Sexual harassment in California state government can result in few consequences – except for those who reported it, victims say. Lydia Sims was 27 when she filed suit in December 1987. Randy Pench The Sacramento Bee
Sexual harassment in California state government can result in few consequences – except for those who reported it, victims say. Lydia Sims was 27 when she filed suit in December 1987. Randy Pench The Sacramento Bee

Capitol Alert

They reported sex harassment in state jobs and found ‘retaliation is alive and well’

By Marjie Lundstrom And Alexei Koseff

mlundstrom@sacbee.com

November 20, 2017 12:01 AM

UPDATED November 21, 2017 08:18 AM

When Carmyn Fields was negotiating a settlement last year in her sexual harassment case against the California Highway Patrol, the state’s lawyers had a serious sticking point. They were insistent, even adamant, recalled Fields’ attorney, Andrea Rosa of Elk Grove.

“They wanted Carmyn gone,” she said.

Nancy Kathleen Finnigan, a former legislative director, wasn’t given a choice about her future at the Capitol in early 2013. After pointing out alleged inappropriate behavior by the Assembly member she worked for, Finnigan was fired, she said.

Lydia Sims complained about sexual harassment at the Capitol four years before Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas ripped open the national debate in 1991. She filed a lawsuit, obtained a settlement but felt forced to leave her position – only to recently discover the man she accused years earlier had resurfaced in a plum, highly paid state job.

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“Being a 20-something kid having to sue the Legislature… it was pretty devastating,” said Sims, a former sergeant-at-arms in the state Assembly. “They went after me instead of him.”

As the topic of sexual harassment bubbles to the surface inside California state government, and lawmakers promise reforms, former workers who say they experienced such treatment paint a grim picture of how their cases were handled.

Plaintiffs who have sued the state over sexual harassment describe a kind of David-and-Goliath ordeal that, in hindsight, wasn’t altogether worth the lost sleep, strained marriages, health problems, broken work relationships, harrowing interviews and fractured careers.

Fields, Finnigan and Sims all received settlements, at least two of them in the six figures. Yet in all three cases, the key individuals accused of harassment and other misconduct remained on the state payroll, while those making the allegations were out the door – nudged, pushed or simply worn down. Much of their settlement money went to pay legal fees and lost wages, they said.

“In government, no one’s ever held personally accountable for any judgment,” said Gary Gorski, a Roseville civil rights attorney who settled a harassment and discrimination case for $750,000 against the Medical Board of California. “The people at the very top of the food chain can get millions of dollars in judgments – not against them personally, but they cause it to be against a state agency – and nothing ever happens to them. All they do is rotate agencies.”

Employment attorneys contend that the state is notorious for dragging out sexual harassment investigations and lawsuits for years, driving up legal costs for plaintiffs and taxpayers alike – with little regard for the validity of the claims.

“It’s not their money, so they can afford to stretch these out as long as they can,” said attorney Andrea Rosa, who settled Fields’ case against the CHP. “They can afford to conduct as many depositions as they want.

“Their hope is that the employee basically gives up.”

‘You don’t let people do that to you’

In hindsight, Sims says she wishes she had had the patience and fortitude to press her case harder, even though she obtained a settlement.

She lost her job in the process.

Sims was 27 when she filed suit in December 1987 against the California State Assembly and Willie L. Pelote Sr., then the assistant sergeant-at-arms, and Charles E. Bell, the chief sergeant-at-arms. Sims, who began work as a sergeant-at-arms in 1982, accused Pelote of making “sexual suggestions and advances” toward her.

At one point, the lawsuit states, he “exposed himself” to her and “repeatedly made lewd and obscene references to her.” He denied the allegations.

Sims told The Bee she believed she was not allowed to discuss specifics of her case under the settlement terms.

“I want to speak up, but I’m barred from speaking,” she said. “But I stand by every assertion I put in the complaint.”

As of Friday, the Assembly Rules Committee had not responded to The Bee’s Nov. 8 Legislative Open Records Act request seeking details about the settlement, including the amount. Sacramento Superior Court records show that a settlement was reached in Sims’ case in 1990.

A review of Sims’ annual job evaluations between 1982 and 1987, obtained by The Bee, reveals consistently high performance marks of “excellent” and “exceptional.” After complaining, her lawsuit contends, she was demoted to the graveyard shift and had “untrue and unfounded disciplinary letters placed in her personnel file.”

Sims said she quit her state job in about 1989, describing her experience as “very traumatic.”

“People say you can’t sue City Hall. I had no choice,” she said. “My mother raised me and my siblings to not take mess from anybody. … She taught me to defend myself.

