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Harassment scandal roils Garcetti’s India bid. Here’s what we know

Sen. Alex Padilla introduces Mayor Eric Garcetti at his Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in December.
Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), left, introduces Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti at his Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in December.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
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For months, the sexual harassment allegations against a former top aide to Mayor Eric Garcetti have seeped into public view by fits and starts.

It began nearly 21 months ago, when a lawsuit filed by a member of Garcetti’s LAPD security detail alleged that mayoral advisor Rick Jacobs meted out unwanted hugs, massages and crude sex banter. More allegations against Jacobs trickled out via news accounts, then in leaked deposition testimony in Officer Matthew Garza’s lawsuit against the city.

An LAPD officer who worked on Mayor Eric Garcetti’s security detail is suing the city, alleging he was sexually harassed by Rick Jacobs, a Garcetti advisor.

July 14, 2020

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Now the Jacobs furor has landed at the U.S. Senate, which must decide whether Garcetti told the truth when he testified twice, under oath, that he knew nothing about complaints about his longtime aide’s behavior, until the lawsuit thrust it into public view. The mayor needs a majority of senators to confirm his nomination to become U.S. ambassador to India.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who is probing the allegations surrounding Jacobs and Garcetti, said in a statement last month that whistleblowers who didn’t speak with the Senate panel that approved Garcetti’s nomination have presented new allegations to his investigators. Grassley’s team hasn’t revealed the new claims. The mayor, meanwhile, contends there’s nothing new about his role.

Among the most pertinent witnesses and pieces of evidence that have been made public so far:

Mayor Garcetti’s nomination to become ambassador to India faces doubts as a senator expands his probe into Garcetti’s knowledge about alleged misconduct.

March 30, 2022

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The plaintiff

Garza was a member of Garcetti’s security detail for seven years. His 2020 lawsuit alleges not only the aide’s misconduct but that “Garcetti was present on approximately half of the occasions when Jacobs behaved in this way, and witnessed Jacobs’ conduct.” It adds that the mayor took no corrective action and would even laugh at Jacobs’ crude comments.

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The LAPD officer said he also overheard Garcetti and his wife, Amy Elaine Wakeland, talking about how Jacobs’ behavior would “bite them in the ass.”

Deposed in the litigation and in other public comments, Garcetti has denied all of Garza’s allegations. The mayor says he has zero tolerance for sexual harassment and immediately would have intervened if he had seen Jacobs getting out of line.

Jacobs, who stepped away from advising Garcetti in 2020, has called the accusations “a work of pure fiction.” He has depicted himself as a caring individual who “never intentionally hurt anyone.”

In his own deposition testimony, he conceded that he may have hugged Garza. He also said he may have made sexual jokes in front of the mayor’s security detail.

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The security detail

Nine other members and supervisors in Garcetti’s LAPD security unit told a law firm hired by the city to investigate that they did not recall hearing Jacobs make inappropriate comments to Garza, or experience any sexual misconduct themselves. They said their fellow officer never complained to them about Jacobs.

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Another former member of the LAPD security detail, Derrick Boykins, said in deposition testimony that he heard Jacobs make comments toward young men, and about police officers’ looks and people’s body parts. However, Boykins said he didn’t see Jacobs act in an “inappropriate” manner.

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The elevator incident

When Garcetti and a few staffers rode in a cramped elevator in a Capitol Hill office building in 2017, Jacobs pressed up against the mayor’s chief counsel, she later recalled in a deposition. The lawyer, Julie Ciardullo, testified she told Jacobs to stop and the mayor backed her up, saying “something to the effect of, you know, ‘Stop’ or ‘Cut it out.’”

Garcetti told Rick Jacobs, a former top advisor, to cut it out after Jacobs pushed up against a female advisor in a elevator, the woman has testified.

June 30, 2021

Ciardullo, who remains a senior policy advisor, testified she did not believe Jacobs was sexually harassing her. Garcetti said he did not recall the episode but did not doubt Ciardullo’s account.

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A lawsuit predicted?

The former head of the nonprofit Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles testified that he heard Garcetti once say words to the effect of “I can’t believe Rick worked .… at City Hall and that we got through it without a lawsuit.”

