State Settles Aides’ Harassment Suit : Courts: Women who were fired by Willie Brown each receive $100,000. Their former boss, ex-Assemblyman Tom Connolly, denies any wrongdoing.
Two aides to a one-term assemblyman from San Diego County have received $100,000 each to settle a lawsuit against the state contending they were the targets of sexual harassment and wrongful termination in 1994.
The two women, Lori Arbogast and Meredith Ann Anderson, alleged that they were sexually harassed by then-Assemblyman Tom Connolly (D-Lemon Grove) and then were fired by then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown when they filed harassment allegations with the Assembly Rules Committee.
The women’s allegations prompted considerable attention during the San Francisco mayor’s race, in part because the women contend that they were fired by Brown for filing a sexual harassment complaint. He denies any role in the decision to fire the women and said his signature on firing papers was “routine.”
A third woman, Dena Holman, Connolly’s former chief of staff, also has a sexual harassment case pending against him. That case is still pending in San Diego Superior Court. Former Assemblyman Connolly denies it all. In settling the lawsuit, the state admitted no wrongdoing.
“The state totally and completely retaliated against us,” Arbogast said Saturday. “As soon as we complained, the top man in the state Legislature was out to get us so he could protect his friend Tom Connolly.”
Brown was eager to protect Connolly from damaging allegations that could endanger Connolly’s reelection hopes and thus the Democrats’ chances at retaining a majority in the Assembly, according to allegations in court documents.
As provided in the Legislature’s anti-sex harassment policy, the Rules Committee’s chief counsel, Nina Ryan, was assigned to investigate the women’s complaints. She concluded that the allegations were groundless, vindictive and politically motivated.
Ryan has close ties to Brown. At the time, Brown controlled the Rules Committee that employed her for $100,860 a year. In addition, her husband, Philip Scott Ryan, is Brown’s former law associate and was recently appointed with Brown’s support to a $97,088 a year post with the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board.
As part of a pretrial exchange of documents, the plaintiffs received notes taken by Ryan indicating that Brown attended sessions on how to “keep the lid on” the harassment claims against Connolly. One suggestion was to investigate the women including their credit histories.
Notes taken by Ryan after meeting with Brown read: “Emerging strategy should be macho, preemptive.” Soon after, Anderson and Arbogast were fired by Brown on the grounds that they would not work.
Brown, through contributions and strategy tips, had been helpful in getting the moderate Connolly elected in 1992 from a normally conservative district in eastern San Diego County.
In 1994, as a Republican tide swept the nation, Connolly’s seat was among a handful seen as key to the Democrats’ chances of retaining a majority in the Assembly and thus ensuring that Brown would remain as speaker.
Dogged by bad publicity about the harassment allegations, his multiple marriages, his admitted cocaine use and bankruptcy, Connolly was defeated in November 1994 by Steve Baldwin, a Republican.
After months of pretrial depositions, the case by Arbogast and Anderson was settled after a voluntary mediation session in San Francisco on Dec. 18, six days after Brown was elected mayor of San Francisco. Word of the settlement surfaced Friday.
Bion Gregory, the Legislature’s chief counsel, said the settlement is not an admission of guilt but only reflects a realization about the high cost of litigation. He added that the abusive actions of Connolly’s former chief of staff, Dena Holman, toward the two women could have left the state vulnerable to financial liability if the case had gone to trial.
Holman was not involved in the settlement and she declined to comment on the settlement.
Gregory said Ryan’s notes were only “raw notes” and that if Ryan had been asked about them during a deposition, or a trial, she would have explained that they do not show that Brown was orchestrating the firing. “All the information I have indicates that the speaker, other than being told what was happening, had no direct role in this case,” Gregory said, “and at no time did he give any indication of what should happen to these two young women.” Gregory said that the Rules Committee in November authorized him to settle the suit.
Brown was never deposed, although he told reporters covering his mayoral race in San Francisco that he could not remember firing Anderson and Arbogast. Court documents show they were the only employees Brown fired who were not part of his office.
“Brown called in all his chits,” said Anderson and Arbogast’s attorney Cathryn Chinn, one of San Diego’s top lawyers for sexual harassment and wrongful termination suits.
The Ryans, reached at their Mendocino home, declined to discuss the matter. The case had been set for trial in San Diego Superior Court on Jan. 8.
The two women, who now live outside California, had alleged that Connolly asked them about their sexual preferences, discussed his sex life and that of Willie Brown, and occasionally subjected them to unwanted hugs and lewd comments.
In her deposition, Arbogast said, “After he would throw one of his tirades or be aggressive, verbally aggressive, he would then be nice and sometimes he would hug and say, ‘Oh, do you still love me, do you still love me,’ all the time and I felt obligated to say yes and then sometimes he would hug me.”
A male employee from the office backed up the assertions.
Connolly, 49, a Vietnam veteran, now works as a lawyer for the San Diego County Public Defender with an emphasis on children’s issues.
“I continue to deny liability,” Connolly said Saturday. “I deny the allegations and I am anxious for my trial [the Holman case] to occur so that I can testify under oath, regarding the truth of what occurred.”
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