“You don’t let people do that to you.”

Pelote went on to become a prominent player in Democratic state politics, serving as consultant to former California Assembly Speaker Willie L. Brown from 1987 to 1995. Over the next 20 years, he was the political and legislative director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Then, in 2015, he was back on the state’s payroll. Pelote landed a lucrative job in the state Assembly in July 2015 and was paid $150,000 annually, among the highest of the entire Assembly staff, according to a state-issued salary list from August 2015.

According to Transparent California, a public pay and pension database, Pelote retired in July 2016 with 16.55 years of service and an annual benefit package estimated at $57,081.

In an interview with The Bee, Pelote said he knew nothing about any sexual harassment lawsuit. He said he remembered Sims and had been her supervisor on the swing shift, but said the allegations are “unequivocally not true.”

Pelote, who now runs a consulting and advocacy firm, Pelote Strategic, said he had been told in the late 1980s that allegations of sexual harassment had been made against him and that an internal investigation would be conducted.

“They were going to do a thorough investigation, and if it was found to be true, I would be terminated,” he said. “... All I know is, it stopped my entire world.”

He wasn’t terminated, and he said he knew nothing about any lawsuit filed in Superior Court until The Bee inquired about it last week.

Pelote said he returned to the Assembly in 2015 and stayed a year because he wanted to work in the governor’s special session on transportation. He served as a consultant for former California Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles, now a congressman.

Sims expressed anger over how the scenario played out after she left.

“He gets a pension, and I’m banished from the Capitol,” she said, throwing up her hands. “Taxpayers have to understand that the Legislature gave him a lifetime pension, and it’s coming out of my pocket, and it’s coming out of your pocket.”

Sims now works as an independent contractor, helping senior citizens get their affairs in order.

‘Retaliation is alive and well in the state’

Wendy Musell, a Bay Area employment lawyer, said staying on the job often isn’t a realistic option for workers who file harassment claims.

“Even if they obtain some relief, and even if they obtain a settlement, it’s likely that the state is going to want to walk them out the door,” she said. “Honestly, it’s bleak. I’m very honest with my clients that I’m happy to support them in their EEO complaints, I’m happy to litigate against the state. But retaliation is alive and well in the state of California.”

In some cases, government agencies formalize the notion that an accuser should leave, or risk collecting any settlement.

Sacramento State agreed in 2015 to pay an employee $123,000 to settle his lawsuit, alleging that he had been sexually harassed by the university president’s son. The employee agreed to resign – and to never apply again for a job within the California State University system.

Jeffrey Sharp filed a lawsuit in March 2013, alleging that Alexander Gonzalez Jr. touched him and made offensive comments when they worked together in the Office of University Advancement, which raises funds for the university. According to his lawsuit, Sharp said he had experienced retaliation from his supervisors for reporting the abuse.

The agreement limited comment from the parties, said Sharp’s attorney, Jack Vetter of Sacramento.

Toni Molle, a spokeswoman for the CSU system, said it is not standard procedure for a university to require that an accuser sever ties to reach a settlement.

“If we find an employee has been sexually harassed, we take appropriate steps to make him/her whole, and we initiate adverse action against the harasser,” she wrote in an email response. “But if the plaintiff has already quit and filed a lawsuit against us, it’s not uncommon to have a ‘no re-employment’ provision in the settlement agreement to prevent future claims of retaliation.”

Carmyn Fields of Granite Bay was one of those plaintiffs unable to dodge the so-called “no re-hire clause.”

Fields said she loved her job as an office assistant at California Highway Patrol headquarters in Sacramento, where she compiled traffic fatality data. In January 2012, she said in her lawsuit, she caught the attention of a newly hired male supervisor whom she eventually would accuse of fondling and stroking her hair, sitting in her lap and wiggling, and pulling her into a remote area of the office and trying to kiss her. He also asked her to become his “work wife.”

Fields described Leonard Johnson III as relentless, unable to take no for an answer, and she complained to her superiors, public documents show. Fields and her husband, Mark, a retired CHP officer, contend that the internal investigation dragged out for months, and that Carmyn was retaliated against by being repeatedly denied promotions.

Johnson, a data processing manager, eventually admitted in an internal investigation that he had indeed sat in Fields’ lap and touched her hair but characterized his actions as “joking around,” the investigative records show. He denied trying to kiss her.

Johnson recently declined to speak with The Bee about the case, saying the experience was painful for him and his family and he was “very embarrassed.” He was demoted by the CHP in May 2013 and later moved to the Franchise Tax Board and then the Department of Health Care Services, where he is not a supervisor, according to a department spokeswoman.

