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Fired rowing coach sues Newport Aquatic Center, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation by executive director

Fired rowing coach sues Newport Aquatic Center, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation by executive director
High school rowers compete in the “Battle on the Bay” contest at the Newport Aquatic Center in 2014. (File Photo)

A former coach is suing the Newport Aquatic Center, alleging that Executive Director Billy Whitford sexually harassed and retaliated against her.

Cristina Morcom, whom the organization hired as head varsity girls’ rowing coach in June 2017, alleges in the lawsuit that NAC failed to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment, despite Whitford’s “continuous, severe and pervasive campaign of sexual harassment, retaliation and hostile environment” toward her.

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The complaint, filed Friday in Orange County Superior Court, claims Whitford, who is named as a defendant, retaliated against Morcom for rejecting his advances, falsely alleging that she was drinking alcohol with one of her athletes at a private party and was misusing donated equipment.

The suit also alleges that Whitford and another coach, Garrett Pickard, conspired to hack Morcom’s emails for information to use against her. The suit accuses Pickard of unlawful intrusion into Morcom’s private affairs. The complaint does not specify what information was allegedly gathered or how it was used.

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Pickard declined to comment Thursday.

“Despite Morcom’s repeated complaints and requests for help, NAC’s board did nothing,” according to the complaint, which seeks compensatory and punitive damages.

Whitford “vehemently” denies the allegations and believes “he will be vindicated,” said David Dimitruk, an attorney who is representing Whitford in other matters related to NAC, which is known for its high-performing rowing program.

“They are groundless,” Dimitruk said of the accusations, “and will result in the dismissal of the case.”

Morcom alleges that soon after she was hired, Whitford encouraged her to disregard the established chain of command and report directly to him.

When she said she would follow the chain of command, Whitford began retaliating, according to the suit, which says Whitford would follow Morcom around NAC and at races, “eerily watching every move she made.”

At one regatta, the complaint says, Whitford told Morcom, “Cristina, I don’t hate you, I love you” and later pulled her into his office and said, “If you need anything at all, a place to stay, money, anything, you let me know.”

Morcom was fired in July, just over a year after joining the staff, according to court documents. She is currently an assistant coach at the University of Miami. She is accusing NAC of wrongful termination.

Before joining NAC, Morcom was a rower at Clemson University and the University of San Diego and coached rowing at Newport Sea Base from October 2015 to June 2017.

Morcom’s lawsuit is the latest in a spate of legal conflicts involving Newport Aquatic Center staff and board members and even the city of Newport Beach, including accusations that some operational practices have violated the terms of the center’s long-term, no-cost lease on city- and county-owned land on the shore of Upper Newport Bay.

Dimitruk called the wave of complaints “part of a plan to take over control of the NAC … but will fail.”

This article was originally published at 2:15 p.m. and was later updated with additional information.

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