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Norwalk city councilmen accused of sexual harassment

Barely a year after Norwalk settled a sexual harassment suit against a city councilman for $500,000, the city is preparing to settle a similar harassment suit against a second councilman. A third suit is pending against yet another councilman.

The complaints against Norwalk City Council members Jesse M. Luera and Rick Ramirez were filed separately by one former and one current city employee at Norwalk Superior Court. Both plaintiffs seek compensatory damages, including economic damages, general damages for severe mental and emotional distress, punitive damages and statutory attorneys’ fees.

A tentative settlement was recently made in the suit against Luera and the city, city officials confirmed, but they were unsure of the amount.

The California Joint Powers Insurance Authority, an insurance pool providing coverage to 122 public agencies and cities, is representing Norwalk in the lawsuits.

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Telephone calls and e-mails to the authority were not returned.

In the complaint filed against Luera, Cynthia R. Sanchez, a former public safety officer, said she was sexually harassed for two years beginning in spring 2006.

She alleged that Luera would frequently grab her hand, pull her close and hug her, according to the complaint. Luera also made several comments about sex in exchange for a promotion in the Public Safety Department, the lawsuit says.

Sanchez alleged in her suit that the city failed to take steps to prevent the harassment and retaliated against her when she told her superiors about Luera’s sexual advances.

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On Friday, Luera’s attorney, John Barber, insisted that the councilman had done nothing inappropriate. He said that the harassment suit would be dropped as part of the settlement and that Luera would not be required to pay any money. Barber also said the city would not pay money on Luera’s behalf, but he declined to say how much the plaintiff would receive in the settlement.

In the complaint against Ramirez, Melody Baca, a former Senior Citizens Center employee, said he made sexual comments to her beginning in February 2003.

Baca is still employed by the city.

On one occasion, Ramirez grabbed her buttocks and told her they were “tight,” according to the complaint.

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“Although it’s still a pending investigation, I deny all allegations,” Ramirez told a reporter.

The lawsuits are the latest involving council members.

Last year the city settled a sexual harassment lawsuit against Councilman Mike Mendez for $500,000.

Toni Tucker, a former parks and recreation director, filed a complaint in November 2008 against Mendez, who was mayor at the time, alleging that he made numerous comments in fall 2006 about the size of her breasts.

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Mendez has publicly denied any wrongdoing.

Tucker’s settlement was paid by the joint powers authority.

All three plaintiffs are represented by William Crosby, an attorney with Barnes, Crosby, Fitzgerald & Zeman.

ruben.vives @latimes.com

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