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A Trial Won, a Lesson Lost

A few days before Nate Holden’s victory in his sexual harassment trial, the Los Angeles city councilman and I had a long, contentious discussion about relations between male bosses and their female employees.

Holden had tracked me down to complain about a column I’d written comparing his behavior to two other well-known accused harassers, Sen. Robert Packwood and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Holden was so angry, in fact, that the day the column appeared, he had his lawyer, Skip Miller, call me to protest what he considered an unfair and slanted point of view. It wasn’t until the following week that I talked to Holden himself.

I didn’t take notes on the conversation so I can’t provide a verbatim account. But in general terms, it went something like this:

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Holden reiterated what he’d said in court--that he had not invited his accuser, former receptionist Marlee M. Beyda, to his Marina del Rey apartment and forced her to have sex with him.

Well, I said, no matter what happened there, she was in your apartment. You shouldn’t be alone with a woman employee there.

He replied that we saw things differently, that we had different lifestyles. Mine was more conservative than his. I was, he seemed to imply, uptight. He said I shouldn’t judge his lifestyle standards by my own.

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I didn’t see Holden again until Tuesday morning when he held a victory press conference at City Hall. Although the mood was celebratory, Holden’s happiness at winning the lawsuit was mixed with bitterness toward the press. With our notebooks in hand, and our tape recorders and cameras running, we journalists listened while Holden poured out his feelings.

He portrayed himself as a martyred victim. “You know,” he said, “I remember the guy named Emmett Till who was lynched for ogling.”

A newcomer to City Hall might think it bad taste, or at least presumptuous, for him to bring up Till, a 14-year-old African American boy who was horribly beaten and then shot after he whistled at a white woman in a small Mississippi town in 1955. The furor over his death, and the acquittal of his accused killers, helped launch the civil rights movement.

But clearly, Holden saw himself in the Till mold. And we reporters, he suggested, were in the same class as those who murdered the young man.

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“You have no idea about what you write,” he said. “You have no idea about the effect of what you have to say. It almost makes you feel, ‘Where are you, are you in Nazi Germany?’ I feel like I’ve had a noose around my neck for three years. You know how it feels to be hung, waiting for someone to spank the horse? I don’t think you have any idea at all. No empathy, no sympathy, no concern for the innocent at all.”

Powerful stuff, but Holden had missed the point.

He brought the mess down on himself when he permitted Marlee Beyda to come into his apartment. If he had invited her, he was wrong. If she invited herself, he should have turned her away.

Those standards are becoming common in private business and in government. They are designed to prevent bosses from using their power to romance employees who, under other circumstances, would give them a swift kick.

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I can hear some of the old boys scoff at this. “I have a great relationship with my secretary,” one of them might say. “We go out to dinner all the time. That’s all there is to it.”

Sure. But ask yourself this: If you weren’t boss, would she sit in a restaurant after a long day at work, listening to you talk about yourself?

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These are complicated workplace questions, and they shouldn’t be settled in public hearings, as this case was. But under current Los Angeles law, that’s how the city handles sexual harassment charges against the very top officials--elected officeholders and department general managers.

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The city has a clear policy for underlings. Sexual harassment is defined as using “implicit or explicit sexual behavior of a verbal, visual or physical nature to affect the work environment, job or performance of any employee.”

Employees can start the complaint process with a phone call to a sexual harassment counselor in their departments. If the complaint is upheld, the department chief imposes discipline.

Some cases no doubt end up in court. But most don’t. Often, the matter is settled in a quiet conversation.

That’s not the case with City Council members, the mayor and other elected officials, or with the general managers. If you are harassed by one of the top men or women, you’ve got no way to complain except to file charges with a state fair employment practices commission or go to court.

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This is a painful approach, discouraging complaints, while being expensive for the city . The city has spent at least $1 million on Holden’s defense already and the cost might double if another sexual harassment suit against him goes to trial in Orange County.

That is why two council members, Jackie Goldberg and Ruth Galanter, announced Tuesday they will introduce legislation setting up a system for dealing with sexual harassment charges against elected officials and general managers.

Approval would mean at least one happy result from the messy Holden affair.


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