SANTA ANA — Suspended Newport Beach Police Chief Arb Campbell and Capt. Anthony Villa lodged their first legal defense Thursday, denying sexual harassment charges and accusing the five employees who sued them of masterminding the allegations to cover up professional incompetence.
In a detailed response to the women's lawsuit, Campbell and Villa also deny in court papers that they raped Peri Ropke, a department dispatcher who accused them of accosting her at a drunken party 11 years ago.
Bruce Praet, the city-paid attorney who is representing Campbell and Villa, said Ropke is confusing the Newport Beach party with another sexual encounter involving two different men at the same time while she was employed by another department.
"I'm not saying she can't tell them apart," Praet said in an interview. "I'm saying she's either intentionally or, at best, subconsciously substituting them for the true actors." Praet declined to elaborate further.
Campbell and Villa further attacked the career records of those suing them, drawing attention to personnel evaluations of the women whose lawsuit has plunged the department into one of the worst controversies in its history.
They contend the women are using the lawsuit as a way to hide their own misconduct on the job, including love affairs with subordinates, long lunches, bad reputations among their peers and reprimands for poor work.
Their response, filed in Orange County Superior Court, further contends that Ropke has never, as she charged, had an affair with Villa nor had sex with either Campbell or Villa, but did have a romance with someone else in the department.
"Not true," said Steven Pingel, the attorney representing the women. "We will prove that what was alleged between her and Villa and Campbell happened. That's what trials are all about. . . . They're throwing a lot of mud and they want to see what sticks. I don't think any of it will stick."
On Sept. 24, four current and former Police Department employees filed a lawsuit accusing Villa of sexually harassing them on the job and Campbell of failing to do anything about it. It further alleged that the department had become a "hotbed of sexually offensive conduct" at the top levels, a place where only women who "go along to get along" are promoted.
On Oct. 15, Ropke joined the lawsuit, alleging that she had been raped by Campbell and Villa at the outskirts of an abandoned landfill during a late-night police party in 1981. Hours after her revelation, Newport Beach City Manager Kevin J. Murphy placed Campbell and Villa on paid administrative leave. They have contended in a lawsuit against the city that their removal from duty and an ensuing "witch hunt" have violated their civil rights.
While Praet in broad terms has repeatedly denied the allegations on behalf of his clients, the Thursday filing is the first comprehensive response to the charges.
Campbell and Villa contend generally that the lawsuit is unjustified and fails to provide sufficient facts to support a claim, and that the women have not exhausted other remedies for relief. It also contends that the women never filed official sexual harassment complaints, despite a city policy requiring employees to report such conduct.
"That happens all the time," Pingel said. "Most women don't file formal complaints. In Peri's case, who's she supposed to file a complaint to, her superiors? She's 22 and it's a sergeant and a captain of police who are obviously fair-haired types in the department. . . . That's a common employer defense made against women in sex harassment cases and it just doesn't hold up in trial anymore."
Besides Ropke, the women who sued are records supervisor Mary Jane Ruetz; communications supervisor Margaret McInnis; Officer Cheryl Vlacilek and fired officer Rochell Maier, who is seeking her job back.
In their response, Campbell and Villa allege that Ruetz, whom the city tried to fire in late 1991, "has achieved a reputation among her co-workers for being difficult to work with and dishonest." Her participation in the lawsuit, they say, is really an attempt to retaliate and "hide her lack of competence."
City civil service board records show that Ruetz, who had an unblemished record after 21 years of work for police agencies, was fired for making derogatory remarks about a co-worker, failing to report for duty, and dishonesty.
Reutz appealed her termination to the civil service board, which reinstated her after concluding that the city's case against her was groundless and that Ruetz never lied to her superiors as the Police Department had claimed.
Campbell and Villa allege that "she has also filed this lawsuit in an attempt to shield her own romance with a person who is her subordinate." They further contend that the women's allegations of having to dress suggestively and go to local bars with superiors is "a diversionary attempt to cover up their own inappropriate behavior."