Harassment Case Pits U.S. Against D.A.

Times Staff Writer

A clash in the Norwalk post office has split the region's top two criminal justice officials and generated a courtroom contest over the federal government's defense of an alleged serial sexual harasser.

A state judge, finding that letter carrier Van Bernard Douglas Jr. had stalked a co-worker and followed her home and along her mail route, ordered him to stay 30 feet away from the victim. Judges found that on four earlier occasions, Douglas had harassed two other women.

But when the postman was charged with the crime of violating the order protecting Jackie Jones from his unwanted advances, he fought back with the help of an unexpected ally. A federal prosecutor, at taxpayer expense, is acting as his defense attorney.

U.S. Atty. Debra W. Yang's office in Los Angeles says an important legal principle is at stake, namely that California or any other state should not be allowed to interfere with the operation of an agency of the U.S. government.

But Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who is trying to prosecute Douglas for violating the court order, said the state has a duty to enforce harassment laws in all workplaces within its borders.

"The district attorney and prosecutors place a high priority on protecting victims of sexual harassment and workplace violence," Cooley said. "Common sense tells you not to place an employee with such a history and previous violations of restraining orders in the same office as the victim co-worker."

Jones said she is angry that federal prosecutors chose to defend Douglas when a crime was committed against her.

"I have no idea why they would defend him after looking at his record and his past," she said. "It's people like him that waste time and abuse the system.

"What about my rights? My rights were taken," she said.

Federal prosecutors contend that Douglas did not harass Jones after the order was issued, and that he merely showed up at work after supervisors and his union directed him to report there. By doing so, he violated the order that he stay at least 30 feet away from Jones at all times.

"As far as we know, there's no evidence he did anything to violate the court order other than going to work, and he did that only after he was assured [by postal supervisors and union officials] that it was OK to do so," said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.

Marci Fukuroda, a staff attorney for the California Women's Law Center in Los Angeles, said defending an alleged harasser sends a horrible message and "sets a dangerous precedent, especially coming from one of the nation's biggest employers."

Although federal prosecutors have intervened to defend Douglas, they have not taken any action against him for workplace harassment. U.S. Postal Service spokesman David Mazer said Douglas had been disciplined in the Jones case but would not specify any penalties.

The postman was fired in December 2000 for failing to report to work while the restraining order was in effect. He appealed his dismissal to an arbitrator, who ruled that the order was unreasonable because it did not provide an exception allowing him to honor it while remaining at work.

After the dismissal was blocked, Mazer said, the post office decided against transferring the 18-year Postal Service veteran -- which would have allowed him to work without violating the restraining order -- because he might have lost seniority and benefits.

Based on the arbitrator's decision, Douglas showed up for work Feb. 18 this year. Jones promptly called the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Douglas was arrested the next day on suspicion of violating the restraining order. To protect its turf, the Postal Service appealed to the U.S. Justice Department to defend Douglas, according to the U.S. attorney's office.

Mrozek said Douglas "did everything he could do to avoid violating the court order, even so far as not going to work and losing his job."

State prosecutors said Douglas has a history of at least four other domestic-related offenses dating back more than a decade. Cooley spokeswoman Jane Robison said that at least two of the cases involved different female victims.

In 1991, Douglas pleaded no contest to contempt of court and trespassing for violating a court protective order. He was arrested by Gardena police in March 2002 for evading an officer and disobeying a court order to stay away from a woman, and was sentenced to 30 days in jail, Robison said. Later that year, he found himself in the custody of Downey police for disobeying another court order, also designed to protect a woman. Douglas again spent 30 days in jail and was placed on three years' probation.

Robison said there was a fourth case but provided no details.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Alicia Villarreal, who is defending Douglas in the federal case, acknowledged that her client "is no angel" and "has a past." But she said he is innocent of the pending charges.

"The standard is not judging him by his past or what crimes he might commit in the future," she said. "The standard is: Do you have sufficient proof beyond a reasonable doubt of the crime you have charged him with? And the answer to that is clearly no."

Jones said she didn't believe union and postal officials took workplace violence seriously. "I don't know why the post office is fighting this. The solution was: This guy should not have a job; he should not have been able to do this to anybody," she said.

Several legal experts said the U.S. stance contradicts federal and state legislation to ensure the safety of employees from all workplace violence.

There is good reason for those laws, Fukuroda said, citing the Justice Department's own statistics that an average of 1.7 million Americans are victims of workplace violence each year. Homicide is the second leading cause of death on the job and is the leading cause of workplace death among women. About 16% -- 1 out of 6 -- of victims of workplace homicide are killed by someone they know, including co-workers, according to the Justice Department figures.

"It's rather stunning to watch the machinations of the federal government, putting its weight behind someone who is accused of this, rather than seeking to do whatever it can to make its employees feel safe," said Abby J. Leibman, a legal expert specializing in women's rights.

Douglas could be jailed for five days if found guilty of violating the restraining order. But federal prosecutors have asked a federal judge to intervene and shield Douglas. The case is scheduled to be heard Monday by U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter in Los Angeles

Leonard Levine, an attorney who has represented Douglas in state court, criticized the state judges for not working out a more creative solution that kept the order in force but let his client work. He criticized Cooley for bringing the charges in the first place and said post office rules made the problem worse.

The fact that Douglas' case dragged on for three years was due to a backlog of 1,800 cases, Postal Service spokesman Mazer said. But he called this case the exception rather than the rule.

Douglas was transferred to another office in May under a reorganization, and did not lose seniority or benefits, Mazer said.

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