Former finance director Eileen T. Walsh sued Orange County and her former boss Thursday, alleging that she was the victim of sexual harassment and discrimination and was punished for whistle-blowing about alleged improper dealings between investment firms and county government.
Walsh was demoted from her $93,292 job, and her pay was cut 30% last January by Health Care Agency Director Thomas E. Uram during his brief tenure as the interim county administrative officer.
Her 32-page complaint filed in Superior Court portrayed a work environment marked by offensive language and sexist references to women.
She singled out Uram and another former boss, Murray Cable, alleging that at one point in 1985, Cable "announced that he wanted to beautify the [county administrative officer's] office by making staff changes because too many of the women looked like 'heifers.' "
And in November 1986 at a birthday party for former County Administrative Officer Larry Parish that was organized by Cable, Walsh and other staff members were told to go to a conference room where a stripper performed, the complaint alleges.
Cable, who retired in May from the county as director of the Integrated Waste Management Department, could not be reached for comment Thursday. County Counsel Laurence M. Watson did not return a call for comment.
Reached at home Thursday night, Uram said, "I can't talk about litigation."
However, earlier this year, after Walsh's attorney wrote to the county asking that it cease discriminating against her, Uram stated, "I'm amazed. The accusations are just not true."
Before he returned to the health care agency, Uram transferred Walsh, 45, to the Integrated Waste Management Department, where she now works as an administrative manager.
"We made extraordinary efforts to make the county realize that this was a serious problem," said Walsh's attorney, Steven J. Kaplan. "And all we got was stonewalled. We had no choice but to file [the suit]."
One of the more serious allegations in the suit stems from a story that appeared in The Times last January in which Walsh was quoted as saying she had been ordered by Cable to add Santa Monica financial advisor Jeffrey Leifer to a list of consultants qualified to advise the county on bond issues.
The article examined how investment bankers, financial advisors and bond attorneys were generously donating to the political campaigns of local officials who decide which firms to hire for government bond issues.
One of the main beneficiaries of the so-called "pay-to-play" system, the article pointed out, was board Chairman Roger R. Stanton, who was accused last week by the Orange County Grand Jury of willful misconduct in office.
After the story was published, according to the lawsuit, Stanton demanded that Walsh retract her statement to the newspaper. But Walsh refused to do so, emphasizing to Stanton that she had told the truth, the suit says.
Shortly afterward, Walsh was demoted by Uram, because "Uram sought to retaliate against Walsh because she had assisted" in the newspaper story, according to the suit. "Her demotion was intended not only to punish her for having spoken to the [newspaper], but to warn her not to assist future investigations into the pay-to-play practices . . . by law enforcement agencies."
Stanton did not return a call for comment. Leifer was out of town and could not be reached. He has previously denied receiving any special considerations from the county or participating in a pay-to-play system.
Before her demotion and transfer, Walsh was placed on administrative leave by Uram. Coming in the midst of executive personnel changes in the county related to the then-recent bankruptcy filing, the action made it appear that Walsh was "implicated in the county's financial scandals, thereby stigmatizing Walsh," according to the suit, which seeks seeks unspecified damages.
Walsh has not been charged with wrongdoing in the bankruptcy, and has appeared as a witness before the Orange County Grand Jury and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Several people came to Walsh's defense after her demotion, including Supervisor Marian Bergeson, who asked former county Chief Executive Officer William Popejoy to reinstate her.
On Wednesday, Bergeson asked county CEO Jan Mittermeier, during a special meeting of the Board of Supervisors, to investigate Walsh's claim that the county had reneged on its promise to pay her legal fees when she was subpoenaed to appear before the various investigative agencies.