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Holden Is Exonerated in Harassment Case : Courts: Judge rules that plaintiff welcomed the councilman’s advances. Feminists are outraged.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden was exonerated Monday of sexually harassing a former receptionist, as a judge issued a sweeping ruling saying that the woman initiated all extracurricular contact with the veteran lawmaker and welcomed his advances.

“You accuse Nate Holden, you’ve picked the wrong guy,” beamed the exuberant political maverick as he emerged from an overstuffed courtroom.

“There’s no smoke, no fire. Not today--there never has been,” the 66-year-old former boxer added. “I’ve been hit before, but never with the ring post. Now I’ve been hit with the ring post and survived. People who know they’re innocent should not cave in, should not throw in the towel.”

The receptionist, 31-year-old Marlee M. Beyda, sobbed after Superior Court Judge Raymond D. Mireles finished his 30-minute discourse dismissing her claims, then rushed out of court clutching her boyfriend’s hand and refusing to say anything to the phalanx of television cameras and reporters that chased her.

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Beyda’s lawyers, Jack O’Donnell and Dan Stormer, said they were shocked not only at the sweeping verdicts but also at Mireles’ comments regarding Beyda initiating contact and welcoming Holden’s advances. The lawyers said they were unsure whether they will file an appeal.

“I would have fought the same fight over again,” O’Donnell said. “It’s been a long, tough fight for [Beyda]. I think she’d do it again, too. I think it’s important that people stand up and that other women and minorities are not deterred from filing these actions.”

But while Holden, his staff and legal team popped champagne corks at City Hall, feminist activists decried Mireles’ ruling and promised not to let the issue die.

“That’s quite a slap in the face,” Women’s Action Coalition spokesperson Alyson Mead said of the ruling, vowing to boycott anything connected to Holden and “campaign aggressively against his every move.”

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Tammy Bruce, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, said she would lobby Beyda’s lawyers hard to appeal the ruling and also push for better complaint procedures regarding harassment at City Hall.

“This helps people realize that our work is not done,” Bruce said. “This is not going to be the last challenge.”

The fight is not over for Holden, either.

He faces a second harassment trial in January, and returns to the City Council chamber after six weeks of embarrassing headlines not only about Beyda’s titillating allegations, but also about his near $1-million legal tab that taxpayers will have to pick up.

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“I certainly don’t think there was anything positive in this process for anybody,” said Councilwoman Laura Chick, who earlier this year decried what she called widespread sexism at City Hall.

“There’s no more room for generational differences or gender differences,” Chick said. “There are ways for everyone to get it. Education, training, and coming to an absolute definition of what sexual harassment is. . . . We have a long way still to go.”

Like Chick, Mayor Richard Riordan declined to comment on the case, but said it brought an important issue to the forefront.

“The city is committed to a workplace of equal opportunity and fair employment practices,” Riordan said in a statement. “Sexual harassment, and other forms of harassment, are serious matters and ought to be treated as such. There is a continuing need for education and awareness of the practices which lead to a productive, healthy workplace.”

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Two of the City Council’s four female members, Ruth Galanter and Jackie Goldberg, plan to announce this morning their intention to introduce legislation establishing anti-sexual harassment procedures to apply to elected officials and general managers. The existing policy pertains only to employees with supervisors and is not easily applicable to top officials, Goldberg and Galanter said in a statement Monday.

Beyda, who met Holden while waitressing at a Bel-Age hotel Valentine’s Day banquet in 1991 and worked in his district office for about 14 months, focused her claim on a series of after-hours visits to the councilman’s Marina del Rey apartment in which she accused him of masturbating against her body and trying to force her into oral sex and intercourse. She also contended that Holden offered to advance her career in exchange for sexual favors, and that he and three other defendants--chief of staff Louis White, field deputy Ira Massey and former employee Cruz Nunez--made sexual comments and touched her body inappropriately at the office.

Mireles, who heard the case without a jury, rejected each and every one of Beyda’s claims against the city and the defendants and her attorney’s suggestion of $1.2 million in damages.

The judge ruled that Holden’s apartment was not part of Beyda’s work environment and thus eliminated her dramatic testimony about the sexual assaults she alleged went on there. Further, he said Beyda’s version of what happened at the office was less credible than that of White, Massey, Holden and other employees who denied that there was a hostile environment akin to a singles bar.

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“I do not find that the councilman exerted some subliminal type power over Ms. Beyda or anything close to that,” Mireles said of the apartment visits. “It’s clear that Ms. Beyda saw some kind of opportunity . . . to enhance her position.”

Over and over again, the judge dismissed the plaintiff’s allegations. “The evidence is just nonexistent,” he said of one claim. “The plaintiff has failed to carry the burden,” he added regarding another.

“On all issues,” he concluded, “the court finds for the defendants, and each of them.”

About a dozen observers--including Beyda’s boyfriend and Holden’s press secretary--were shunted to the hallway as journalists, Holden constituents and others who have monitored the trial filled every court seat. While Mireles delivered his verdicts, Holden sat with his head bowed deeply, while Beyda looked straight at the bench, dabbing her eyes with a tissue about 15 minutes into the session.

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“I feel like I’ve been in an old washing machine that has an agitator, when you’re all washed out and they wring you from the wringer. . . . I need to recuperate,” Holden said afterward. “Just getting up every day and sitting in that courtroom is sapping my energy. That courtroom is a place where I felt I shouldn’t have been in the first place.”

Back at City Hall, Holden held court at his desk while his lawyers, staffers, constituents and two sons--one a Pasadena councilman, the other a deputy sheriff--clapped hands and raised fists as news of the verdicts aired on television under the headline “Name cleared.”

“We’ll continue to work, to serve the people,” Holden said. “We’ll put this behind us and then, then I’m going to Disneyland.”

Assistant City Atty. Wilma Pinder hailed the verdicts as showing that “the city is a wonderful place to work, a wonderful place for women to work.” Skip Miller, Holden’s lead lawyer, praised “a client that had the backbone to stand up to the charges.”

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Miller expressed confidence that Holden will also prevail in the second case, perhaps as early as Dec. 14, when there is a hearing scheduled on the defense motion for summary judgment dismissing the charges.

In that case, filed in Orange County, Carla Cavalier contends that during several years in Holden’s office she was subjected to an endless barrage of sexual commentary and unwanted touching. Cavalier’s attorney did not return phone calls Monday.

A third woman also filed a claim in 1992 accusing Holden of sexual harassment, but she never pursued a lawsuit.

“We’ve been innocent in all three complaints,” Holden said Monday. “The first two are down, one to go.”

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Times staff writer Jean Merl also contributed to this report.


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