S&L; Agency's O.C. Office Called House of Pain : Resolution Trust Corp.: Whistle-blowers allege wholesale management abuse and reprisals in Newport Beach and elsewhere.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sandra Crisman, struggling to breathe, was rushed to the hospital twice during two months of illnesses last year caused by stress from working at the Resolution Trust Corp.'s West Coast office.

About the same time, Annette I. LePique was getting telephone calls at night from callers always hanging up without saying a word. She returned from vacation to find her garage door open. Those things didn't happen before her troubles at the RTC began. She moved.

J. Hans Mangelsdorf sometimes carries a gun after hearing how a colleague in another RTC office received threatening calls. On one call the colleague taped, only the sound of machine gun fire was heard. Mangelsdorf tries not to do anything routinely anymore.

"I look over my shoulder a lot more than I used to," said Mangelsdorf, who has worked in the Newport Beach office almost since the RTC opened it in March, 1990.

The origin of the stress and concern, the employees say, isn't in carrying out the RTC's duties of managing and selling the houses, apartments, office buildings, loans and other assets of failed savings and loans.

The culprit, they allege, is the agency's own management.

The three Orange County employees and 10 others from across the nation blew the whistle on RTC managers at a U.S. Senate Banking Committee hearing in September. Tired of what they saw as discrimination, harassment and reprisals--and of a good-old-boy network that they say promotes wrongdoers while firing hard workers--the whistle-blowers startled committee members with their testimony.

Their charges of management abuse--roundly denied by RTC officials--delivered another blow to an agency that many believe should have been knocked out long ago by its incompetence, mismanagement, favoritism and questionable deals. RTC blunders, critics say, have added unknown millions to the taxpayer cost of cleaning up the nation's failed thrifts.

"You folks are up here in agony while the folks who are persecuting you, literally, are being promoted and running around without any retaliation," Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) told the whistle-blowers at the hearing. "Now I don't know how others feel, but I think they're the folks who ought to be fired."

Tomas Gotor, formerly a top executive in the Newport Beach office, was fired, after Washington officials concluded that he sexually harassed LePique and abused his position as a high-ranking manager. Gotor, who oversaw the RTC West Coast office's huge outside contracting operation, denies he did anything wrong and charges that the comments he is alleged to have made were concocted by others in an effort to advance their own careers.

He appealed his dismissal to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board. But in a Nov. 17 decision released Tuesday, a judge ruled that the "serious, repetitive and abusive nature of his sustained misconduct" created an "offensive" work environment and warranted his removal.

Most managers at the Newport Beach office have supported him, including the director, Alvin J. Felton, and the former top deputy, Philip V. Jones Jr. The agency's own equal employment opportunity probe found that Jones had discriminated against Crisman, yet he was promoted last summer to a major RTC post in Washington.

"What's clear is that there is a very significant pattern of mismanagement, and it's particularly prevalent in the Newport Beach office," said Jonathan Weiner, a top aide to Kerry who put together the whistle-blowers hearing in September.

"We've talked to numerous people there, and the personnel practices are extremely disturbing. People are being treated abusively, routinely," he said. "Nobody should have to work in an abusive workplace, especially in government. It's bad enough in the private sector."

Employees in the Newport Beach office have filed nine formal complaints claiming they were denied equal employment opportunities, and dozens of others have filed informal complaints that have been settled, insiders said. Nationwide, RTC employees have filed 111 formal discrimination complaints since the beginning of 1992. The RTC doesn't keep track of informal complaints.

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The RTC was created as a temporary agency at the peak of the thrift industry crisis in 1989. Its hierarchy was staffed by Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. employees and given the job of liquidating failed thrifts. It is scheduled to go out of business by the end of 1996.

Some executives nationwide have run amok, Weiner believes, because they never viewed themselves to be part of the normal business community. The agency inherited some FDIC management problems, had an immense workload and sold assets too quickly at unnecessarily steep discounts, he said.

