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Inglewood Mayor James Butts accused of harassment by former executive assistant

James Butts
James T. Butts Jr., shown in 2016, has been mayor of Inglewood for almost eight years.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

A onetime aide to Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts Jr. is accusing him of harassment, abusive conduct and retaliation, saying in a letter from her attorney to the city of Inglewood on Thursday that she also was unfairly ousted from her job.

Melanie McDade-Dickens alleges that she and Butts had a years-long consensual romantic relationship before she ended it — a claim that the mayor has previously declined to confirm or deny to The Times.

However, her attorney, Carl Douglas, presented the allegations to city officials on Friday during a closed-door pre-disciplinary hearing in which McDade-Dickens fought to keep her job. The 12-page letter details several instances of alleged verbal harassment and attempts to follow her, and says that Butts would threaten to “physically harm her.”

Butts didn’t respond to a list of questions from The Times, but Mira Hashmall, a lawyer representing the city, said the mayor “categorically denies any allegations relating to alleged harassment or retaliation.”

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McDade-Dickens was an important figure at City Hall. She has been a key witness in an ongoing dispute involving Madison Square Garden Co. (which owns the Forum), Inglewood and the Clippers over a proposed billion-dollar basketball arena in the city.

In July, McDade-Dickens was escorted out of Inglewood City Hall and suspended, according to the letter and court documents. In November, the city gave her a notice of intent to terminate, pending Friday’s hearing.

It’s unclear exactly what led to McDade-Dickens’ suspension. Douglas declined to release more details.

His letter does, however, cite 15 allegations against her, including that she encouraged an Inglewood city employee to alter her state and federal deductions, and that she had coworkers help her with personal chores against their will. There also is a reference to “confidential allegations of criminal misconduct,” again without details.

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Douglas said that the allegations have “nothing to do with the performance of her job” and that many pertain to alleged acts after she was suspended.

Hashmall, a partner at Miller Barondess, the law firm that also is representing Inglewood in the MSG litigation, said McDade-Dickens’ allegations were “just an effort to distract from the very serious allegations being pursued in connection with those administrative proceedings. It is really telling that you’re getting a letter from the lawyer who claims he’s too busy to represent his client, and yet he’s spewing this narrative, but he’s not providing you with the letter of intent, which lays out the very specific and serious facts that have led the city to take the action it is taking.”

According to a motion from Miller Barondess attorneys in the MSG litigation, Inglewood received “credible information” that McDade-Dickens had violated unspecified “important city policies,” which led to her being placed on leave. “This malfeasance was connected to personal financial pressures relating to [her] purchase of a home,” according to the motion.

McDade-Dickens declined to comment to The Times through her attorney Thursday. But Douglas said: “I am confident we will be able to support the allegations made in this wrongful-termination case. These are allegations that should disturb every fair-minded citizen in Inglewood.”

In the letter from her attorney, McDade-Dickens said her relationship with Butts began when she worked on his first mayoral campaign in 2010. When he won, she became his assistant.

She then rose through the ranks, from a senior assistant to the mayor to acting assistant city manager in 2017. In March 2018, McDade-Dickens ended the relationship with Butts, according to the letter.

“Mayor Butts was not willing to accept Ms. McDade’s decision that she wanted to move on with her life without him, so he began a campaign of sexually harassing her,” Douglas wrote in the letter.

A month after the ending of their relationship, McDade-Dickens alleges, Butts disinvited her to weekly meetings with department heads and the police chief, according to the letter.

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In March 2019, after a birthday that she allegedly refused to spend with the mayor, he “stripped” her of her title of assistant city manager, according to the letter. It also describes repeated instances after their relationship ended in which Butts “shouted at, cursed her or threatened her at work.”

After the relationship ended, McDade-Dickens and her attorney allege, Butts “bombarded her with telephone calls and text messages, both during and off work hours, stating things such as: ‘You ruined my life because you left me and that I can’t function anymore without you.’”

The letter also alleges that Butts would sometimes come to her house early in the morning, entering through the garage, prompting McDade-Dickens to “be scared and retreat to another room, and hide from him.”

Butts has been mayor of Inglewood for almost eight years and has been at the center of a development boom in the city. He has an annual salary of $111,303.00, according to Transparent California. McDade-Dickens was paid $215,856 last year, according to City Manager Artie Fields, but Transparent California put her total pay at $289,864.

The hearing Friday again raised questions about McDade-Dickens’ relationship with Butts.

This year, lawyers for Madison Square Garden Co. asked in court proceedings whether Butts was in a romantic relationship with McDade-Dickens. MSG has argued that whether the mayor and his assistant “are involved in a personal relationship is highly relevant to Mayor Butts’ and Ms. McDade-Dickens’ credibility and bias as witnesses.”

MSG sued Inglewood and Butts last year, alleging that Butts tricked the company into ending its lease to use city-owned land for parking because the property was needed for a technology park. The mayor has repeatedly denied the claim.

At the time of the initial questioning, Butts and McDade-Dickens declined to tell The Times whether it was true that they were in a romantic relationship. McDade-Dickens called the questions from The Times “harassing and misogynistic.”

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Then over the summer, McDade-Dickens sat for more depositions. That was two weeks after she was escorted from City Hall and placed on paid leave, but before she hired Douglas in August.

In the fall, Douglas sent a letter to attorneys in the case making 148 changes to the transcript of her July deposition and backed a key claim by the Madison Square Garden Co. in its fight against the project. She will sit for another seven-hour deposition in the case soon, according to the letter.

In ordering McDade-Dickens to sit for more questioning, the discovery referee said there was “sufficient justification to inquire as to whether [she] may have had an ulterior motive to change her testimony (i.e. to potentially gain leverage in an employment dispute between her and the city).”


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