134 Cases, $36 Million: Inside Sexual Misconduct At America's Biggest County Government
By Mary Plummer and Aaron Mendelson
The grim, graphic details are public, but sit silently in case files across Los Angeles County. Some lay out heartbreaking accounts of sexual misconduct by county employees, from verbal abuse to physical assault, including rape.
Few of the allegations have been written about before in news stories.
In response to a KPCC/LAist records request, county officials searched employment, general liability, medical malpractice and law enforcement legal filings to identify cases tied to sexual misconduct allegations. They identified 134 cases that ended with settlements or judgments.
In all, the county paid out more than $36.3 million -- including $13.7 million in attorneys' fees -- to resolve these misconduct claims between July 2004 and June 2017.
L.A. County employs 108,000 workers across the sprawl of America's most populous county. Its workforce is spread over 4,000 square miles and 34 departments.
To better manage and protect employees, the county adopted new workplace policies in 2011 and now describes them as a national gold standard. Among the program's goals: shield government employees from sexual harassment in the workplace.
Extensive public records from the county and local courts reviewed by KPCC/LAist show a giant government enterprise at times falling short of that mission.
The cases of abusive behavior include allegations of misconduct by county employees against colleagues, contractors and members of the public.
Among our findings:
- Some employees who filed formal complaints said they never heard back from county authorities. In other cases, the county's response was delayed months and sometimes even years.
- Staffers for then-Supervisor Michael Antonovich talked about the need to "protect" their boss as they allegedly violated county policies in handling a workplace harassment case involving colleagues.
- An outsized share of the county's sexual misconduct cases originated within the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
- In several cases, the amount the county spent on attorneys' fees rivaled or topped the payout to victims.
A PATTERN OF HARASSMENT
LAC + USC Medical Center is a public hospital that serves some of the poorest residents in the region. It was where county employee Gilbert Montejo worked, most recently supervising ultrasound technicians.
In the fall of 2010, one young woman was just weeks into her new job when her ordeal with Montejo began.
Montejo called her into his office, locked the door, switched off the lights and began making unwanted advances, she said in a legal claim that he responded to by denying wrongdoing. She was 23. He was 53.
The case resulted in a settlement. In her claim, the woman said Montejo touched her all over her body, in sexual abuse that eventually escalated into forced oral sex.
Three other female ultrasound technicians supervised by Montejo made similar allegations in their claims. Each described Montejo calling her into his office, repeatedly grabbing and kissing her against her wishes, and later asking her to keep his conduct a secret. (KPCC/LAist is not identifying people who alleged sexual assault by name in this article.)
The county ultimately spent nearly $870,000 in taxpayer funds to pay for attorneys and resolve sexual abuse claims against Montejo made by the four women.
The allegations made by the woman who began working for Montejo when she was 23 were graphic.
She alleged in documents filed in L.A. County Superior Court that while she was pregnant, "Montejo would call her into his office and, while putting his finger inside of plaintiff's vagina, he would pull down his pants or take out his penis and masturbate. When he finished, he would wipe his penis with a tissue." Montejo denied the allegation in a court filing. Attempts to interview Montejo were unsuccessful.
The woman's attorney said her client, who was employed through a staffing agency, didn't initially report the abuse because she feared losing her job at the county-run hospital.
Her case alone cost county taxpayers more than $500,000. She reported Montejo's conduct on June 7, 2013, more than two years after she said it began.
And her attorney wrote in her claim that Montejo "was sexually harassing employees that he supervised as early as 2007."
Five days after she filed her complaint, Montejo was suspended without pay for 30 days. A letter from the county's resources division addressed him: "It is alleged you demanded, on multiple occasions, [the woman] to perform sexual favors for preferential treatment."
Montejo initially contested the suspension. A letter written on his behalf states that he "specifically and categorically denies any and all allegations." But he quickly dropped his challenge and retired.
Around that same time, complaints filed on behalf of other victims also claimed that Montejo, who controlled the schedules of ultrasound technicians, warned the women not to report his actions.
One of the women alleged in court documents that supervisors at the hospital knew of Montejo's actions "but did nothing to stop him."
Los Angeles County's Department of Health Services, which operates the hospital, responded to those claims, saying they "took immediate and appropriate actions in response by launching internal investigations and cooperating with local law enforcement."
"However, because the matter involves confidential personnel matters, DHS is unable to give you a more detailed response," department officials wrote in an emailed statement.
