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Fired Workers Say Disneyland Played Rough

Workplace: Former guest-relations staffers allege threats, interrogations and false accusations of stealing passes.

March 01, 2000|E. SCOTT RECKARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Raising new questions about hard-edged Disneyland security tactics, some former guest-relations workers contend they were threatened during lengthy interrogations, then fired improperly for allegedly stealing passes to the Anaheim park.

The workers, normally among the park's most trusted, are authorized to print free tickets for patrons who complain of bad experiences--a rained-out parade, say, or lost passes.

They deny charges that they supplied co-workers and friends with the passes, and say Walt Disney Co. officials have refused to disclose any evidence against them or make available documents that could exonerate them. At least one has sued for wrongful dismissal.

Disneyland executives defended their investigation and the firings late last year as appropriate.

The employees' stories of heavy-handed treatment echo past claims by some patrons who accused Disney guards of abusing and unfairly detaining them for purported crimes. The employees say they were detained for hours without meals, falsely accused of selling tickets to pay for drugs and accompanied by guards when they visited restrooms and removed their costumes.

Jacqueline Madory, a 16-year employee who had guided Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand and other notables on tours of the park, said in a lawsuit that she was lured on a pretext to a small, "freezing cold" interrogation room last December.

An operations manager berated her for hours, accusing her of lying, threatening her with criminal prosecution and trying to talk her out of calling a lawyer, she contends in an Orange County Superior Court lawsuit that seeks compensatory and punitive damages for wrongful dismissal, false imprisonment and defamation.

In another case, a state unemployment judge said an employee's "confession" to taking 15 complimentary tickets, 11 snack coupons and two lost-and-found items was made under duress because "he was interrogated for 6 1/2 hours . . . under threat of arrest."

Betty G. Leiter, an administrative law judge who reviewed sworn statements from both sides, found that the worker, Gregg Evangelho, presented a "credible denial that he misappropriated anything" and was eligible for unemployment benefits.

Leiter noted that Evangelho was told he had been videotaped as he improperly handed out tickets, but that Disney manager Tom B. Fox later informed him that the investigation report did not mention any such taping.

Madory and Evangelho were among 14 workers questioned at length on Dec. 9 and 10 by investigators looking into unusually high numbers of complimentary tickets that were issued at a guest relations booth outside Disneyland's entrance from January through April last year.

Seven of the employees were fired Dec. 21, but two were later reinstated, Madory's lawyer and Evangelho said.

Disneyland spokesman Ray Gomez said no action was taken against the employees until an investigation, "conducted appropriately," was completed. "We are confident that proper disciplinary actions were taken," he said.

The allegations of abusive questioning and lengthy detentions are similar to those made by park-goers who charged in a string of lawsuits in the mid-1990s that they were wrongly accused of shoplifting and other crimes.

The cases led to a civil-rights review by federal authorities. No federal charges were filed, and the plaintiffs had mixed results in court, with some winning and some losing their cases. Disney employees say security guards have since been told to go easier on patrons suspected of wrongdoing.

Meredith Alford, another fired worker, said she had always blamed the employees and defended the company when allegations of over-aggressive investigations were made. But she changed her mind after her own interrogation in December. The worst part, she said, was when the Disney officials suggested she was selling tickets to raise money for drugs--accusations that Evangelho said also were leveled against him.

"I have never done a drug in my life. I wouldn't know catnip from pot," said Alford, an eight-year veteran of Disneyland.

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