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California

John Lee was accused of harassment. Will that sway Valley voters?

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - MARCH 12: Los Angeles City Council District 12 candidate John Lee participate
City Council District 12 candidate John Lee participates in a community forum hosted by the Korean American Federation of Los Angeles in March.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Several years ago, a former Los Angeles City Council aide alleged in a lawsuit that her supervisor, John Lee, had quizzed her about her sex life, told her “I know you want me,” and refused to consider her for another job because she was a “petite pretty girl.”

Lee, who worked for Councilman Mitchell Englander, denied those claims. Englander called them “patently false.”

The legal battle ended more than four years ago, with Lee himself being dismissed as a defendant before the city agreed to pay a $75,000 settlement.

Now Lee is running for City Council — and is likely to face fresh questions about her allegations. His candidacy will test whether such claims have added sway with voters amid the #MeToo movement, which has empowered people to speak up about sexual harassment and assault.

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Lee is widely seen as a front-runner in the crowded race to succeed Englander, who stepped down last year to take a job with an entertainment firm. He worked previously as chief of staff to the councilman, the same path that led Englander and his predecessor Greig Smith to the San Fernando Valley council seat.

The harassment allegations have not stopped Lee from scooping up local endorsements, including from council members Monica Rodriguez and Joe Buscaino.

Campaign observers say that with more than a dozen candidates in the race to represent a district that includes Granada Hills, Porter Ranch and Chatsworth, most are devoting their energy to getting their names out, rather than attacking their opponents.

“The biggest advantage that he may have going for him is the size of the field,” said Dan Schnur, professor of political communications at UC Berkeley and Pepperdine University. “It would take several candidates to decide to make this a central aspect of their campaigns in order to make it a central part of the debate.”

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But if Lee, a Republican, advances past the June election to an August runoff, the harassment claims could become a bigger focus, especially if Lee faces off with a female candidate, experts say.

At a recent forum for Democratic candidates, then-candidate Serena Oberstein mentioned the $75,000 settlement — although not Lee by name — as she argued there was a “crisis of confidence” in the city.

Oberstein has since been deemed ineligible to run due to a restriction in the city charter. Among the remaining contenders in the race is sustainability educator Loraine Lundquist, who said in an interview that she didn’t know the details of the case, but was worried about “a larger pattern of a culture of harassment,” noting that nearly 18% of city employees surveyed said they had been sexually harassed in the workplace.

Lundquist, a Democrat, added that as she talked to voters, people “are concerned about the $75,000 that taxpayers had to pay out.”

Former Englander staffer Melody Jaramillo, who worked for the city for roughly a year, declined to comment on her suit. In a written statement, her attorney Nicholas W. Sarris said she “stands firmly behind the facts” in her suit, but would not make any public statements at this time “due to the hostile conduct that many victims of harassment have recently experienced in similar cases.”

In her suit, Jaramillo alleged that Lee had repeatedly made offensive and inappropriate comments such as asking whether her older boyfriend could get sexually aroused and joking about her “making out” with other female staffers.

At one point, she said she caught a co-worker looking up her skirt as she ascended a flight of stairs. Lee did not reprimand the worker, but instead laughed, Jaramillo alleged.

The former aide also accused Lee and Englander of discriminating against her as a woman and paying her less than her male colleagues. She alleged that Lee had refused to consider her as the public safety deputy because “the public demanded a male for the position,” not a “petite pretty girl.”

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Englander, in turn, suggested that she only wanted the job so that she could be naked in front of male firefighters, Jaramillo alleged in her suit.

Both Englander and Lee denied the allegations. In court papers, city attorneys called the claims “false, frivolous, baseless, unreasonable, and without legal grounds.” Lee emphasized that he was dismissed as a defendant before the city agreed to the $75,000 settlement, saying he wasn’t a part of the city decision.

“The suit against me was dismissed by the plaintiff,” Lee said. “I think that speaks for itself.”

Lee added that he had chosen women to fill numerous positions in the council office, including deputy chief of staff, communications director and planning director. Three women who worked with Lee told The Times they did not have complaints about his behavior.

As for the public safety deputy, Lee said, “the very next time I filled that position it was held by a woman.”

“The women in this district that know me best, the women that I’ve worked closely with, they know me — and that’s why they’ve endorsed me,” Lee said.

Among his endorsers is political consultant Lisa Gritzner, who currently serves as the board chair of the Valley Industry & Commerce Assn. Gritzner said she knew little about the allegations, but that she had “never seen him in any situation that was even remotely questionable.”

Rodriguez, the councilwoman who endorsed Lee, said in a statement that he “has a reputation as a committed, effective, and inclusive leader” and that “the allegations are not reflective of the family man and friend that we all know and I suspect that’s why the lawsuit was ultimately dropped.”

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Sarris, the attorney representing Jaramillo, said the only reason that Lee was dismissed as an individual defendant was that “a settlement had been reached in principle with the city.”​ After Lee was dismissed, a city claims board approved the $75,000 payment to Jaramillo and her attorneys later that month.

Other L.A. politicians have won election despite accusations of sexual misconduct: Councilman Jose Huizar sailed to reelection less than a year after settling a lawsuit filed by a former aide who alleged Huizar had retaliated against her after she refused to provide him with “sexual favors.” Huizar denied the allegations but said he had an extramarital affair with the aide.

During the campaign four years ago to represent a district stretching from Sherman Oaks to the Miracle Mile, The Times reported that then-candidate David Ryu had once faced a charge of attempted rape that was dismissed.

Ryu called it “something I did not do, and I would never do.” The Times was unable to interview the alleged victim, and the incident never became a major focus in the race.

Both of those campaigns, however, occurred before the #MeToo movement became a political and cultural force — including in the San Fernando Valley. In recent years, accusations of sexual misconduct led Assemblymen Matt Dababneh (D-Woodland Hills) and Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima) to step down.

Still, political consultant Lindsay Bubar, whose client Emerge California trains Democratic women to run for office, said that fewer Southern California politicians facing such accusations have been up for election amid the #MeToo movement.

“It’s clear that, as a society, we’ve shifted,” Bubar said. “But I don’t know whether or not that translates at the ballot box.”

emily.alpert@latimes.com

Twitter: @AlpertReyes


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