Separately, county attorneys said swift action once they were aware of allegations about Montejo helped limit attorneys' fees in the civil cases.
Montejo's woes weren't over. In 2014, nearly a year after he retired, Montejo pleaded no contest to three counts of battery in a criminal case related to the workplace allegations against him.
He was sentenced to 30 days in jail and dozens of Sex Compulsives Anonymous classes. He was also forbidden from accepting a job as supervisor or one where he controlled the work schedules of others.
The sentencing order requires Montejo to stay 100 yards away from six different women, including the four who settled with the county, and banned communication with them. He is barred from going near his old workplace, the LAC + USC hospital, under the terms of the order.
He kept his county pension. Montejo has collected upwards of $60,000 in pension and benefits from the county every full year since he retired in July 2013, according to the nonprofit Transparent California, which collects public records on government pay and pensions.
KPCC repeatedly attempted to interview the women who settled with the county, through their attorney. The agency that employed two of the women who settled, XPRT Staffing, also did not return interview requests.
'A VERY ROBUST COMPLAINT AND INVESTIGATIONS MECHANISM'
When County employees want to complain of workplace sexual harassment, racism and age discrimination, they go through an office in the basement of a downtown Los Angeles building.
The County Intake Specialist Unit takes in all complaints about conduct that violates state and federal protections for religion, race, sexual orientation and other categories. Most complaints are submitted online, but employees can report complaints in person by visiting the suite of offices and ringing a doorbell.
From mid-2011 to late 2017, the unit fielded about 4,800 complaints of sexual harassment, 17 percent of its complaints overall, according to public records.
The complaints include a wide-range of behavior, including issues that don't rise to the legal standard for sexual harassment, such as off-color jokes. County officials told KPCC/LAist that they have encouraged staff to report even minor incidents in order to potentially head off more egregious behavior.
Late last year, after sexual abuse allegations emerged against high-profile men across the nation, the county saw an uptick in complaints from its employees. At the time, the Board of Supervisors called for a review of countywide procedures and requested some improvements.
But in interviews with KPCC, officials said their process and strategy works.
"We are state of the art. We have been doing this for quite a while," Vickey Bane, the executive director of the County Equity Oversight Panel [CEOP]. "We have a very robust complaint and investigations mechanism in the county, and I'm just proud that we have this in existence."
"Every complaint gets an investigation, which is what the law requires," said County Counsel Mary Wickham.
"So many folks just want to be heard," Wickham added. "They just want to have a place where they can complain, and be listened to, and be assured that something is going to be done. That's really what most people want."
Senior Assistant County Counsel Rose Belda stood behind the County's policies, saying the program has helped to change the county's workplace culture for the better and prevent problems from escalating.
"If there's a better one, call us," she said. "We'll copy it."
Still, the county is making changes.
- An updated website launched in March with a goal of making the complaint process more accessible, at the request of L.A. County Supervisors.
- County staff drafted new language to advise vendors and contractors of county discrimination and harassment policies.
- In June, a memo to the Supervisors cited a need for additional staffing to manage the rising number of complaints.
In September, an audit scrutinized 50 cases to track whether CEOP's recommendations for discipline were followed. Auditors discovered that nearly half the time it had been reduced or eliminated. The audit found the average time it took from the time of the initial complaint to when an employee faced discipline was 18 months. And in six cases, discipline remained unenforced for six months or longer.
Why? The audit noted that departments had discretion to reduce recommended discipline. Auditors said tracking how those decision are made should be a top priority.
Belda did not respond to requests for comment on the audit. CEOP has until early 2019 to implement recommendations that include speeding up responses to complaints.
SECRECY AND SETTLEMENTS
KPCC/LAist reached out to more than a dozen people who sued Los Angeles County with claims of sexual harassment. No one agreed to speak on the record.
Many can't under the terms of their payouts.
In some cases, those who alleged harassment against county employees and were paid settlements are unable to speak about their experiences, having signed confidentiality clauses as part of their agreements.
One woman prohibited from speaking: a mother who was sexually assaulted during a home inspection by a Department of Children and Family Services social worker. According to her account, the county employee threatened to take away her children and then sexually assaulted her during a home visit, all while her baby was asleep in a nearby room. She reported him to authorities.The employee, Yadullah "Eddie" Lorghaba, was arrested in 2010, charged and then convicted at trial of sexual battery. He pleaded not guilty. Lorghaba was sentenced to a year in prison.