Jeremy Bernard, who left the Mayor’s Fund in 2020, said he believed others also heard the remark, because he recalled people talking about it. Garcetti denied last year in a deposition that he ever predicted litigation over Jacobs. “I have never said that to anybody, publicly or [in] private,” the mayor said.

The former head of the nonprofit Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles testified that he heard Mayor Eric Garcetti say he was surprised his former aide hadn’t caused the city to be sued.

June 9, 2021

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The photograph

At the 2017 U.S. Conference of Mayors gathering in Miami Beach, Garcetti stood for a picture with some of his staff and other Angelenos active at City Hall. In the photo, first published in The Times in 2020, Jacobs holds his hand over another man’s crotch. (The man told The Times Jacobs did not touch him.)

A 2017 photo shows Rick Jacobs, a close advisor to Mayor Eric Garcetti, making a sexually provocative gesture. Garcetti, who also appears in the photo, said he didn’t know about the gesture or any alleged misconduct by Jacobs.

Nov. 20, 2020

Garcetti, standing alongside, is smiling and giving two thumbs-up. The mayor is looking toward the camera, not at his aide’s provocative gesture.

Former city employees, who leaked the photo through their lawyer, said it illustrated “years of grotesquely inappropriate predatory behavior that Mayor Garcetti tolerated and enabled.” Garcetti said he never saw Jacobs’ gesture until The Times published the photo. He called the behavior “totally inappropriate” and said the photo was sent to the law firm reviewing the case.

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The report

The city attorney’s office hired an outside law firm, Ellis & Makus of Sacramento, to review Garza’s allegations. After interviewing more than two dozen witnesses, the firm completed a report that concluded Garza was not sexually harassed and that Garcetti did nothing wrong.

A city-commissioned report sent to the U.S. Senate found no improper behavior by Mayor Eric Garcetti or a former key advisor. The lawyer for an LAPD officer suing the city attacked the credibility of the report.

March 23, 2022

“Contrary to Officer Garza’s report, Mayor Garcetti did not know about or fail to prevent Mr. Jacobs from engaging in inappropriate touching or comments,” the report says. The firm said it based that finding on Garcetti’s credible denial and statements from the LAPD officers and others at City Hall.

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Though the report was deemed confidential by the city and the judge overseeing the Garza lawsuit, Garcetti’s office released it to the State Department, which sent it on to senators reviewing the ambassadorial nomination.

Garza attorney Greg Smith said the report lacks credibility, in part because some key individuals were not interviewed, including Bernard. Also declining to be interviewed were Naomi Seligman and Suzi Emmerling, two former mayoral communications directors who have said Jacobs’ misconduct was widely known.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has placed a hold on L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s nomination as ambassador to India over sexual harassment allegations against the mayor’s former top advisor.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The report includes witnesses’ theories about Garza’s motivations and questions his credibility. However, “it barely stops to consider the motivation of everyone still in Mayor Garcetti’s orbit to protect him from the lawsuit and very serious allegations it makes,” said Garza’s attorney, Greg Smith.

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The communications director

Driving the campaign in the Senate to thwart Garcetti’s assignment in India has been Seligman, who has persistently charged that the mayor lied and should not be confirmed. She escalated her effort in February, getting the nonprofit law firm Whistleblower Aid to file a complaint with local, state and federal prosecutors demanding that Garcetti be prosecuted for perjury.

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Seligman said in her deposition in the Garza case that she saw Jacobs hugging and kissing people in ways that were clearly unwanted, while the mayor was at close hand. Asked whether Garcetti might have missed seeing those moments, Seligman testified: “If he chose not to.”

She also testified that Jacobs grabbed and kissed her forcibly in her office in 2016, an incident she said was witnessed by “eight or nine” members of her communications team. Her friend, Rebecca Ninburg, testified that Seligman had called her shortly after the alleged incident to complain about Jacobs’ behavior.

Many of the staffers who worked under Seligman and Jacobs at the time told The Times they did not recall that incident. Only Becca MacLaren, Garcetti’s speechwriter, has gone on the record with her account. The other workers, including several who have left the mayor’s office, asked to remain anonymous; saying they didn’t want to be caught up in the anger and recrimination swirling around the case.

Seligman has accused those casting doubt on the kissing incident as being part of a culture of silence in the mayor’s office.

