Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson addresses members of the press at City Hall in Sacramento on Thursday, May 14, 2015, denying sexual harassment accusations filed against him by a former aide in the city manager's office. Marissa Lang mlang@sacbee.com
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson addresses members of the press at City Hall in Sacramento on Thursday, May 14, 2015, denying sexual harassment accusations filed against him by a former aide in the city manager's office. Marissa Lang mlang@sacbee.com

City Beat

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City Beat

City employee files sexual harassment complaint against Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson

By Ryan Lillis and Marissa Lang

rlillis@sacbee.com

May 14, 2015 02:20 PM

UPDATED May 14, 2015 09:28 PM

A former aide in the Sacramento city manager’s office filed a claim last month against Mayor Kevin Johnson alleging the mayor sexually harassed her multiple times over a seven-month period at City Hall and that her supervisors did nothing to protect her, according to a copy of the claim obtained Thursday by The Sacramento Bee.

The employee – identified in the claim as Estrellita Ilee Muller, 32 – alleged that she was summoned to the mayor’s private library at City Hall by Johnson’s security officer and that the mayor pressed his body against her, felt her torso and tried to kiss her. Muller filed the claim with the City Clerk’s Office in April and sought $200,000 in damages from the city, according to the document. She previously filed a formal discrimination complaint with the city’s human resources director in October 2014 – a complaint that office found insufficient.

Johnson denied the allegations made by Muller, saying during a brief news conference at City Hall on Thursday that the “incident described in the complaint simply never happened. Ever.”

City Attorney James Sanchez said in a statement that “the allegations in the claim were found to be unsubstantiated” and that “the claim in this matter has been denied.” The city hired employment law counsel Carolee Kilduff to review the investigation, according to the statement.

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The City Council voted 7-0 in a closed-door session Tuesday night to approve Sanchez’s recommendation to reject Muller’s claim, according to a source with direct knowledge of the vote. Johnson was absent for that vote and the evening’s public City Council meeting.

Etan Rosen, an attorney representing Muller, initially told The Bee on Thursday he would not comment because the case was “ongoing.” But Thursday afternoon, the mayor’s office issued a statement on behalf of Rosen saying “my client is satisfied with the conclusion of this matter.”

When contacted by The Bee to verify that he made the comment, Rosen replied, “What did it say?” He then confirmed that his client was “satisfied with the process” and that she would not seek a civil lawsuit.

Asked if Johnson had reached a paid settlement with Muller, the mayor’s political adviser, Steve Maviglio, referred that question to Sanchez. The city attorney did not return phone calls and emails seeking comment. A message left at Rosen’s office asking whether a settlement had been reached was not returned.

Johnson hastily called his City Hall news conference Thursday afternoon, read directly from a prepared statement and refused to take questions from reporters.

“After a complete and thorough investigation, the city has concluded not once – but twice – that the allegations are unsubstantiated,” he said.

Muller was an executive assistant to City Manager John Shirey before moving to the city’s Human Resources Department in October, a switch she said in her claim was “in order to more successfully avoid Mr. Johnson.” She did not return a phone message seeking comment.

According to the claim filed April 17 with the clerk’s office, Muller was summoned to the mayoral library on the fifth floor of City Hall by one of Johnson’s security officers on Dec. 26, 2013. Johnson closed the door when he and Muller entered the library and gave her “an unwelcome and close hug, pressing his body against claimant, then felt her along her torso,” according to the claim.

“(The mayor) pressed his body against hers and asked her if she ‘felt it.’ He then attempted to kiss claimant. Claimant was forced to push herself away,” the claim states.

Johnson then allegedly told Muller he “had a thing for her” for four years, according to the claim. Muller told Johnson she was married and the mayor “proposed that claimant enter into a sexual relationship with him, asking claimant if she was ‘game.’ ”

Muller declined, according to the claim. Johnson “persisted” and told her not to answer immediately. He said he would walk by her desk in the city manager’s office and told her “if the answer was ‘yes’ claimant was to give him a thumbs up and if the answer was ‘no,’ a thumbs down.”