In a civil case about the same incident, the woman settled with the county for $32,500.
But she can't discuss the case, even if she'd like to. The settlement she signed forbids her and her attorneys from talking about the case, without written approval from the county. It goes further than most, banning her from disclosing the settlement, which is a public record, to the media.
KPCC/LAist reviewed the text of 90 of the settlement agreements provided by L.A. County. Forty-one of them include language regarding nondisclosure or nondisparagement, prohibiting the people who say they suffered sexual misconduct from speaking out.
County attorneys said agreements are highly case-specific, and safeguard employee reputations on all sides.
But some question the use of the practice. Plaintiff's attorney Timothy Kearns, who has represented people alleging sexual harassment against their employers, argued that confidentiality agreements protect employers, not plaintiffs.
"You know how many times I proposed a confidentiality agreement? Zero," Kearns said. "I hate confidentiality."
Nondisclosure agreements or NDAs have become intensely controversial in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Critics charge that powerful figures, including Harvey Weinstein and Roger Ailes, have used the agreements to silence their accusers and hide alleged harassment.
Concern that such agreements stifle victims led to action in Sacramento.
In August, following a string of sexual harassment allegations against members of the California Legislature, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill banning the use of nondisclosure agreements in sexual harassment and sexual assault cases. The bill's author, Sen. Connie Leyva, argued that "secret settlements serve one primary purpose: to keep sexual predators away from the public eye and continuing to torment and hurt innocent victims."
Still, attorneys say sometimes their clients just want to move on, and have little desire to relive details of their ordeal in public. Separately, some hope that large settlements can spur organizations to improve workplaces -- even if they're only worried about their bottom line.
"If we just simply make it financially infeasible to have harassers, then people will stop harassing," Kearns said. "That's the goal."
County attorneys stressed that the decision to settle a case doesn't mean an admission of wrongdoing.
"We settle cases for a lot of reasons. I'm not saying we believe everything in the complaint, or anything in the complaint," Rose Belda said. "That's just not how settlements work."
STILL ON THE JOB
Those who deal with workplace harassment cases say preventing sexual misbehavior comes down to two factors: training and accountability.
"Where employers provide internal remedies to employees that sufficiently address the complaint, they're far less likely to end up in expensive litigation," said defense attorney Traci Park, who has represented several municipalities in Southern California.
Yet it only takes one employee harassing another to spark problems.
In 2012, Paula Ferrell began work as an assistant at the Antelope Valley office of Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich. Antonovich was a fixture in local politics, serving over three decades on the powerful Board of Supervisors before he termed-out in 2016.
Ferrell said in court filings that shortly after she started in the office, her boss Sherrie Borzaga began a campaign of harassment. Borzaga frequently and emphatically expressed a romantic interest in Ferrell's husband, who was a sheriff's deputy, according to the documents.
At one point, Borzaga allegedly told Ferrell: "If you die in a car accident, I'll be the woman standing next to your husband in a black dress at your funeral. I always wanted to be married to a Deputy Sheriff."
Ferrell said she informed Norman Hickling, at the time a senior field deputy in the supervisor's office, about the alleged harassment.
In her legal complaint, she said Hickling never reported it, which would be a violation of county policy. Instead, according to the filings, he set up a conference call in an attempt to mediate the conflict. The call included Borzaga, Hickling and Tony Bell, who at the time was Antonovich's assistant chief deputy. Bell now works for Supervisor Kathryn Barger in a similar role; neither he nor Hickling nor Borzaga agreed to interview requests.
During the call, according to the complaint, Hickling encouraged the employees to work things out, saying: "We are all here to protect Supervisor Antonovich. We need to do what's best for him."
In May 2013, court records state Ferrell made a telephone complaint directly to the County Equity Oversight Panel charged with looking into claims. She said she never heard back. County attorneys said they were unable to comment on the allegation, since it involved a personnel issue. Attorneys who worked on the defense for the county and Borzaga denied the allegations in court filings.
The case did not attract news coverage at the time.
Two days after Ferrell's complaint, she was dismissed from her job, the court documents assert. The county settled the case for $42,500.
In the settlement the county said it "denies, repudiates and disputes each and every claim, allegation, and cause of action." The agreement contains a confidentiality clause for Ferrell and bars Ferrell's attorney from publicizing or even disclosing the settlement "in any forum or form."
