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Sex Harassment Suit Names Areias, Chief Aide

August 25, 1994|MARK GLADSTONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — A legislative aide alleges in a lawsuit that Assemblyman Rusty Areias ignored sexual harassment complaints she lodged against his chief of staff and that the San Jose Democrat later threatened her with the loss of her job if she pursued the charges.

Deborah Simpson, a former Areias administrative aide who still is employed by the Assembly, leveled the allegations in a sexual harassment suit filed in Sacramento Superior Court against the veteran legislator and his chief of staff, John Barry Wyatt.

Simpson also contends that Wyatt made "unwelcome sexual advances" and that Wyatt and Areias maintained a hostile workplace environment.

Areias, who in June lost a bid for state controller, and Wyatt deny any wrongdoing. They said the Assembly Rules Committee has found the charges to be without merit.

On Wednesday, Terry McHale, an Areias spokesman, called the charges in the suit "false and ugly," adding that "Rusty was never told at any time that Debbie had any complaints of being harassed."

With sexual harassment becoming increasingly unacceptable in the private workplace, more legislators are also being hit with complaints. Simpson's suit was filed last Friday, just a few days before a sexual harassment lawsuit against Assemblyman Mickey Conroy, an Orange County Republican, came to light.

A few months ago, four former staff members alleged that Assemblyman Tom Connolly made boorish and harassing statements about sexuality. But the Assembly Rules Committee determined the charges against the Lemon Grove Democrat were without merit, according to Bob Connelly, the panel's chief administrative officer.

Connelly said that in his eight years as the panel's administrator, about four harassment complaints have been filed, including three within the last few months.

In contrast, Cliff Berg, Senate Rules Committee executive officer, said he is unaware of any similar claims filed against senators.

Until relatively recently, both houses of the Legislature were almost exclusive men's clubs. With women now representing more than 20 of the Assembly's 80 seats, female employees may feel more comfortable about coming forward and accusing their bosses of misconduct.

"I do know from talking to my client that there is a lot of intimidation that goes on over there," said Simpson's attorney, Curtis S. Leavitt of Sacramento.

Simpson, 39, a longtime Sacramento resident, worked for Areias for nearly five years, starting as a secretary and ending as an administrative assistant before being sent off to the Assembly's secretarial pool earlier this year.

In the action, which seeks unspecified damages, Simpson contends Wyatt subjected her "to continued unwelcomed sexual advances," which she rejected. She alleges that Wyatt sought to touch her in an inappropriate manner, yelled at her in public using obscene terms and described his own sexual exploits.

In one alleged instance last April, Wyatt drove Simpson to her home but then allegedly walked into her home uninvited and grabbed Simpson, pulling her down on top of him. He allegedly kept Simpson down for about 30 minutes while kissing and fondling Simpson against her will.

Simpson said she reported the incidents to Areias, who retaliated by questioning her qualifications "and by insinuating" she might lose her job. After filing a complaint with the Rules Committee, Simpson said she was demoted to the secretarial pool.

Areias could not be reached for comment. In an interview, Wyatt said he and Areias deny the charges, maintaining that the Rules Committee found them groundless--an assertion disputed by Simpson's lawyer.

Times staff writer Eric Bailey contributed to this story.

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