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Politics

Harassment and retaliation claims during Kamala Harris’ time as California’s top cop led to $1.1 million in settlements

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Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) at the Capitol in Washington this week.
(Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images)

The California Department of Justice paid more than $1.1 million to settle claims with employees who alleged they were sexually harassed or retaliated against by co-workers during the tenure of then-state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris from 2011 to 2017, according to documents obtained by The Times.

The cases, which were disclosed this week in response to a California Public Records Act request, come weeks after Harris launched her presidential bid, bringing new scrutiny to her record. The incidents included allegations that DOJ employees sexually harassed and retaliated against co-workers, including claims involving inappropriate touching and cases in which workers felt uncomfortable with the comments and actions of others.

Harris, a Democrat who was elected to the Senate in 2016, did not know about the cases settled by the DOJ until they were brought to her attention by The Times, said her spokesman, Chris Harris.

The senator said she takes responsibility for what happened in her office when she was California’s top cop.

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“As the chief executive of a department of nearly 5,000 employees, the buck stopped with me,” Harris said in a statement. “No one should face harassment or intimidation in the workplace, and victims of sexual misconduct should be listened to, believed and protected.”

Harris said that since her election to the Senate she has made it clear to her staff that she will be involved whenever there is an allegation of misconduct by an employee.

“In my Senate office, if a harassment complaint is made, it immediately comes to me,” Harris said Thursday. “No office is immune to misconduct, and there is much more work to do to ensure all are protected.”

As attorney general, Harris increased the investigative staff of the DOJ’s Equal Employment Rights and Resolution Office to speed up reviews of worker misconduct complaints, her representative said. Settlements were handled by administrators under Harris who were expected to follow strict policies against harassment, and training was required for all employees.

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Government experts including former state Finance Director Mike Genest said it is common practice in large agencies for claims to be investigated and settled by managers below the head of the agency. Claims against higher-level managers might be brought to the department head’s attention, depending on how he or she wants to be kept informed, he said.

“If a director wasn’t told about it, I would not be suspicious that that was an issue,” said Genest, who spent 24 years as a manager in state agencies, including serving as finance director under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Of the number of sexual harassment cases, Genest said that any allegations should be a concern but that “statistically, that does not seem like a big number.”

In her first term in the Senate, Harris has been a leading advocate for the #MeToo movement, objecting to President Trump’s appointment of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court on grounds that included allegations of sexual misconduct. Her proposals include the Empower Act, which aims to reduce barriers preventing victims of harassment from speaking out by prohibiting nondisclosure and nondisparagement clauses in legal settlements.

The financial settlements paid by the state on claims filed during Harris’ tenure include a previously reported $400,000 payment to settle a 2016 lawsuit involving Larry Wallace, a longtime top aide to Harris who resigned from her Senate staff in December after media reports about the payment. Danielle Hartley, an executive assistant who worked for Wallace, alleged in the suit that he engaged in gender harassment and discriminated against her.

A spokeswoman for Harris said in December that the senator was unaware of the allegations against Wallace.

“Mr. Wallace offered his resignation to the senator and she accepted it,” the representative said.

The resignation has intensified the focus on Harris’ time in state and local office. Wallace had been one of Harris’ closest aides for 14 years, starting in the San Francisco district attorney’s office and later in roles at the state DOJ and U.S. Senate, but many of the settlements disclosed were paid out to rank-and-file employees in the DOJ’s sprawling organization.

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The largest settlement from Harris’ time as state attorney general was a $649,500 payment in 2013 to James Rodriguez, who was then a special agent with the DOJ. He claimed that the agency harassed and retaliated against him and failed to take corrective action when he filed complaints about the alleged treatment.

Rodriguez said in a lawsuit that he was transferred from coveted jobs, denied pay for out-of-class assignments and faced a meritless internal affairs complaint, and that the department encouraged co-workers to file frivolous complaints against him.

Jill Telfer, an attorney who represented Rodriguez, as well as Hartley in the separate case against Wallace, said Harris should have known about the issues.

“The Division of Law Enforcement for the AG’s office always felt they were above the law and may have kept a lid on things,” Telfer said. “There has been a culture of retaliation against employees who raise concerns of discrimination or harassment.”

The settlement in the Rodriguez case notes that the DOJ “denied all material allegations” in the lawsuit, which included “any alleged discrimination, harassment, retaliation,” and that in resolving the case “none of the Parties admit any wrongdoing, liability or fault.”