The claim states that Muller’s supervisors at City Hall “failed to take appropriate action to protect” her from the alleged incident or “subsequent incidents of harassment.” The claim states Muller told “several representatives of the city regarding the conduct of Mr. Johnson on several separate occasions” and that those representatives “offered no helpful advice and took no action in response to receiving the information.”

“Plaintiff alleges on information and belief that Mr. Johnson had acted inappropriately with respect to other city employees and representatives in the past and that representatives of the city knew, or had reason to know, of facts establishing this,” the claim states. “Notwithstanding this, city representatives did nothing to effectively deal with the situation or to protect plaintiff and similarly situated employees.”

Shirey declined comment on the claim. City Council members contacted by The Bee also refused to comment, saying they had been advised by the city attorney to not discuss the claim.

$200,000 Amount sought by city employee Estrellita Ilee Muller in a sexual harassment claim

According to the claim, “the harassment continued” beyond the alleged December 2013 incident.

In July 2014, Johnson told Muller, “Hey lady … you are avoiding me,” according to the claim.

On Aug. 1, 2014, Johnson approached Muller at her desk and took her hands, according to the claim. The mayor “then manipulated her hands so her thumbs would go up and then down and said that he wanted to see if her thumbs worked saying ‘some people’s thumbs are funny.’ Claimant told Mr. Johnson that her thumbs worked fine but that they would never go up,” according to the claim.

The claim states that Muller told her superiors of each interaction.

Muller notified the city attorney of her allegations on Sept. 24, 2014, according to the claim. Sanchez “sent her the city’s internal discrimination complaint resolution guide and sexual harassment policy.” A week later, Muller “was required to attend a meeting with Mr. Johnson, during which time he made a point of establishing eye contact with her,” the claim states.

Muller began working for the city on Jan. 13, 2003, as an administrative assistant. In 2011, she became a staff aide, and a year later she was hired as an executive assistant in the city manager’s office. According to her LinkedIn page, she worked for the city manager’s office from 2003 until October 2014, the month she said in her claim she left for the Human Resources Department.

She remains employed as an administrative analyst, but she said in her claim she turned down a higher-paying job “because she did not feel comfortable working in proximity to Mr. Johnson.”

Muller initially filed a formal discrimination complaint with the city’s Human Resources Department on Oct. 10, 2014, a separate action that preceded the claim against the city she filed last month.

Human Resources manager Kenneth Fleming investigated the complaint, according to Muller’s claim. Fleming later told Muller “he had never lost a case in his career with the city and implied that if his investigation resulted in a negative finding claimant would not have a chance of prevailing in her case. He never informed claimant that she was required to file a claim with the city to preserve her right to proceed in this matter. He treated claimant like the aggressor not the victim,” according to the claim.

The claim said Muller felt “attacked” and “cried uncontrollably” at a Dec. 22 meeting with Fleming. She was notified on Jan. 7 that her discrimination complaint had been denied.

Johnson’s name has surfaced as the focus of other sexually related allegations in the past.

In 1997, Johnson signed a draft confidential settlement with a Phoenix teenager who said the former NBA player molested her, according to a copy of the document obtained by The Bee in 2008. The agreement amount was $230,000, according to the document.

The settlement stemmed from a 1996 investigation by Phoenix police into an allegation that Johnson, who was 29 at the time, disrobed in the presence of a 16-year-old girl and touched her inappropriately. The allegations were made to police by the girl’s therapist.

Johnson denied the allegations and no criminal charges were filed in the case.

In 2008, soon after Johnson launched his first mayoral campaign, a police report filed by a former teacher from Sacramento High School surfaced alleging that a 17-year-old student at the school told the teacher Johnson had approached her from behind, massaged her shoulders and touched her breasts.

Sacramento police later said the girl recanted her story and found the allegation to be unfounded.

Johnson founded the nonprofit St. Hope organization that operates Sacramento High School as a charter school.

A separate allegation made in teacher Erik Jones’ report charged that Johnson tried to get into bed with a volunteer from the Hood Corps program, an urban volunteer program that was part of St. Hope. Police did not investigate that allegation because the young woman was not a minor.