The agency, which may create an ombudsman post to handle internal problems, has prepared a response for the Senate committee, but that response still is being reviewed by the Treasury Department.

"I would not want to reach any conclusions on the information I have seen so far," said RTC spokesman Stephen Katsanos. "There are managers here who feel very strongly about the rights of individuals."

The agency's own equal employment reviewers found fault with Felton and Jones in the Crisman and LePique affairs. The women won their cases but still have not received back pay and damages. No formal findings have been reached in Mangelsdorf's complaint over reprisals.

Each of them told the senators--as well as RTC investigators--about retaliation when they brought management problems to light.

Crisman maintains that her department was needlessly audited twice, wasting time and thousands of taxpayer dollars. LePique and Mangelsdorf were handed a series of reprimands. Four of LePique's personnel evaluations were redone and backdated, and all three received lower work performance appraisals this year. Mangelsdorf, who said he was asked to help ruin LePique's career, was relieved of certain duties and faced verbal abuse by supervisors.

"They pulled out all the stops to try to discredit me," LePique says. "If anybody pulled my personnel file, their hair would stand on end to see all the things that are in it."

Mangelsdorf says simply, "They've destroyed my career."

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LePique's woes began in September, 1991, after she gave a sworn statement supporting another employee who had filed sexual harassment charges against Gotor. Mangelsdorf, once Gotor's friend, claims he faced retaliation for testifying in January on LePique's behalf after she filed her own complaint.

Crisman, who heads a contracts department, was never told why she had not been promoted. She did know, though, that there were only four women supervisors out of 25 in Newport Beach and that men with poor evaluations and less experience were being promoted.

"When I filed this complaint, I knew pretty much that it was career suicide," Crisman said. "I was thinking I probably would be ostracized by senior management because that's viewed as a very negative thing. But I felt so strongly that I was being wronged, I had to do something."

After an informal investigation determined that Crisman was denied a promotion for unspecified "business reasons," she sought a formal review.

"There was a long period where she lost a round and had these reprisals against her," said her husband, David Carr. "It was a horrible time."

Tension and stress led to bronchitis and pleurisy, she said, explaining that she twice went to the hospital because of breathing problems. She was sick three to four weeks during the last two months of 1992 from the stress of following through on her complaint and facing the frustrating, long EEO review process and the reprisals, she said.

In addition, management's annual evaluation of her performance wasn't as favorable this summer as it had been in previous years.

"They can play this game: If they choose not to take direct retaliation against you, they can just give you a C rating and you're stuck in that job forever and you'll never be promoted," she said.

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A soft-spoken woman who is expecting her second child soon, Crisman became so infuriated when she learned in August that Jones had been promoted that she agreed to testify before the Senate Banking Committee.

"That indicated to me that the lip service we had been given was just that, that there weren't really any sincere efforts to make changes," she said.

Crisman had planned to meld her RTC contracting and management experience with her previous training as a real estate broker to work for a major bank or financial institution.

"Now, I don't know," she said.

LePique, who can be as fiery as Crisman is quiet, has been fighting not only for a promotion but also for her reputation.

Almost since the day she started working at the Newport Beach office in July, 1990, according to the RTC's equal employment investigation, LePique had been the subject of Gotor's advances--or his efforts to control her--and, having failed at those, to ruin both her name and her career.

Eventually, his lewd and threatening comments soon became so pervasive, LePique said in summarizing charges, that a number of RTC employees who don't even know her came to believe she was both promiscuous with men and a lesbian.

One friendly employee was reduced to tears after listening to a man, riding with her to work in a van pool, discuss LePique's alleged lesbianism.

According to equal employment files, witnesses said Gotor said he would "get" LePique, bragging that his power at the Newport Beach office was so great that he could get Felton and Jones to do his bidding. He denied both charges, according to the files, as well as the claims of harassment.

