Two female Los Angeles County prosecutors have accused their supervisor in the district attorney’s elite major crimes division of making sexually graphic gestures and comments, subjecting them to unwanted physical contact, and making disparaging remarks about a transgender attorney, according to a lawsuit filed this week.
Beth Silverman and Tannaz Mokayef claim that Gary Hearnsberger repeatedly harassed them by grabbing their buttocks and advertising his affinity for sexually pleasuring women, according to the complaint filed Wednesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Both said they were punished for rejecting Hearnsberger’s advances by getting “stale” cases, and they alleged that fellow female prosecutors in the major crimes division who submitted to such harassment were awarded with high-profile cases or other prized opportunities, the complaint said.
The lawsuit offers up a damaging portrait of the workplace climate at the elite division of the district attorney’s office, asserting that sexual favors and profanity-laced barbs are commonplace.
On Thursday, Hearnsberger flatly denied the allegations during an interview with The Times and said he was “blindsided” by the lawsuit, which he has not yet read in full.
“I’m being charged with a crime I didn’t commit, and that’s not something prosecutors want to see,” said Hearnsberger.
“It not only suggests that I’m doing something wrong but it suggests that the other women assigned to the division are doing something to get good cases. It’s outrageous.”
Three weeks shy of celebrating his 34th year in the district attorney’s office, Hearnsberger said the allegations laid out in the lawsuit are made by two disgruntled employees who are best friends and are retaliating because of other workplace matters.
He said the dispute stems in part from friction between Silverman and sheriff’s investigators that arose while working on the murder case against Jae Hwan Shim, who pleaded guilty in February to killing five people in June 2008.
Hearnsberger said Silverman became angry when he had to step in to help on the case and he asked the Sheriff’s Department to help recover the body of one victim found in Mexico and transport it to the U.S.
“This is one of the things that has upset her,” Hearnsberger said.
He said he suspected Mokayef was angered by a case reassignment, which he said “happens from time to time." He declined to elaborate further.
Silverman, who is prosecuting the Grim Sleeper serial killer murder case, declined comment. Mokayef and their attorney, Gregory W. Smith, could not be reached for comment.
The complaint features a laundry list of alleged misconduct.
Silverman alleged Hearnsberger referred to the African American women involved in her cases as “whores,” and Mokayef recounted an instance in which he joked about a transgender attorney’s genitalia, according to the complaint.
Silverman said he made gestures mimicking oral sex and placed his hands on her buttocks both in the office and at a 2013 work-related event at the Biltmore Hotel where he afterward told her, “You know you like it,” according to the complaint.
Hearnsberger likened Mokayef’s vibrating cellphone to a sexual toy and he regularly told her she “smelled good,” according to the lawsuit.
At a “hillbilly”-themed party for those working in the hardcore gang division in 2012, Hearnsberger donned overalls with no clothing underneath and had a stuffed sheep “attached to his crotch as if he was having anal sex with the sheep,” the lawsuit states. Heavily shaded photographs of the costume were attached to the lawsuit.
The complaint alleges that Mokayef denied sexual advances by Hearnsberger and was then given “stale investigations” and subjected to profanity and screaming. Silverman said she was punished with humiliating criticism in the presence of her colleagues and called by various graphic or profane names.
Hearnsberger confirmed that he was reassigned from Major Crimes to the Public Integrity Division after the pair lodged complaints with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. He has not yet retained a lawyer.
“Any kind of sexual allegations with me, her, them or other lawyers in major crimes or any other place where I’ve been head deputy is completely and totally untrue,” Hearnsberger said.
“I’ve gotten calls from people that have shown a lot of support. They know what I do,” Hearnsberger said. “They are extremely angry and devastated over the fact that these people would do this.”
The district attorney’s office declined to comment, citing the litigation.
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