A hearing examiner ruled Tuesday that former Los Angeles City Clerk Elias (Lee) Martinez, who was fired in June amid highly publicized charges of sexual harassment, ought to be reinstated to his position because there was no evidence he broke the law.
The decision was a significant step in Martinez's attempt to regain his job, and a blow to city leaders who recommended his firing. Several female employees accused him of ogling them and making suggestive comments. One said he inappropriately touched her in a sexual manner.
"The penalty of discharge was wholly inappropriate," hearing examiner Nancy Roberts Lonsdale wrote in her 92-page decision. "Nor is there any basis to impose a penalty of any type, as Mr. Martinez engaged in no actionable misconduct."
The case goes to the city Civil Service Commission, which is scheduled to decide Dec. 17 whether to uphold the ruling and reinstate Martinez to his $116,000-a-year post.
"I'm greatly relieved," Martinez said. "I feel like the journey's almost over. I never stopped believing that given a fair hearing this whole thing would disappear."
Said attorney Robert Dohrmann, who represents Martinez: "There was no case against him. It was a terrible case. They never should have brought it."
Lonsdale, who heard Martinez's appeal over several weeks in July and September, called Martinez a victim of a flawed investigative system and ruled that the city should have conducted a "fuller and fairer investigation."
Lonsdale doubted the veracity of the main accuser, a young clerk-typist who spoke in a quiet, halting voice on the witness stand and more than once changed details of her story. Evidence that the woman had been drinking before she made the charges did not help her case, Lonsdale said.
"Initially, the hearing examiner sought to excuse her inconsistencies as resulting from language barriers, cultural differences or her alleged reluctance to testify about matters which she felt were embarrassing," Lonsdale wrote. "However, the record of her testimony, the testimony of witnesses familiar with her character and her drinking habits, and in particular her demeanor on the witness stand, simply do not support the view of her as a candid, victimized witness."
Under questioning by City Atty. Molly Roff-Sheridan, Martinez, 55, acknowledged that he took the clerk-typist into a bar after a staff lunch but described his intentions as honorable.
The woman charged that Martinez bought her drinks and touched her thigh. Martinez said he took her there to sober her up because she had had too much to drink during lunch.
On another occasion, the woman accused Martinez of touching her leg with his stockinged foot underneath a luncheon table. Martinez denied the charge and said his legs were too short to have reached her anyway.
Denying each of the allegations from the start, Martinez, a 32-year city employee, contended that his firing was an act of political retribution by former Mayor Tom Bradley, with whom the clerk had clashed. The hearing examiner did not rule on whether she believed that claim.
Martinez, who had risen through the ranks from the position of City Hall garage attendant to one of city government's most powerful posts, was joined by his wife throughout the weeks of hearings. He maintained a quiet but stern demeanor on the witness stand, testifying at one point that ogling is so out of his character that he tried doing it in the mirror and broke into laughter.