However, state worker pay data shows that his annual salary climbed by $25,400, a 41 percent increase, between 2012 and 2017. His current salary at the Department of Health Care Services, where he moved in August, is $87,900 a year.

Fields, 53, no longer has a paycheck after the state insisted it would not settle her lawsuit without her agreeing to sever her ties with the CHP and retire, said Fields and her attorney, Andrea Rosa.

“They wouldn’t accept anything else but her resignation,” Rosa said. “... Basically, that was part of the deal: She had to leave.”

Fields said she was devastated, having finally landed a promotion at a CHP office in South Los Angeles. Her husband also was working in Southern California, she said, and they welcomed an end to a commuter marriage. She described her brief experience in the Torrance office as collegial and supportive. “I was doing very well, the staff liked me,” she said. She tried to wait, hoping the state would relent.

The state did not. Late last year, Fields settled her lawsuit for $600,000.

“I didn’t feel I had a choice in the matter,” she said. “I was done, I was beat up.”

Like other plaintiffs, she said much of the money paid her legal costs and lost income.

‘I was afraid I would get blamed’

Nancy Kathleen Finnigan, a longtime Capitol employee, said she was given no options after she complained about inappropriate work behavior. She was fired.

Finnigan, who was legislative director for former Assemblyman Steve Fox for about five months before being dismissed, said she could feel her immediate supervisor turn against her after she began to complain.

She sued the Assembly, Fox and others and eventually settled for $100,000. In the suit, Finnigan said she repeatedly reported to her supervisor, chief of staff Ann Turtle, that Fox was asking her to perform personal tasks during and after business hours, such as paying his rent and cleaning his apartment to prevent him from being evicted. Finnigan, 56, also told Turtle that Fox had made another legislative staff member uncomfortable by making “unwanted sexual advances” toward her.

“He was enjoying the pomp of the Legislature, but not being serious about the work,” Finnigan said.

In the most egregious incident, Finnigan said, she drove to Fox’s apartment one morning to pick him up for session because he overslept. When Fox opened the door, his pants were unzipped and he was not wearing underwear, Finnigan said in her lawsuit, and he exposed himself to her.

Finnigan said she was reluctant to report the event, but she eventually told Turtle what happened because she wanted someone to talk to Fox for her.

“I was afraid I would get blamed. That the question would be something like, ‘Why did you go to his apartment?’ ” Finnigan said. “The feeling really is you are to handle these things internally, you are not to go public about this information.”

Instead, Finnigan felt that Turtle turned the complaints around and made the mounting problems seem like her fault, as a way to push her out of the office. In one episode described in the lawsuit, Finnigan said Turtle began screaming at her, throwing things around the office in rage and then burst a plastic bag against the back of Finnigan’s head as she was sitting at her desk.

“The harshness of the words, just the treatment in general, you know when someone’s going to try to get you terminated,” she said.

Finnigan said she went to the Assembly Rules Committee, which functions as the human resources department for the lower house of the Legislature, to report Turtle. She said she no longer felt safe and wanted to be transferred.

Within weeks, she was fired.

In court papers, the state contends that Finnigan was fired for “failure to adequately perform her job” and that she had not been subjected to any harassment. Before being fired as Fox’s assistant, she had been terminated in January 2012 by then-Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, according to legal documents filed by the state.

Finnigan had been first hired by the state Assembly in 1999 but “as her experience grew, her attitude suffered and (Finnigan) assumed an air of entitlement,” the state wrote.

“She became resistant to feedback, had a tendency to make unilateral decisions without permission and against instructions, and exhibited little sense of team loyalty critical when working for elected officials,” the state wrote.

Finnigan said the Assembly could not prove those allegations, which is why her lawsuit was allowed to proceed.

“They attempted to create a narrative to support why they terminated me,” she said. “They were more interested in harming my career.”

Fox and Turtle declined to comment.

Finnigan said her experience shows the lack of protections for legislative staff, who work at will for lawmakers. Finnigan said she was particularly offended during a final performance review when she was criticized for allowing her two children to meet her at the office each day after work for a ride home.

“That kind of irrational thought process on their end – talking about my two minor charges, as if they weren’t welcome in the building – was so inappropriate,” she said.

While Fox lost his re-election bid in 2014, Turtle is still employed by the Assembly, which Finnigan called “totally ironic.”

Finnigan said she repeatedly was pressured to sign paperwork agreeing to never work in the Assembly again, which she refused to do.

“There’s no mechanism for you to try to even mediate a problem,” she said. “I followed the procedures I was supposed to. It’s not built for us.”

Marjie Lundstrom: 916-321-1055, @MarjieLundstrom