Rodriguez’s complaints of mistreatment and retaliation date to 2006, when former Gov. Jerry Brown was attorney general. In 2010, before Harris’ tenure, Rodriguez won $560,709 in damages after a jury determined that the DOJ had failed to take reasonable steps to prevent retaliation or harassment against him.

He filed the second lawsuit in 2013, claiming that the DOJ continued to mistreat and retaliate against him for having won the jury award.

The following year, office assistant Anacleto Alviar filed a lawsuit claiming he had been sexually harassed at work by a co-worker, legal assistant Dennis Asher. Asher allegedly pulled Alviar into an office in June 2013 and asked him if he was gay. When Alviar said yes, the lawsuit said, Asher allegedly blocked him from leaving, pulled down his pants and placed his penis on Alviar’s arm and shoulder, asking him to perform sex acts. Alviar said he refused.

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Alviar alleged in his lawsuit that the agency knew Asher “had a propensity to and would engage in tortious behavior, such as sexual harassment” but “failed to take adequate, preventative action.” After he reported the incident months later, Alviar said in the lawsuit, the DOJ told him not to work on holidays or weekends when others were not present and did not separate him from Asher in the workplace.

In a November 2014 response to the lawsuit, the agency said that Alviar “did not report the incident to anyone at DOJ until some three months after” and asserted that “an employer is not liable for a single incident of sexual harassment by a nonsupervisory employee.”

The state Department of Justice agreed to settle with Alviar for $90,000 in November 2015. Neither the agency nor Asher admitted to wrongdoing in the settlement.

Asher resigned voluntarily in August 2014 “under unfavorable circumstances,” according to a letter from the attorney general’s office that was included in the settlement documents. The letter noted that Asher had been notified of disciplinary action related to, among other things, “unlawful discrimination, including harassment.” In January 2015, Asher received a $65,000 settlement after appealing a disciplinary action against him.

An attorney who represented Asher in the settlement agreement declined to comment. Alviar is still employed by the DOJ.

In 2016, office technician Charlene Corral filed a lawsuit claiming that she was subjected to unwanted touching, sexual comments and other advances by her supervisor, James Biscailuz, between May and July of 2014. Corral alleged that after she complained in August of that year, Biscailuz continued to intimidate her even after she transferred to another bureau at the DOJ.

In March 2015, then-Deputy Atty. Gen. Nathan Barankin notified Corral that her allegations were “founded” and referred the matter to a human resources manager and Wallace, then director of the DOJ’s Division of Law Enforcement, “for appropriate personnel action.” The 2016 sexual harassment lawsuit against Wallace indicates that Hartley complained to one of her managers about Wallace’s alleged discrimination of her before Corral’s claims were forwarded to Wallace for review.

Wallace could not be reached by The Times for comment. Barankin, who later became Harris’ chief of staff in the Senate and left in December to serve as a senior advisor for a political action committee supporting her presidential bid, did not respond to a request for comment.

Hartley’s lawsuit against Wallace included an allegation that he placed his office printer on the floor under his desk and ordered Hartley to replace the paper or ink frequently, forcing her to get down on her knees while wearing dresses and skirts. The lawsuit was settled after Harris was sworn in to the U.S. Senate and Wallace joined her district staff in Sacramento.

Corral received a $7,500 settlement payment in 2017. She and Biscailuz still work for the DOJ in separate bureaus.

Biscailuz and the DOJ denied any wrongdoing.

Other settlements disclosed by the Department of Justice included $5,000 paid out to an employee who appealed a decision in a workplace issue and $13,650 paid to another person who made wage-related claims.

Political experts say that in an era of increased attention to sexual harassment and misconduct, candidates for president will be put under a microscope over the issue, and any questions about handling complaints could become a political liability.

So far, the allegations involving Wallace have not proved to be a major stumbling block for Harris, whose campaign rollout has been marked by packed rallies and robust media coverage.

Democratic voters in the presidential race are likely to be primarily concerned with finding the candidate best able to unseat President Trump, said Charles Anthony Smith, political science professor at UC Irvine.

“If I am a voter, I may come to the conclusion that large organizations have people that do bad things in them and the best you can do is try to solve it once you are aware of it, and if you are not doing the bad behavior we may not hold you responsible for it,” Smith said.


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