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Is a Rose a Rose or Is It Sexual Harassment? : Employment: Former MWD employee fights for his job and denies he sent the flower to a colleague. She had earlier filed a complaint against him.

August 02, 1993|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FONTANA — Whether it was a one-sided office romance that went too far or someone's notion of a practical joke that turned sour, this much is clear:

After an anonymously sent single pink rose showed up on a secretary's desk, Dennis O'Connell was fired for sexual harassment.

And now O'Connell, 35, is fighting to win his job back as a $15-an-hour pipeline maintenance worker for the Metropolitan Water District.

He complains that he is in the awkward position of having to prove that he did not send the flower that triggered his firing. It was delivered by a Riverside florist with an unsigned "Happy Birthday" greeting to an office worker at the MWD filtration plant at Lake Mathews in Riverside County. The recipient is sure O'Connell sent it and, because of previous complaints against O'Connell, the utility fired him.

But an MWD spokesman acknowledged Friday the possibility that the rose was sent as a prank to get O'Connell in hot water, and said that even though O'Connell has been fired, the prank possibility is being investigated before the MWD hears O'Connell's appeal.

O'Connell admits that he was suspended for three days in 1991 after a sexual harassment charge was made against him by the same woman who got the $18.95 single-stem rose and bud vase in January.

Two and a half years ago, he said, he and the woman exchanged a series of flirtatious notes and letters in their respective cubbyholes at an MWD office at Lake Mathews. She initiated the volley, he said, and the content of the notes increased in the level of sexual innuendo. He said he put an end to them because he was happily married.

His letters in hand, the woman complained to supervisors that she was being sexually harassed and the MWD suspended O'Connell for three days. He said the notes were consensual exchanges, but took the suspension on the chin and agreed with his bosses to stay clear of the woman except in the course of official business.

O'Connell said he has since kept his distance from her.

He said he was transferred to the Riverside MWD plant for unrelated reasons and, when he later learned that the same woman was relocating there, he asked to stay at the Lake Mathews filtration plant in order to avoid her.

Then in January, the rose appeared and the woman complained that O'Connell was up to his old tricks. He was suspended for three months with pay, then notified of his discharge because, among other things, he was disruptive to the workplace.

An accompanying letter from MWD executives, provided by O'Connell, detailed the complaints against him: That he had confronted and telephoned the secretary several times during the past 2 1/2 years and on three occasions sent "a single pink rose in a bud vase."

O'Connell contends that the complaints against him were fabricated or exaggerated.

The letter only documented the most recent rose incident:

"The owner and an employee at the florist have identified you as the purchaser (in January) from a copy of your driver's license photograph," wrote Don Adams, chief of operations for the MWD.

O'Connell is furious. He has brown hair and a mustache and says some of his co-workers share the same "generic, construction-worker look." He complained that the MWD led the florist into giving positive identification by presenting a black-and-white, thumbnail-size, photocopied DMV photograph of him and asked: "Is this the guy?"

He said he can verify his whereabouts that day--including when he was home that afternoon with his wife of 13 years.

"Would I cover for him if he was buying flowers for another woman?" asked Janet O'Connell. "I don't think so."

He admits that he has called the woman at the office--but only because he had messages that she had called and he believed them to be work-related. He said when he tried to call her back, other co-workers intercepted the calls, then reported him as a harasser.

In one memo cited by the MWD as evidence that O'Connell continues to hound the woman, one office manager wrote to another that the woman "tried unsuccessfully to avoid (O'Connell) during the employees meeting this morning." But O'Connell said he has witnesses to testify that he did not attend the meeting.

In contrast, O'Connell said, the woman has approached him informally, including the time she handed him a cosmetics catalogue for his wife's consideration. The files on his case include statements by co-workers that they were verbally disciplined for sexually harassing the same woman.

O'Connell will try to make his case at an appeals hearing, where three MWD supervisors will judge his story.

MWD spokesman Bob Gomperz confirmed that O'Connell was fired and said that the appeals hearing--originally set for this week--was postponed because "both sides want time to try to determine if this was a prank." He said that because of employee confidentiality, he would not discuss the details of the case.

The woman who issued the sexual harassment charges declined comment.

O'Connell said he is in a no-win situation--even if he persuades the appeals board that he did not send the flower but was the victim of a setup or misplaced suspicions.

"I'm going to have to subpoena 20 people--including three co-workers who have been seen flirting with her," O'Connell said. "I don't like having to drag them into this, but I don't have any choice, and if I end up winning my case, how many friends do you think I'm still going to have when I go back to work?"

O'Connell said he is not a stalker, nor does he consider his alleged victim one. " 'Fatal Attraction' does not come to mind," he said. "Sexual harassment paranoia comes to mind. The MWD is afraid of sex harassment charges filed against them by this woman, so they're going to railroad me instead."

So who sent the rose?

"I don't want to guess," he said. "But some guy out there is going 'Whew.' "

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