Sealed Depositions Include Testimony That Garcetti Advisor Groped And Sexually Harassed Colleagues, Attorney For Witnesses Says
The attorney for two witnesses in a sexual harassment lawsuit against the city says her clients’ testimony backs up allegations of inappropriate conduct by a longtime advisor to L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.
“My clients are whistleblowers… who saw time and time again that the allegations in the lawsuit were accurate in the sense that they witnessed sexual harassment, groping and other inappropriate sexually-based misconduct in the workplace,” said Micha Star Liberty, who represents two former Mayor’s office employees deposed in the lawsuit.
“They also saw retaliation and intimidation when people wanted to come forward and complain,” Liberty added. KPCC/LAist agreed to withhold the names of her clients until their testimony is unsealed by the court.
LAPD officer Matthew Garza sued the city last July, saying Garcetti’s former deputy chief of staff, Rick Jacobs, routinely forced unwanted touching by hugging, grabbing his biceps, and massaging his shoulders — and subjected him to crude jokes and explicit descriptions of sexual topics.
Garza says Jacobs’ behavior was often in the presence of the Mayor, who allegedly did nothing to stop the harassment.
The mayor and some of his top city hall staff have denied under oath they saw or heard Jacobs act inappropriately. Jacobs has called the allegations “fabricated.” His attorney did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
“The Mayor's office has zero tolerance for sexual harassment. If anyone reports it through the many available channels, we will take immediate action,” Garcetti’s office told LAist in an e-mailed statement. “The Mayor, the chief of staff and other senior staff did not witness and were not told of these allegations against Rick Jacobs.”
The mayor has also distanced himself from the allegations. “I have not witnessed that, and I have never witnessed that,” Garcetti said in his Feb. 8 deposition when asked about alleged sexual harassment by Jacobs.
The Sealed Testimony
Team Garcetti is fending off a steady drip of revelations from the sexual harassment lawsuit at a delicate time: He’s reportedly on the precipice of a new job representing the Biden Administration in the world’s most populous democracy, as U.S. Ambassador to India.
More than a dozen witnesses have been interviewed in the civil suit so far, according to Garza’s lawyers. Many of those transcripts have been released by the city attorney or Garza’s attorneys. A few depositions, and parts of depositions, have been sealed under the terms of a judge-approved confidentiality order that allows attorneys to shield records in the case from public view, without having to show cause.
The arrangement is common in civil cases in order to protect sensitive issues like trade secrets, private personnel matters, medical records or the identities of victims of sexual assault.
“My clients...also saw retaliation and intimidation when people wanted to come forward and complain.”
Attorney Micha Star Liberty says the city attorney requested her clients’ testimony be marked "confidential" after their depositions were completed. She argues that move could sweep serious allegations about official conduct under the rug.
“I think that the city attorney didn’t like what [my clients’] testimony confirmed and revealed,” Liberty said. “This seems like it's an attempt to keep it out of the public domain, which is disappointing.”
“Our office has no comment on the pending litigation,” city attorney’s office spokesperson Rob Wilcox said in answer to emailed questions.
Multiple journalists are now seeking to get the deposition transcripts released. The information is being pursued at a pivotal moment in Garcetti’s career, and the contents of the depositions could complicate his potential nomination to an ambassador post that would require confirmation by the U.S. Senate.
When asked if her clients’ statements contradict Mayor Garcetti’s testimony that he had never witnessed sexual harassment by Jacobs, Liberty declined to comment, saying she was constrained by the protective order and would await the judge’s decision whether to allow the transcripts to become public.
“We need sunshine as a disinfectant, particularly with sexual harassment and sexual assault issues in political offices,” Liberty said. “People have a right to know.”
In testimony unsealed Friday, Jacobs testified “it’s possible” he hugged Garza, but denied allegations described in the lawsuit about making sexual comments to the officer, gesturing for Garza to sit on his lap in a hotel bar, or asking about his condom size during a stop at a convenience store.
Jacobs answered “not that I recall” or similar to questions about explicit comments describing male anatomy or sexual encounters. Jacobs also could not recall a scenario at a hotel bar described in the lawsuit alleging he licked his straw in a sexual manner while looking at Garza.
He said he believed Garza consented to be hugged, and said he doubted any hugs lasted longer than 15 seconds.
