A former Anniston Star reporter says that H. Brandt Ayers, chairman of the company that publishes the paper, sexually assaulted her in the 1970s in The Star’s newsroom.

Veronica Pike Kennedy says Ayers, then the newspaper’s publisher, spanked her against her will in an incident on a Saturday, when Ayers and Kennedy were among the few workers in the building.

“I was still determined to be a reporter after that,” Kennedy said. “But I hated Brandy Ayers with every cell in my body.”

In response to inquiries from The Star on Monday morning, Ayers issued a statement.

H. Brandt Ayers

H. Brandt Ayers

“As a very young man with more authority than judgment, I did some things I regret,” Ayers said in the statement. “At my advanced age I wish I could relive those days again, knowing the seriousness of my position and with the accumulated judgment that goes with age.”

Two other women who worked at The Star at the time told similar stories of spankings by the Star publisher, though each declined to have their names published, citing repercussions the revelations might have for their careers and family members.

They say a pattern of forced spankings by the publisher, with sexual overtones, led women in the newsroom at the time to seek help from the newspaper’s editors – who appointed a woman on staff to warn newly-hired women to watch out for Ayers.

The allegations were first reported on the website Alabama Political Reporter, first in a column by Kennedy’s husband Joey Kennedy, and on Monday in detail in a longer article.

Veronica Pike, an Anniston native and Wellborn High School graduate, was a Jacksonville State University student in her early 20s when she first came to work at The Star as a news clerk, answering phones, delivering messages and writing obituaries.

She said she and another Star reporter were in the newsroom on a Saturday morning when Ayers, then the newspaper’s publisher, approached her asked her to read an article he’d written, then told her she’d “been a bad girl” and needed to be spanked.

“I started laughing, because I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard,” she said. Kennedy said Ayers picked up a pica pole – a metal ruler used to measure the size of printed type – and tried to pull Kennedy out of her chair.

“I was literally holding on to the chair,” Kennedy said. “He picked me and the chair up, and wrestled the chair out of my hands. And he started spanking me.”

Kennedy was 22 at the time of the alleged spanking. Ayers turned 40 the same year.

Mike Stamler, then 22 and in his first year as a Star reporter, said he witnessed the spanking from across the room. He said we wasn’t sure Ayers was aware he was in the room at the time.

“I don’t think I did anything,” Stamler, now retired from a job as a spokesman for the Small Business Administration, said in a telephone interview. “I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t expecting something like that to happen.”

Stamler and Kennedy differ in some details of their account. Kennedy said in an interview last month that the incident occurred in 1973, on Stamler’s first weekend at The Star. Stamler started work at The Star in 1975, and he said the incident happened in his first year at the paper, but not his first day. But both say a pattern of similar incidents was well known in the newsroom at the time, and led to women at The Star seeking help from editors.

Kennedy said she didn’t go public with her story at the time because she feared how her father, a war veteran, would react.

“I knew I couldn’t say anything because my daddy would get his .38 and shoot Brandy in the head, and he’d be in prison for the rest of his life,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy went on to write for The Star for two more years before becoming a spokeswoman for Regional Medical Center.  In 1979 she went to work for the Talladega Daily Home — also owned by Consolidated Publishing —as  an editor. She later wrote for the Birmingham News, and now edits the website Animal Advocates of Alabama.

Ayers, then and now, was among the best-known figures in Anniston, and one of the best-known small-town newspapermen in the South. After taking over as editor, then publisher of the family-run paper in the 1960s, he steered the editorial page toward advocacy for integration – a rare stance for a Southern publication at the time.

Ayers writes regular columns for the paper, but hasn’t had an active role in The Star’s newsroom for more than a decade. In 2016, he stepped down from his role as publisher, giving the title to Bob Davis, who was then associate publisher and editor.

The current staff of The Star began looking into the story when Joey Kennedy, Veronica Kennedy’s husband, made mention of the incident in his regular column — without mentioning the publisher or the newspaper by name —  in November.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.