'AN EXPLOSION IN THE WORKPLACE'
Details on the county's handling of sexual misconduct reports by employees are limited. Of course, accusations are not always true. They're also not all equally serious. L.A. County data shows complaints about equity issues are frequently found to not rise to the level of a potential violation, for many reasons.
Still, when things do go wrong, misconduct complaints can surface serious issues.
"Once harassment happens, on the personal level for workers, it's like an explosion in the workplace," said SEIU Local 721 Communications Director Coral Itzcalli. The union represents about 60,000 public service workers in L.A. County spanning jobs in foster care, sanitation and healthcare.
Itzcalli said she knows of county workers who experienced severe stress after incurring abuse from supervisors at work that led to problems sleeping and tensions with family members. Some problems were so bad, workers felt compelled to take medical leave.
"I didn't feel like I had a voice. I felt frustrated, anxious. Stressed. A lot of anxiety."
"They just couldn't take it anymore to be at work," she said.
Since spring of 2016, Itzcalli said her union has worked to remove or transfer more than 25 supervisors whom it identified as problems from the county's Department of Health Services alone. Sexual harassment was among a range of issues workers there reported to the union. Some said they were spat on or physically assaulted by supervisors.
The 134 cases that ended in settlements or judgments over the period reviewed by KPCC/LAist are the exception, not the rule. Most workers who report harassment never sue.
Medical case worker Cindie Magdaleno took the more common approach. She filed a formal complaint after her female supervisor verbally harassed her.
Magdaleno told KPCC/LAist that she experienced verbal harassment from her supervisor from the late 2000s until the woman was transferred a few years ago.
Magdaleno, who was working at the county-funded Olive View/UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar, first complained to county officials about her treatment in 2011. (County Counsel said such complaints are confidential when asked about her case.) Magdaleno said she kept working for the supervisor for several years while the woman made repeated crude sexual comments to her about her looks and appearance.
"I didn't feel like I had a voice. I felt frustrated, anxious. Stressed. A lot of anxiety. Maybe I want to say poor attendance, no will to come to work," she said. "Having to document and make sure that you create this strong timeline. It was pretty frustrating, you know, sleepless countless nights."
Five additional people filed a group complaint against the same supervisor, according to the SEIU's Itzcalli. The union stepped in to help and negotiated a mediation. Of the six individuals who experienced problems with the supervisor, Itzcalli said the county found two people, including Magdaleno, were victims of sexual harassment. Others experienced verbal abuse and abuse of power, Itzcalli said.
After her supervisor was transferred, Magdaleno said she was able to resume her normal work life.
"I refused actually to be, to transfer myself out or to move. I felt that I needed to protect my co-workers," she said. "It was not any longer just about me. It was about other county workers. And I needed to, you know, be that voice."
HOW WE REPORTED THIS STORY
This story was reported using public records and documents. The county, which does not specifically track cases related to sexual misconduct, identified relevant cases in response to a KPCC/LAist records request. An initial response provided data on a few dozen Employment Practices cases. A subsequent, broader search turned up more than 130 cases by also searching General Liability, Law Enforcement, and Medical Malpractice case types. According to a county attorney who handled the request, "The cases in each of these categories which referenced the term 'sex' or any derivation thereof were examined and those cases involving sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, or any related behavior by County employees were identified."
This universe of 'sexual misconduct' cases is unlikely to match definitions of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct used by other jurisdictions, making direct comparisons difficult.
KPCC/LAist also requested attorneys' fees incurred by the county in its defense for each of the cases identified as sexual misconduct by the county. These costs are rarely reported in the media in stories about settlements and judgments, but help provide a fuller picture of the true costs of such cases.
The county did not include one of the four civil cases that named Gilbert Montejo as a defendant in its data on sexual misconduct. A county attorney said it had been "misplaced" in the process of providing updated data, and it is included in the figures presented in this story.
The details of the cases referenced in this story are typically drawn from the case files. An editorial decision was made by KPCC/LAist to anonymize the names of those who alleged sexual assault, particularly men and women whose names had not previously been in the media in connection with the case. Not every misconduct case involved an allegation of sexual assault. Other records utilized in this story include criminal court records, Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission records, Sheriff's Department inmate records, and publicly available data on the county workforce.
With additional reporting from David Rodriguez.
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