When asked if Mayor Garcetti was present for those hugs, Jacobs testified, “I don’t recall.”
Responding to a question about whether he made sexual comments while riding in the Mayor’s car, driven by members of the LAPD security detail, Jacobs said, “It's possible, depending on how you define that. It's possible.”
Q. [H]ave you ever made jokes of a sexual nature in front of anybody from the [Mayor’s Security] Detail?
A. Oh, it's possible.
Q. Have you ever done it in front of the Mayor as well?
A. I don't recall.
In the deposition, Jacobs admitted to using a racial slur to refer to an aide who was of Asian descent, something he said he has since apologized for and received forgiveness.
Jacobs also gave conflicting testimony about using the encrypted messaging app Signal to communicate with Mayor Garcetti about political matters. He initially said they began using the app “more” in Spring 2020, because they observed other campaigns using it — a trend that worries transparency watchdogs.
Jacobs later backtracked.
“I don’t actually think we used Signal that much. I was confused,” Jacobs said, adding that he “misspoke completely.”
Current Garcetti aides who have given deposition testimony all denied knowledge of sexual harassment by Jacobs.
“I don't believe that anyone who worked for the Mayor or works for the Mayor would find it in any way appropriate to conduct themselves in the way that was alleged in the lawsuit,” said Matt Szabo, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff whom Garcetti recently nominated to be the next City Administrative Officer. “They would know that that would not be acceptable behavior in the eyes of the Mayor.”
“The Mayor's office has zero tolerance for sexual harassment... The Mayor, the chief of staff and other senior staff did not witness and were not told of these allegations against Rick Jacobs.”
Statements under oath by some ex-city hall staff, however, support several of Garza’s allegations.
In his Dec. 17 deposition, former aide Henry Casas described being on the receiving end of unwanted touching by Jacobs — and said that the behavior was “common knowledge,” even the subject of gossip among city hall employees who worked for the mayor.
“Massaging the shoulders, hugging. Inappropriate, I guess, things that would come out of his mouth,” Casas testified. He said Jacobs regularly made comments about other city employees being “strong” and “handsome” while grabbing their biceps.
Casas said it was “common” for Jacobs to give male acquaintances a “big, long, extended hug.”
“I definitely was uncomfortable,” Casas said of the “long hugs” he witnessed Jacobs give. He added Officer Garza would make “faces” after Jacobs hugged him at Getty House — the Mayor’s official residence — or at events. “It was...like, ‘Here we go again,’ kind of face.”
Casas said he “wouldn't be able to recall” if the Mayor witnessed any of that behavior.
In a March 2021 deposition, Jeremy Bernard, the ex-president of the Garcetti-aligned non-profit Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles, testified that he observed Jacobs behavior change when he had too much to drink, becoming more “aggressive,” and that “dozens of different people” contacted him after Garza’s lawsuit became public, with several telling him they were not surprised by the allegations.
Bernard recalled that in 2017, he heard Garcetti say something to the effect of, “I can’t believe Rick worked out at City Hall and that we got through it without a lawsuit.”
“He did make that comment,” Bernard testified. “And I believe there was...there might have been a couple of us he had said that to because I’ve heard that from others.”
The testimony directly contradicts Mayor Garcetti’s sworn deposition earlier this year. “I have never said that to anybody, publicly or private,” Garcetti said about the alleged comment.
In response to the claim in Bernard’s deposition, Garcetti responded on Friday with a statement: “I stand by my testimony unequivocally.”
Rick Jacobs, “A Dear Friend”
Jacobs met the future mayor and his wife while volunteering for the Howard Dean presidential campaign in 2003. The prolific fundraiser was a vital connection to wealthy Los Angeles donors for Garcetti, the former Rhodes Scholar with the recognizable name who was quickly rising through the ranks of city politics.
The relationship grew tighter over the years. Starting in August 2013, Jacobs worked closely with Garcetti, first as his deputy chief of staff and later as a political aide shepherding important ballot measures to victory and spearheading the exploration of a Garcetti presidential campaign.
He helped launch the Mayor’s Fund in 2014 in order to raise private money to fund Garcetti's priorities for the city. The organization has raised huge sums of money, including tens of millions for pandemic relief for Angelenos. It has also drawn criticism for the possibility of conflicts of interest involving money flowing from donors who also have business before the city.
