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Firefighter Starts Crying at Hearing on Harassment

Times Staff Writer

A woman firefighter burst into tears and hurried from a Los Angeles Fire Department Board of Rights hearing Monday as she prepared to begin the third day of detailed cross-examination on her account of sexual harassment at a Westchester station.

Sharyl Plebuch Seward, a member of the department since February, 1986, stood in the hallway outside the City Hall East hearing room, sobbing and pressing her forehead against the wall as her husband, also a Los Angeles firefighter, gently patted her shoulder.

When Seward was unable to regain her composure to testify, the three-member board first sought to continue with other witnesses and then recessed the hearing for Firefighter Anthony Morales, 33, a seven-year veteran, until this morning.

Morales has been accused of misconduct in a series of acts involving Seward, including charges that he slapped her on the buttocks, repeatedly reached toward her chest, asked about her chest size, tried to kiss her, simulated masturbation and showed himself in the nude.

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Facing Board Members

Seward was sitting in the witness chair facing the board members when Battalion Chief William D. Lilly suddenly announced a recess. Almost simultaneously, Seward stood up, began crying and left the room.

Since Seward completed her direct testimony last week, the board has permitted Capt. John Squire, who represents Morales, to exceed the usual scope of cross-examination in such hearings by closely questioning her about details not covered in her account as the Fire Department’s first witness.

Squire has proceeded page by page in Seward’s statements to investigators in an attempt to impeach her testimony.

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He has continued his line of questioning over the vigorous protests of Capt. John F. Kirkorn, the Fire Department’s chief advocate. Kirkorn has repeatedly argued that cross-examination should be limited to what Seward said in direct testimony.

On Monday, Kirkorn cited the department’s Board of Rights manual as an authority for his position, but he again lost the argument. The board’s senior member, Lilly, admitted that the cross-examination was “beyond the scope,” but he said the board is acting on the advice of a legal adviser from the city attorney’s office.

Since the board reversed itself and opened the hearing to the public last month, the proceedings have been marked by wrangling, resulting in frequent recesses to permit the participants to seek legal advice.

The board has repeatedly asked Squire what he is trying to show on behalf of Morales. Squire has replied that he is attempting to challenge Seward’s credibility and motives, suggesting her charges against Morales were designed to back up a sexual harassment lawsuit.

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