She testified that she went to then-Chief of Staff Ana Guerrero to report the forced kiss, but that Guerrero merely “shook her head, rolled her eyes [and] got her sort of blank angry stare.” She said Guerrero took no action because Jacobs was seen as an “untouchable,” valued for his fundraising prowess and close ties to Garcetti and his wife.

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In her testimony in the Garza case, Guerrero denied that she ever received a sexual harassment complaint about Jacobs, from Seligman or anyone else. She depicted the mayor’s office as sensitive to such concerns and said immediate action would have been taken to resolve any problem.

The chief of staff and others acknowledged seeing Jacobs kiss others on the lips in social situations, but they said it did not seem unwanted or inappropriate.

Much of the other evidence surrounding the Jacobs furor does not go directly to Garcetti’s knowledge but suggests that many people in the mayor’s office talked about the top aide’s behavior:

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Talk in the mayor’s suite

Emmerling testified that soon after she signed on as communications director in 2017, other workers told her Jacobs was a problematic figure, adding “he’s sexually inappropriate, he’s a bully ... he’s got a lot of power.”

Henry Casas, former director of Garcetti’s Office of Public Engagement, said he was subjected to unwanted massages and touching by Jacobs and witnessed the same behavior toward Garza. Casas also testified that the acts were “common knowledge” in the mayor’s office but that he never complained and did not recall misconduct that Garcetti witnessed.

Investigator Leslie Ellis, who interviewed Jacobs, wrote in a follow-up report given to the city in April that Jacobs “possibly squeezed Mr. Casas’ arms because Mr. Casas invited the conduct.” Ellis wrote that Mr. Casas “liked to display his physical presence” and rolled up his sleeves, “making it clear that he was strong. In that context, Mr. Jacobs possibly squeezed Mr. Casas’ arms.”

Former Garcetti spokeswoman Anna Bahr said last month that Jacobs’ sexual harassment of others was “something everyone talked about” in the mayor’s office.

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The texts

Testimony showed that Garcetti spokesman Alex Comisar sent a text to a co-worker in which he commented: “Got hit on by Rick again.” Comisar later testified that he did not know what the message meant. He also told lawyers in the Garza case that he could not recall ever complaining about Jacobs’ behavior.

Garza’s lawyer recently released another message thread, this one between Bahr and her onetime boss, Emmerling, who gave the messages to the attorney.

“He abused me and harassed me the whole time he worked in the mayor’s office,” Bahr wrote.

“Kiss on the lips?” Emmerling responded. “Yes of course,” Bahr replied. “Squeezes.”

Bahr said in an interview that, regardless of what she wrote in the messages, the abuse and harassment she endured was not physical or sexual in nature. She said she personally only experienced “mean” and unpleasant behavior by Jacobs, though she knew others had been targeted with sexual harassment.

In their exchange of messages, Emmerling urged Bahr to “reach out” to others about her Jacobs complaints.

“I’m not getting in the mix,” Bahr responded. “And I don’t want to bring down Eric.”

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Other claims

Two men who spoke on the condition of anonymity told The Times that they were groped or harassed by Jacobs at social events. Other accounts of Jacobs’ alleged behavior were outlined in a New York magazine story and by journalist Yashar Ali.

More men have come forward to say they were harassed by Rick Jacobs, who has taken leave from his role as an advisor to Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Oct. 21, 2020

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Garcetti’s statements

In deposition testimony, Garcetti denied that he heard his former aide talk explicitly about sex, saying such behavior would be “completely out of character” for Jacobs. The mayor also said that he never saw Jacobs forcibly hug anyone or kiss anyone outside of Jacobs’ loved ones.

The mayor also last week said that he’s “satisfied that [the Ellis] investigation was both thorough and independent.”

Asked if he believes that it could be true that Jacobs sexually harassed city staffers, Garcetti said, “There’s no new allegations vis-a-vis me. I’ve been very consistent. I don’t care if you’re my best friend or worst enemy. This is something that I care about. And had I ever known about if these alleged things have happened, I would have taken immediate action to deal with [it.].”

With a calendar packed with other priorities and a two-week spring recess, the Senate is not expected to act on Garcetti’s nomination until late April at the earliest.

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