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4 Women Claim Sex Harassment in Newport PD

September 24, 1992|NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Four current and former female Newport Beach Police Department employees will file a lawsuit today contending that they were sexually harassed by a police captain and that the police chief "condoned" the behavior, their attorney said Wednesday.

In a lawsuit to be filed in Orange County Superior Court, the women will charge that Capt. Anthony Villa touched breasts and made sexual overtures and suggestive remarks, including detailed descriptions of a pornographic movie, and that Police Chief Arb Campbell knew of the harassment and did nothing to stop it.

They will contend that they were told to socialize with male officers while off duty, especially with commanding officers, and to wear short skirts and clothing "desirable" to the men, the lawsuit states.

Campbell and Villa could not be reached directly, but their lawyer said they "unequivocally deny the allegations."

"In a generic sense, because I haven't really seen these allegations, they have made an unequivocal denial of any allegations of individualized or a prevailing environment of sexual harassment or retaliation within the Newport Beach Police Department," said Bruce Praet, the city-hired attorney who will represent the chief and captain in the matter.

"Although we're not commenting on any individual, certainly there is the appearance of disgruntled employees . . . who may be subject to disciplinary matters (who) may be creating diversionary tactics," Praet said.

City Manager Kevin J. Murphy also denied the allegations, and noted that the city has hired a Los Angles law firm to investigate the women's complaints.

Only one of the women in the suit, communications supervisor Mary Jane Ruetz, could be reached Wednesday and she said in a brief interview: "My attorney is filing this lawsuit . . . and it's really difficult to do, because I'm terrified. But I've been sexually harassed and discriminated against because I'm a woman, and I had no other choice," she said.

"This Police Department is a hotbed of sexually offensive conduct at the top levels of the command structure," reads the second paragraph of the pending lawsuit, a copy of which was given to The Times.

"Not only are females treated differently from male employees in many important respects, but some female employees who are intimately involved with high-ranking officers receive favored treatment in contrast to other female employees who refuse to 'go along to get along.' Several female employees have left the Newport Beach Police Department as a direct result of sexual harassment, sexual discrimination and the extraordinarily sexually hostile and offensive environment," the complaint reads.

"This is not exactly the year of the woman at the Newport Beach Police Department," said Steven R. Pingel, a Seal Beach attorney representing the women. "This was a case where I was ultimately really proud of these four women to have the guts to come forward and start telling their tale."

The women--Ruetz, 43, records supervisor Margaret McInnis, 39, and Police Officers Rochell Maier, 31, and Cheryl Vlacilek, 28--are seeking damages in excess of $200,000 each on charges of discrimination in employment based on sex.

Ruetz and Vlacilek say they were fired after formally complaining of harassment and discrimination to superiors. But the city's Civil Service Commission reinstated both. Maier was fired, the lawsuit states, on the same grounds and will seek to regain her job at an Oct. 5 hearing before the commission.

City Manager Murphy expressed disappointment that the lawsuit would be hitting the newspaper and courthouse before the city's contracted review by the Los Angeles law firm of Burke, Williams & Sorensen, which is to begin next week.

"Clearly it is the city's policy to not tolerate these kinds of activities, and it was spelled out in a City Council resolution in 1987," said Murphy, who has been with the city five months.

"I'm not going to go into the details and try the case in the press; I don't think it's in the city's financial interest and the city's long-term interest to do that. . . . But if they really wanted to resolve it they would have permitted us time to review the case. . . . I don't believe the allegations will be sustained, I don't believe that department is a hostile working environment, from what I know at this time."

Through their legal representatives, the four women allege that the sexual harassment started immediately after they began working for the 248-employee Police Department and continued even after they were fired and then, in two cases, reinstated. There are 76 women employees in the department, seven of them sworn officers.

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