In 2016, when Jacobs took a planned leave of absence from City Hall to work on outside political efforts, Garcetti called him “a dear friend, as well as one of my most trusted advisors” in an email to staff.
Jacobs led the campaign to pass a sales tax increase to fund public transit called Measure M — a major priority for Garcetti. He also advised on the city’s homeless housing measure, Proposition HHH, assisted with the 2017 campaign to reelect Garcetti to a second term, and founded a non-profit with the Mayor called Accelerator For America which — paired with the Garcetti’s budding presidential hopes — brought Jacobs frequently to Getty House, and jetting around the country on trips to gauge Garcetti’s political future. Sometimes the two would meet at Jacobs’ house.
The presidential bid was not to be. Garcetti announced in January 2019 he would not be running for the nation’s highest office, and endorsed Joe Biden for President the following year. He served as national campaign co-chair of Biden’s campaign and helped vet candidates for vice president.
Jacobs stayed close with Garcetti’s family. In his deposition, he described himself as a friend of L.A.’s first lady, Amy Wakeland.
“I can’t believe Rick worked out at City Hall and...we got through it without a lawsuit.”
Jacobs testified that before the Garza lawsuit was filed, he initially learned from Gil Garcetti, the Mayor’s father and former L.A. District Attorney, that a member of the Mayor’s detail was contemplating filing a sexual harassment claim.
"So sorry you have to go through this. We are with you," read a July 15, 2020 text message from Gil Garcetti, which became public when Jacobs’ deposition was unsealed late Friday.
In his testimony, Jacobs recalled that he and other members of Garcetti’s inner circle, including chief of staff Ana Guerrero, were surprised by the news. “I had never done anything that constituted sexual harassment, and nobody had ever raised any question,” he said. Jacobs said he and Wakeland both felt the lawsuit was “out of the blue” and “she did not believe it was credible.”
Wakeland has yet to be deposed as part of the Garza lawsuit. In a court filing and emails, lawyers for the LAPD officer have sought to schedule her deposition before L.A.’s first couple potentially departs for India, and accused the city attorney’s office of “intentional delay.”
After the lawsuit was filed, Garcetti initially kept Jacobs in his orbit. He remained on the board of The Mayor’s Fund, and he kept his job as CEO of Garcetti’s infrastructure and economic development nonprofit.
“This is something that should take a process forward, but shouldn’t keep somebody who has been a committed public servant from being able to continue to serve our community and our world,” Garcetti said of Jacobs in July.
But the tone of the Mayor’s response changed as more accusers spoke up.
In October, journalist and social media personality Yashar Ali published an account of his experiences with Jacobs, alleging the Mayor’s advisor would routinely forcibly kiss him on the lips at events and comment on his “soft lips.”
Two other men spoke anonymously to the L.A. Times, saying they feared retaliation if they went public with their experiences of Jacobs groping or trying to forcibly kiss them.
"So sorry you have to go through this. We are with you."
Jacobs announced he was stepping down from his nonprofit role and Garcetti-related political work within hours of the reports, saying he didn’t want the situation to be a “distraction.” In his deposition, Jacobs said contact between himself and the Garcettis ceased after Oct. 20, except for a short call from Wakeland checking in on him around the New Year holiday. When asked if he might resume his political relationship with Jacobs, Garcetti testified “I have no plans.”
Garcetti said he took all allegations of harassment “seriously.”
Indeed, the allegations against Jacobs were just a couple years removed from the mayor’s high profile push to combat harassment in the city workforce.
In 2018, while the #MeToo movement was sweeping the country, spurred on by revelations about sexual assault and abuse by movie producer Harvey Weinstein, Garcetti announced an overhaul of the city’s sexual harassment reporting policies and a new website for city workers to anonymously report misconduct. When supervisors learn of an incident of sexual harassment, that information now must be shared with the city Personnel Department’s Equal Employment Opportunity Division within 48 hours.
When Garcetti staff learned of the possibility of a sexual harassment lawsuit targeting a former member of the mayor’s team, they turned first to the city attorney’s office. Since then, there’s been little transparency around how the city is addressing Garza’s case.