LePique ignored the comments for a long time. In the first year, she didn't even realize the significance of his actions and suggestions for dates. Like many women, she said, it took the Senate hearings over Anita Hill's sexual harassment claims against Clarence Thomas to understand what was happening in the workplace.

When it came time a year ago for a promotion LePique had been promised, records show, Jones asked her only three questions: What her relationship was with each of two women and why she couldn't get along with Gotor, who wasn't even her supervisor at the time.

"I was stunned," she said.

"Those three years of all those comments--the lesbianism, the promiscuity--I had pushed in the background and said, 'It doesn't matter because I'm doing my job and that's all that anybody cares about.' It hit me right in the face that that isn't what everybody cares about," she said. "For the first time in my professional life, I felt totally discredited."

According to RTC records, Jones said that his questions were appropriate because they were job-related and that, in addition, LePique's work performance had slackened.

Once she filed her formal complaint, the reprimands and reprisals rained down. Several dozen colleagues questioned by senior management came to her office, some in tears.

"Those were the dark days," LePique said. "I began to think, 'What have I done to all these people, let alone myself?' That's when I really began to doubt what I was doing."

After receiving anonymous telephone calls, finding her car vandalized in the RTC lot and finding her garage door open, she figured it was time to go. "I was living in Costa Mesa, but I moved because of all this," she said. "I can't second-guess it because I have a small child."

Gotor denied making sexist remarks to or about LePique, seeking dates with her or trying to ruin her career. He acknowledged, though, that men meeting behind closed doors sometimes engaged in sexual banter about women and that such talk was "nothing out of the ordinary."

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Mangelsdorf, though, says Gotor crossed over the line, expressing in detail his desires. In testimony, Mangelsdorf revealed those comments as well as Gotor's requests for help in getting a date with her--and, later, in ruining her career. He also testified about fraud and mismanagement, including phony sales figures the Newport Beach office once gave to Congress.

He didn't win any friends among top managers.

"I'm outspoken. I have very strong convictions. I'm very stalwart. I call foul when I see foul. I like the truth," he said. "I developed that reputation here, and they don't seem to like me for it."

In fact, he said, managers now call him a liar.

Mangelsdorf said he suspected a year ago that he would be drawn into the RTC's internal inferno, so he straightened out his financial affairs in case he lost his job and finally agreed to his wife's wishes to move out of Huntington Harbour.

He also is worried about possible physical attacks.

"If it weren't for the Senate hearing, I wouldn't carry a gun," he said. But he became alarmed when an RTC employee from Chicago told the Senate committee that his life was threatened several times.

Mangelsdorf said his new neighborhood has "triple redundant security," including an armed guard service that patrols his street 24 hours a day.

"I take additional precautions all the time," he said. "The best shot at someone like me would be in the RTC parking lot."

He leaves the office at different times and from different exits each day, usually in a crowd and always scanning the rooftops of the buildings surrounding the RTC office. In the last year, he has driven 15 different cars--many of them borrowed--as part of his effort to break any routine.

"My personnel file is full of unsigned letters that don't have anything to do with anything, but they're in there," he said. "They've destroyed my career. My alternative is to go to work for myself."

Gotor has no sympathy. As far as he's concerned, LePique and Mangelsdorf are "underachievers" who made phony allegations against him to seek promotions when their jobs were in jeopardy.

He said he doesn't know why LePique and he ended up pitted against each other, but he figures Mangelsdorf was upset with him because others were promoted before he was.

Gotor never grasped how serious the case against him had become until he was removed from his influential post in May and sent to work on real estate problems at a failed San Diego thrift as the equal employment investigation continued.

By July, he felt his lawyer had done a masterful job repudiating all the evidence against him, but he expected the worst. Gotor said he was "very disappointed" when the decision came down.

"Although you can prepare yourself for something of that nature, when it finally takes place, it's generally a lot more of a heavy blow than what you anticipate," he said. "At least it was in this case."

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