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L.A. to pay $750,000 to fired city official who had been labeled a 'workplace bully'

The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to pay $750,000 to a high-level economic development official who claimed he faced retaliation for reporting improper financial dealings and racial bias at his workplace.

City lawmakers unanimously backed the legal settlement with Ninoos Benjamin, who was fired two years ago from his post at the Economic and Workforce Development Department.

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Benjamin claimed in a lawsuit that, as a white Assyrian of Persian descent, he had faced discrimination and had been passed over for career opportunities. He also portrayed himself as a whistle-blower who lost his job as a direct result of notifying city leaders that they had failed to follow rules that govern the use of federal funds.

The city disputed Benjamin's claims, saying that his firing was caused by inappropriate behavior, not disclosure of wrongdoing. Department employees filed complaints about Benjamin in 2011 and 2012, saying he engaged in "profane, loud and abusive workplace conduct," according to a report on the settlement prepared for the council.

A threat management consultant retained by the city concluded that Benjamin was a "workplace bully" who should be fired, the report said. Benjamin received a 10-day suspension. But in 2013, a co-worker reported that he had engaged in "yelling and foul language" at a meeting, the city's report states. He was fired months later.

City lawyers succeeded in having most of Benjamin's claims dismissed. However, a jury sided with him on his whistle-blower allegation. The jury said Benjamin's decision to inform his superiors about potential violations of federal rules was a contributing factor in his firing.

Benjamin asked the jury to award him as much as $6.8 million, said Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer. The jury came back with a $758,204 verdict, which paved the way for a settlement, said Daniel J. Podolsky, Benjamin's lawyer.

"Everyone can finally move on with their lives," Podolsky said after Tuesday's vote.

In their memo, the city's lawyers said they saw no valid reason for filing an appeal. "A new trial could result in a much larger award, including damages for past and future lost pension," they wrote.

Under the settlement, Benjamin will be responsible for his legal bills, Wilcox said.

Benjamin originally filed his lawsuit in 2012, while he was still working for the city, and amended it repeatedly. He said he informed his superiors that the city significantly overpaid for a piece of property in South Los Angeles and had violated the terms of contracts reached with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That information was disregarded, he said.

The city conducted an investigation found no violations of federal rules. Nevertheless, city leaders put together a corrective action plan that incorporated some of his recommendations, Wilcox said.

Benjamin's lawsuit also included assertions that employees of his agency were regularly hired or retained based on race, not merit.

He alleged that his division had been ordered to retain three "under-performing" African American employees. He also claimed that one manager hired under-performing Latino workers as a way to counter an "all-African-American hiring frenzy" and achieve racial balance.

All of Benjamin's race-based claims were dismissed by a judge, Wilcox said.

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Twitter: @DavidZahniser

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