Last year, the city attorney hired a law firm to conduct an independent investigation of the allegations in the lawsuit. But that inquiry is for the purposes of the city’s legal defense, and it’s not clear the results will ever be public. The city attorney’s office declined to provide information about the outside investigation, and the attorney hired to probe the case did not return a request for comment.
“Inappropriate And Stupid. Period.”
Then, on Nov. 20 of last year, the L.A. Times published a photo (later obtained by LAist) of Jacobs with his hand in front of an unidentified man’s groin. The photo, from the 2017 U.S. Conference of Mayors in Miami Beach, was allegedly taken by a member of the mayor’s staff and subsequently shared with at least a dozen people connected to city hall including mayor’s office employees and senior administration officials.
Garcetti, who is captured in the picture giving a double thumbs-up next to the man Jacobs is mimicking groping, told the Times he did not see the incident and found the behavior “totally inappropriate.” He emphasized Jacobs no longer represented him and did not work for the city after 2016.
The existence of a posed photo, however — allegedly passed around the office — where Jacobs is pantomiming groping calls into question what Garcetti’s aides knew about Jacobs’ behavior, and when.
In her Jan. 14 deposition, Garcetti’s Chief of Staff, Guerrero, testified, “I have not seen [Jacobs] doing or acting in this sexually inappropriate way before this photo.”
But Guerrero had her misgivings about the mayor’s close relationship with his political guru. Before Yashar Ali posted his story and the anonymous accusers spoke to the Times, “I had already advised the Mayor to distance himself from Rick Jacobs,” Guerrero testified.
Deputy Chief of Staff Szabo called the contents of the photo “inappropriate and stupid. Period,” in his deposition. He said he had never witnessed Jacobs doing anything similar.
For Garcetti’s aspirations to join the Biden Administration, the damage appeared to be done. The Mayor announced in mid-December he had removed himself from consideration for a White House job. He would be staying in Los Angeles for the foreseeable future, focusing on the coronavirus crisis.
Fears Of Retaliation
Six months later, speculation is heating up that President Biden will reward Garcetti with a high-profile foreign post. The potential nomination means revelations from Garza’s lawsuit have possible international implications. And unflattering disclosures from the depositions could damage the mayor’s chances at an ambassadorship.
In his deposition earlier this year, Jacobs described phone conversations he had last summer with Amy Wakeland, before they broke off contact, in which they discussed the case. Jacobs testified he and Wakeland expressed disbelief: If Jacobs’ behavior was so egregious, why wasn’t there a paper trail of complaints from city staff?
“If this set of allegations was true, which [it’s] not, that we were surprised that others might not -- wouldn't have reported such activities, also,” Jacobs said.
Accounts from some witnesses, both anonymous and on the record, have touched on fears of professional retaliation as a motivator to stay silent.
“If I can't be trusted, then no other office will trust me, either. So...who else is going to want to hire me?”
In his reporting, Yashar Ali cited witnesses’ concern over reprisal by Garcetti and his inner circle — a claim Guerrero in her deposition called “a silly, silly statement that a reporter who doesn’t know anything about us made.”
Former mayoral aide Henry Casas addressed the dilemma facing people in politics: Loyalty is often prized above other qualities. “It’s not common for folks to speak up,” Casas testified. “You get blackballed in this field really easy.”
If he had complained about Jacobs’ hugs and comments making him uncomfortable, Casas said, “I would have fallen out of favor.” And that would hurt future employment prospects.
“If I can't be trusted, then no other office will trust me, either,” Casas said. “So, you know, who else is going to want to hire me?”
Micha Star Liberty, the attorney representing two former city employees deposed in the lawsuit, said her clients fear retaliation. “It’s never an easy decision to come forward and tell the truth when you’re telling the truth about people with an extraordinary amount of power,” she told LAist.
"There has been for a long time an aura around the Mayor’s office about secrecy and toeing the party line, if you will. Anyone who stepped out of line was made to know that was not acceptable, and that there will likely be some sort of consequence or fallout."
Garcetti’s office rejected that characterization in an emailed statement.
"The Mayor’s office encourages and supports victims of sexual harassment in coming forward to report their experiences and seek justice,” the statement said. “No Mayor’s staff or former staff or anybody else has ever faced retaliation or intimidation for making any personnel complaints or offering testimony in this case."