has become deeply enmeshed in the Midland’s political and legal world. Since founding his West Columbia law firm in 1988, Oswald has also served on county and state bar associations. In addition to serving on the Lexington County Council, Oswald was the South Carolina director for Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign and later ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primaries for state House District 89 in 2016 and 2018.
Oswald previous held positions on the Lexington County Board Education, the South Carolina Health Planning Committee, and the board of the Lexington Medical Center.
The lawsuit also names Oswald’s law firm and several LLCs that Oswald allegedly uses to conduct business.
This story was originally published September 13, 2022 6:49 PM.