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After the Trial, Women on Council Should Make Sure They’re Heard

The sexual harassment accusations against Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden are the same kind that sank the political career of Sen. Bob Packwood and tarnished the reputation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

But even if Holden loses the lawsuit filed by his accuser, chances are he will return to the council chambers as powerful as ever, despite some damaging admissions and a personality as oddly mercurial as any in City Hall.

In a city apathetic about local politics, where politicians operate free from Washington’s unrelenting glare, few voters know or care about the case.

Too bad. For the drama being played out before Superior Court Judge Raymond D. Mireles is as gripping and revealing as anything in the career of a man whose unrelenting ambition and bullying tactics have taken him to the center of power in one of America’s greatest cities.

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Holden, 66, is being sued by his former receptionist, Marlee M. Beyda, 31. Beyda contends that Holden invited her to his Marina del Rey apartment and tried to force her to have sex with him several times. Similar harassment, she said, occurred in Holden’s district office.

Holden has denied the allegations, saying that he has never made any sexual advances toward anyone in his office.

These days in court, Holden sits quietly, looking sharp in a tastefully checked brown suit. His subdued manner is a far cry from the bombastic Nate of the council chamber. In council meetings and in committees, Holden spews anger and contempt at adversaries, especially when he goes up against one of the women council members, whom he treats with old-boy condescension.

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In private, his moods range from genial to angry to downright peculiar.

It is his habit to take home leftover steaks and chicken from the many political dinners he attends. If you’re sitting next to Nate and you don’t finish your steak, he’s likely to ask if you mind donating it to his doggy bag for his own dining pleasure.

For much of his adult life, Holden has tried to convince voters that he is qualified for various political positions, including mayor. Despite all his efforts, he was elected to only one term in the state Senate and two in the City Council, his longest job yet.

My most memorable experience with Holden occurred in 1989. A lobbyist had said Holden would help her client in the City Council in exchange for a contribution to another council member’s fund-raising dinner.

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I sat down with Holden in his office and asked him about it. “It’s a lie,” the councilman insisted, and then he burst into wrenching sobs, so intense he couldn’t speak. He sat sobbing, his head cradled in his arms, until an aide brought him a wet towel and Holden wiped his face.

The lobbyist eventually backed down, telling the district attorney’s office she “never viewed the matter as a bribe or soliciting a bribe,” and Holden felt he was exonerated.

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Listening to the testimony, I thought of the Packwood affair, and how Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) forced her colleagues to act on the sexual harassment charges against the Oregon senator. I wondered how the four women on the City Council felt about Holden.

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Laura Chick, Ruth Galanter, Jackie Goldberg and Rita Walters--unlike Boxer--were restricted from saying much about the case because Beyda is suing the city, as well as Holden. In fact, Times reporter Jodi Wilgoren reported last month that the city’s defense bill is climbing by as much as $8,000 a day and the total cost to the taxpayers may reach $1 million.

Walters wouldn’t say anything at all. The others were careful in their remarks, but made it clear that they were troubled. Chick, in fact, had given a speech to Los Angeles women police officers in which she said the City Council had the “most sexist, good-old-boy environment I had ever experienced.”

She didn’t like the idea of Holden inviting Beyda to his apartment. Holden’s attorney, Skip Miller, admitted to reporters Tuesday that his client had done that three or four times. “To me it’s unprofessional,” Chick said. “To me there is an unwritten law against dating and sexual relationships between bosses and employees.”

But all agreed there’s not much that can be done until the case is decided. “After the trial, I’ll be happy to talk to you about it,” said Galanter. “After the trial is over, you’ll find women on the council making statements,” said Goldberg.

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When they start to talk, maybe they can act, too. Let them do a Barbara Boxer. Whether Holden wins or loses, they should start a move to force him to repay his legal bills.

Some of the women voted in closed session against paying the bills. But the city attorney insisted on payment, saying a public agency must provide for the defense of an employee unless “the act or omission was not within the scope of his or her employment.”

That sounds like bum advice. Having to go to your boss’s Marina del Rey apartment doesn’t sound like an official duty. Marina del Rey isn’t even in the city of Los Angeles.

So let Nate pay for the fallout from his marina meetings. He can afford it. If he doesn’t have the cash, he can always bully the lobbyists into taking care of it with a fund-raising dinner.

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