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Ex-chairman accused of racial discrimination in 3rd suit against California Democratic Party

SACRAMENTO, CA--MAY 21, 2017--Newly elected California Democratic Party Chairman, Eric Bauman, takes
Former California Democratic Party Chair Eric Bauman is shown shortly after being elected in May 2017.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Two former California Democratic Party employees and an activist sued the organization in Sacramento County Superior Court on Monday, alleging that they were subjected to sexual assault, harassment, racial discrimination and retaliation by former Chairman Eric Bauman, and that the party failed to protect them.

The lawsuit is the second filed against the party and Bauman in two weeks and the third legal action against both since he resigned in November following allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior toward party staff members and activists.

In the lawsuit filed Monday, former party operations director Tina McKinnor alleges that Bauman discriminated against her because she is black and former communications director John Vigna claims that Bauman groped him and sexually harassed him “on nearly a daily basis.” The complaint also alleges that the state party retaliated against McKinnor and Vigna for helping another employee file a sexual harassment complaint against Bauman when it fired them in December.

A third plaintiff, party activist Spencer Dayton, alleges in the suit that he was groped on at least two occasions by Bauman.

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The plaintiffs are suing to be compensated for pain and suffering and lost income, and for punitive damages.

Neal S. Zaslavsky, an attorney for Bauman, said his client had not been served with the lawsuit as of Monday afternoon.

“Mr. Bauman has not yet seen this lawsuit, and once again, we have only learned of its existence through media inquiries,” Zaslavsky said. “It is therefore premature for Mr. Bauman to have any further comment. As with the other pending matters, Mr. Bauman will not be trying this case in the media.”

Alexandra “Alex” Gallardo Rooker, the acting chair of the California Democratic Party, declined to comment through a spokesperson.

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“We find it curious that the complainants decided to share the complaint with the media before it was filed or served,” Rooker said. “In any event, the CDP will not be commenting on pending litigation. As we’ve stated previously, the most appropriate venue for litigation to be resolved and the truth to see the light is in the courtroom through proper legal procedures.”

The lawsuit is the latest to cast the California Democratic Party as an organization with a toxic workplace culture. Last week, Bauman’s former assistant sued the organization, alleging he was repeatedly groped and sexually assaulted by the former chair. In January, Bauman and the party were sued by three other current and former employees, who alleged discrimination and a culture of harassment and sexual misconduct that was “well-known and apparently tolerated” by top officials.

New lawsuit alleges sexual assault by former California Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman »

Similarly, the lawsuit filed Monday accuses current leadership of condoning Bauman’s “widely known” conduct. It also claims acting Chair Rooker acted in a way that “made it clear that the safety and well-being of CDP employees was subservient to her own political agenda.”

The plaintiffs declined to comment on the suit through their attorney, Micha Star Liberty.

“Sweeping these serious problems under the rug and then suggesting everyone then moves forward is not good enough,” Liberty said.

In the lawsuit, McKinnor alleges that Bauman took job duties away from her and gave them to white colleagues instead, saying her “style was ‘too urban’” to run staff meetings and that the party “was ‘not ready’ to have an African American responsible” for interacting with major donors.

The suit also alleges that Bauman used her employment as a “token,” particularly to appease Kimberly Ellis, a black female activist who narrowly lost to Bauman in his race for chair in 2017.

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According to the complaint, Bauman asked McKinnor to run a September 2017 executive board meeting and told her to sit up front “for the benefit of ‘the black folks.’” Later, when McKinnor confronted Bauman about why she wasn’t being permitted to do her job, the lawsuit says, “Bauman plainly stated that he had needed to hire a ‘strong black woman’” to keep Ellis “quiet.”

The suit also alleges that Bauman used stereotypes and derogatory language to describe African Americans. At a dinner with colleagues in the fall of 2017, the complaint says, Bauman said that his mother, a teacher, did not like “poor black kids” and that the students’ parents were “probably ‘drug dealers.’” He later said that “most black people are poor,” the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit alleges that last year, after McKinnor helped a colleague file a harassment claim against Bauman, she learned from others that he was “ranting about her disloyalty and calling her the ‘schwartze,’ a derogatory Yiddish term for black person.” According to the complaint, McKinnor knew that Bauman commonly used the term to refer to Ellis.

California Democratic Chairman Eric Bauman accused of sexually explicit comments, unwanted touching »

In the case of Vigna, the lawsuit alleges that Bauman relied on “their shared ‘connection’” as gay men to brush off his concerns about harassment.

According to the lawsuit, Bauman initiated physical contact “in almost every conversation” with Vigna and repeatedly touched him “in ways that made him deeply uncomfortable,” including rubbing his neck or back. Bauman also frequently called Vigna “baby” and insisted that Vigna call him “Daddy,” the lawsuit alleges. When Vigna refused, the complaint says, Bauman corrected him.

Bauman also allegedly made lewd comments about Vigna, the lawsuit says, including a “meritless accusation” that Vigna was in a sexual relationship with Bauman’s assistant. The complaint alleges that as Vigna and the assistant left a staff dinner in late October, Bauman told them to “play safe,” implying that “they were about to go have unprotected sex.” Vigna was hurt by the comment because he had told Bauman he was recently diagnosed with HIV, the suit says.

Vigna also alleges in the suit that Bauman repeatedly groped and fondled him, including on the night Bauman was elected chairman of the party.

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The suit also says Bauman used his power to harass young volunteers in the party, including Dayton. According to the complaint, Bauman groped Dayton on two occasions. In one incident, the lawsuit says, Dayton was pitching Bauman for his support on a new political initiative when Bauman allegedly groped him and whispered that he would “weigh the pros and cons.”

When Vigna confronted Bauman about “the rampant discriminatory and harassing conduct” by Bauman and other senior staff, the lawsuit alleges, Bauman told him, “This is my party,” and said, “Let’s be clear, you work for me.”

After Vigna and McKinnor helped a coworker file a harassment complaint, the lawsuit says, the party’s human resources manager allegedly told both of them not to speak to anyone about it “in an effort to suppress the complaint.”

The lawsuit claims that Vigna noticed a “significant change in his work load” in the days leading up to Bauman’s resignation and says both he and McKinnor noticed they were being shut out of meetings, emails and phone calls related to their work.

California Democratic Party leader Eric Bauman to resign after accusations of sexual misconduct »

McKinnor told the party’s human resources manager several times that she feared for her job and was reassured she would not be fired, the suit alleges. The complaint also says that around the time Bauman resigned, Vigna, fearing for his job as well, met with Rooker, who “personally assured him that he would continue on” in his role.

Two weeks later, Rooker terminated both of them “despite numerous assurances that their employment was secure,” the suit alleges. Other staff members were fired “in an effort to cover up” the retaliation, McKinnor and Vigna allege.

Rooker, who was criticized for the firings, is not running to replace Bauman. At the time she declined to comment through party spokesman Roger Salazar, who said the staff shake-up was “not unusual” for a transition to new leadership and was “in keeping with the scaling back of party operations after an election year.”

Among those vying for the chairmanship are Ellis, Rusty Hicks, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, and Daraka Larimore-Hall, the party’s current vice chairman. Delegates will vote for the next chair at the state party’s convention in San Francisco at the end of May.

christine.maiduc@latimes.com

For more on California politics, follow @cmaiduc.


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