4 More Allege Sex Harassment at Newport PD

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Four more women claim they were sexually harassed on the job at the Newport Beach Police Department and are considering joining the lawsuit filed Thursday by four current and ex-department workers, their legal representative said Friday.

"Two are present employees, two are former employees, and all claimed to be sexual harassment victims," said Beno Hernandez, a partner in Law Enforcement Representation Associates, a private firm that represents police officers in employment disputes and helped prepare the lawsuit. "They are afraid, too, of retaliation if they talk."

The lawsuit filed in Orange County Superior Court Thursday contends that the Newport Beach Police Department "is a hotbed of sexually offensive conduct at the top levels of the command structure," and that female and male employees are treated differently. "Several female employees have left the Newport Beach Police Department as a direct result of sexual harassment, sexual discrimination and the extraordinarily sexually hostile and offensive environment."

The women charged that Capt. Anthony Villa had touched breasts, made sexual advances and suggestive remarks which included a vivid description of a pornographic movie that Villa had seen. They contend that police Chief Arb Campbell "condoned" the sexual harassment and did nothing to stop it.

Bruce Praet, the city-hired Santa Ana attorney representing Campbell and Villa, met late Friday with his clients, whom he says "unequivocally deny the allegations." He characterized the four women plaintiffs as "disgruntled employees" trying to divert attention from past or current disciplinary problems.

Filing the suit were Records Supervisor Mary Jane Ruetz, 43, Communications Supervisor Margaret McInnis, 39, and Police Officers Rochell Maier, 31, and Cheryl Vlasilek, 28. They are seeking damages in excess of $200,000 each on charges of discrimination in employment based on sex.

Three of the women contend in the lawsuit that they were disciplined and fired on contrived charges after rejecting Villa's sexual advances.

Vlasilek and Ruetz were reinstated by the Newport Beach Civil Service Commission and Maier will seek to get her job back at an Oct. 5 hearing. Ruetz is off on disability leave due to what she says is stress from the sexual harassment.

Vlasilek reported to work for her patrol shift the same day the lawsuit was filed.

Meanwhile, Hernandez, an ex-Los Angeles Police Department sergeant who won his own reinstatement after being fired by the LAPD, said the Newport Beach department's original internal affairs investigation into the allegations was suspect because a sergeant not only was forced to investigate his own supervisors but turned his information over to them upon demand.

Formal grievances were filed with police management on behalf of Vlasilek and Ruetz, July 20 and 23, respectively. On July 24, Campbell ordered Vlasilek to detail her allegations of sexual harassment. Five days later, accompanied by her legal team, she met with the chief for a "resolution conference," Hernandez said. "At that time the chief ordered both women to undergo questioning."

On Aug. 17, the internal affairs investigation was launched, and the women made accusations of sexual harassment against Villa, Campbell and other high-ranking officers, Hernandez said. He said the sergeant in charge of the internal affairs investigation promised that the women would not become the targets of any retaliatory action.

Eight days later, on Aug. 25, the women allege that Villa--acting chief in Campbell's absence--ordered the two women to undergo "another interrogation."

"We pleaded with them to have someone outside the department do the investigation, that it was not fair to (the sergeant) either, not right to have him investigating his superiors," Hernandez said. "And the chief should have taken himself out of it."

City Manager Kevin J. Murphy said the chief referred the case up the chain of command, and pointed out that the sergeant did not necessarily know what the case involved until he conducted the interview.

He said that upon receiving a letter dated Aug. 25 from the women demanding an independent investigation, he called City Atty. Robert Burnham, who then summoned Campbell to a meeting. At that Aug. 27 meeting, Campbell arrived with "a folder with a bunch of documents from internal affairs" pertaining to the allegations of sexual harassment.

"In the course of the (internal) investigation, the chief's name came up, and once (the chief) realized he was under suspicion he ordered (the women) to come forward, and he thought it was important to have an outside review of this," Murphy said.

Murphy was unsure whether the independent investigation by a Los Angeles law firm will go forward after all, because that investigation might needlessly duplicate what the city must now undertake to defend itself in the lawsuit.

On Friday, only Vlasilek had returned to work, and she told her advisers she was being shunned.

Three male officers working a shift before hers called her legal team anonymously to report that news accounts of the lawsuit were being read aloud around the station after roll call, and a commander was overheard making critical remarks about her. They reported that some officers said they were advised to avoid associating with Vlasilek now that the lawsuit had been filed "because it could be bad," Hernandez said.

"She said, 'I've heard comments behind my back, people making a few remarks, but they aren't going to destroy me.' "

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