Fire Dept. Panel Told of Sex Harassment

Times Staff Writer

A woman firefighter told a Los Angeles Fire Department Board of Rights on Monday that she became a victim of sexual harassment by a veteran fireman almost immediately after joining a Westchester fire station.

Referring to a journal she wrote later about her experiences at Fire Station 5, Sharyl Plebuch Seward said that two days after reporting for duty there in January, Firefighter Anthony Morales, 33, a seven-year veteran, started slapping her on the buttocks and reaching toward her chest.

Allegations in Testimony

Seward testified that Morales inquired about her breast size, showed himself in the nude while she was exercising in an upstairs dormitory, attempted to kiss her and tried to tug her into the station's TV room to view the Playboy Channel.

After months of investigation, the Fire Department accused Morales of violating reasonable rules of behavior by "self-respecting citizens in a publicly operated place" through a series of acts involving Seward.

Morales pleaded not guilty to all counts Monday when the Board of Rights hearing resumed. He has been suspended from duty pending the outcome of the hearing. His departmental representative, Fire Capt. John Squire, offered a vigorous defense, suggesting that members of the Los Angeles Fire Commission, particularly a woman commissioner whom he declined to name, pressured Fire Chief Donald O. Manning to convene a Board of Rights when the City Charter gives the body no role in such matters.

And Squire signaled the direction the defense will take.

While pledging not to try to explore Seward's past sexual history, Squire questioned her credibility, accusing the department of suppressing and destroying information that would not reflect well on her previous actions at other stations.

"Is it credibility they are challenging or is it character assassination?" asked the Fire Department advocate, Fire Capt. John F. Kirkorn.

Seward spoke rapidly as she recounted the events at Station 5. She is now serving at a new station and was recently married to a Los Angeles fireman.

She never filed a complaint against Morales. Asked Monday why she hadn't, Seward said that as a rookie completing the final weeks of a year's probation she "just wanted to fit in" because she believed new firefighters are judged on that ability.

A Personal Basis

Also, Seward said that she decided it would be better for both her and the Fire Department if she tried to handle the situation on a personal basis.

"I told him (Morales) I wanted to let him know I didn't appreciate what he had done," Seward said.

The Fire Department uncovered allegations involving Morales while investigating a report by a female paramedic that firemen at Station 5 were watching sexually explicit material on the station's TV set.

Squire observed Monday that a 10-member task force of department advocates had interviewed more than 110 separate individuals during the probe, which he estimated had cost the department $250,000.

Despite this, Squire accused the department of seeking to limit how many witnesses the defense could call. He urged the board to issue subpoenas for a dozen additional witnesses, including all five members of the City Fire Commission and Fire Chief Manning.

Squire also asked the board to call the five fire captains who had worked with Seward at other stations: William G. Lowe, William A. Finn, Gerald Donckels, John S. Nelson and Roderick Garcia.

Squire claimed that "somebody made the decision" to exclude information obtained during the investigation. If the captains are called, he said, they will testify to a "very distinct pattern of behavior" by Seward at other fire stations. He did not elaborate.

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