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City-Paid Defense for Holden OKd : Government: City attorney clears the use of taxpayers' money for a private lawyer to represent the councilman against sexual harassment allegations.

August 19, 1993|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden is entitled to a private lawyer, at taxpayers' expense, to defend him against sexual harassment charges, the city attorney's office decided Wednesday.

Senior Assistant City Atty. Frederick Merkin said his office could not legally deny Holden's request because to do so would require a prior determination that the councilman is guilty.

Merkin said, however, that the city attorney would end Holden's city-funded defense if it is determined that the councilman "engaged in some or all of the conduct alleged" by three former aides.

Holden will get a private lawyer because the city attorney's office has a conflict of interest: It is defending the city against lawsuits filed by two of the aides.

Taxpayer groups and a major women's organization reacted angrily to the city attorney's decision.

"Sexual harassment is very personal, and it ought to be defended on a personal level," said Jay Curtis, president of the Los Angeles Taxpayers Assn.

"If Nate Holden in his personal automobile was sued for rear-ending someone on the freeway, would the city pay for that? It's absurd."

Tammy Bruce, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, said the decision was "astounding" and "insulting."

No estimates were immediately available on the potential cost of footing Holden's legal bill. City officials still must negotiate a contract with a lawyer, who is expected to be paid $175 an hour. Taxpayers also could be held liable for any damages assessed against Holden.

Holden, 63, who has denied the allegations, has argued that the city is obligated to hire a lawyer for him because the harassment allegations stem from his employment with the city.

The matter was left to the city attorney after the City Council was unable to reach an agreement after five separate sessions.

Holden was accused in 1992 and early this year by the three former aides, who said he harassed them at City Hall and elsewhere. The women have said they were subjected to a variety of unwanted advances by Holden, ranging from ogling and suggestive comments to lewd acts.

Holden maintains that the allegations are politically motivated.

The councilman, who has already run up $100,000 in legal bills, said Wednesday that he was pleased with the city attorney's decision but was disturbed that the city will not pick up the tab for attorney fees incurred before Holden formally requested a city defense June 29.

Holden, elected to the City Council in 1987, also criticized his colleagues for failing to come to his defense, and he compared the sexual harassment allegations against him to McCarthyism.

"During the Red-baiting era, if you were alleged to be a Communist, your career and family were both totally destroyed," he said. "In today's atmosphere, if sexual harassment charges are alleged against you, the results are the same, even when you are completely innocent, as in my case."

The Holden matter has prompted complaints by council members who say they are not equipped to launch an investigation into one of their own. The City Council has ordered city bureaucrats to come up with a plan on how to conduct such reviews.

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