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Alleged Reprisal by Polanco Led to Aide's Settlement

Politics: An ex-assistant to the state senator who said he punished her for rejecting his advances was paid $117,200.

March 15, 2001|CARL INGRAM and ANTONIO OLIVO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — A former assistant to Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), who had complained that she was retaliated against for rejecting his advances, was paid $117,200 in a confidential settlement with the California Senate.

Of the sum, $102,500 was earmarked as compensation to Karri Velasquez, 34, for unspecified "emotional and physical injuries" she suffered while an employee of the powerful lawmaker for three years, ending in 1998.

The agreement provided another $14,708 to Velasquez for back pay and administrative leave. As part of the deal, she agreed to quit.

The confidential settlement surfaced in the wake of Polanco's surprise withdrawal last month from his campaign for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council. In the weeks preceding his decision, some reporters and people in political circles had received copies of a birth certificate showing that Polanco, who is married, had fathered a child with a senior member of his staff.

The unpublicized settlement, which The Times obtained through a Legislative Open Records Act request, was signed in October 1998. It was in response to a complaint Velasquez had filed with the Senate Rules Committee. It did not identify Polanco by name or disclose Velasquez's grievances. Senate officials refused to detail her complaints.

But the six-page settlement document noted that the Senate case was related to a discrimination complaint Velasquez had filed against Polanco with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing on Dec. 10, 1996.

In that complaint, she asserted that on Sept. 13, 1996, she was transferred by the lawmaker's then-chief of staff, Bill Chavez, "based on failure to respond to Polanco's advances."

According to documents obtained under a Public Records Act request, she quickly dropped the complaint with the fair employment agency and indicated she intended to sue Polanco instead. The department is the state's chief administrative enforcer of workplace anti-discrimination laws.

At a brief meeting with a reporter on Wednesday, Polanco refused to discuss the two complaints by Velasquez or any other aspect of what he considers "personal matters."

To do so, he said, would violate the Senate settlement with Velasquez. He said he would "open myself up to all sorts of legal" action if he said anything about her earlier complaint to the Fair Employment and Housing Department, which was a public document.

"As much as I may want to, I cannot comment," Polanco said.

Polanco and his associates have offered a variety of explanations for his abrupt departure from the council race. He said he quit to pursue his legislative agenda, and associates said the Democratic floor leader indicated he no longer had the "fire in his belly" for political office and wanted to seek employment in the private sector when he leaves the Senate next year due to term limits.

Velasquez, who is now employed in the high-tech industry, on Wednesday referred questions to her attorney, Kathleen Pratt. Pratt did not return a reporter's calls, nor did former aide Chavez.

The settlement contained a wide-ranging confidentiality provision that prohibited Velasquez, members and employees of the Senate or their attorneys from divulging its terms and conditions.

As part of the agreement with the Rules Committee, the governing committee of the upper chamber, Velasquez agreed to leave her Senate job and not to seek reemployment in the Senate for four years.

However, attached to the six-page settlement was a statement, apparently prepared for Polanco's signature, which rated Velasquez as a top-flight worker who would do a good job for a future employer.

The statement, which was unsigned, recited her history as a scheduling assistant to Polanco, then as an assistant to the Senate Business and Professions Committee, which he had chaired, and finally as a $42,500-a-year executive assistant.

"Ms. Velasquez has done an excellent job overall in each of her positions and I would recommend her for any position without reservation or qualification," the statement said.

A Senate source familiar with the agreement called such statements generic and said former staff members may use them as a reference for future employers.

As a key provision of the settlement, the Senate denied "any and all liability or fault in any manner respecting Ms. Velasquez."

One source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the grievance Velasquez filed with the Rules Committee did not allege sexual harassment, but complained of unfair treatment in Polanco's office.

A second source, who also insisted on anonymity, said Velasquez's complaint alleged a hostile working environment that was exacerbated by the high-level staff member who is the mother of Polanco's child.

That source said that aside from being upset about Polanco's alleged advances, Velasquez was angry at being passed over for a pay raise. She blamed the lack of promotion on the senior woman staff member, who remains on the Polanco payroll and receives $74,500 a year.

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