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California and the West

Senate Panel Didn't OK Polanco Settlement

Capitol: Most members of a key committee say they never knew about a payoff over a former staffer's abuse claims. Senate leader Burton defends the action.

March 25, 2001|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — A confidential settlement that paid $117,200 to a former state Senate staffer who accused a powerful lawmaker of workplace abuses was never voted on by the legislative committee that approves such payments, interviews reveal.

The payment was made two months after the Senate had adjourned its 1998 session. And it was handled so quietly that three of the committee's five members say they learned of it from newspaper reports this month.

State Senate President Pro Tem John L. Burton (D-San Francisco) defended the legitimacy and timing of the agreement, made on behalf of Democratic Sen. Richard Polanco of Los Angeles.

"Basically, the lawyers say settle this case and that is what you do," said Burton, chairman of the Rules Committee, which acts as the Senate's board of directors.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 28, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Senator's party--In Sunday's Times, a story on a settlement reached with a former aide of state Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) misstated the party affiliation of retired state Sen. Ruben Ayala of Chino. He is a Democrat.

The other choice, Burton said in an interview Thursday, was for the Senate to face a potentially losing and more expensive fight in court.

Burton said it is customary in the months between legislative sessions for him and the committee's Republican vice chairman to make decisions without consulting the other three committee members.

In the settlement with the Senate, former assistant Karri Velasquez was paid $117,200, most of it to compensate for unnamed "emotional and physical injuries" she suffered as an assistant to the lawmaker, starting in 1994. She also received back pay and paid leave. In exchange, she resigned her $42,500-a-year job.

The settlement contained a confidentiality clause that prohibited Velasquez or anyone else connected with the case from disclosing its terms and conditions, including the nature of her grievance.

Payment of the settlement and even the filing of Velasquez's complaint caught other members of the 1998 committee by surprise.

"It never surfaced with the committee," said retired Sen. Ruben Ayala, a Republican from Chino. "You bet I would have remembered it if a member had a problem and needed the state to get him out of trouble."

Two other committee members, Sen. William J. "Pete" Knight (R-Palmdale) and former Sen. Teresa Hughes, a Democrat from Inglewood, said they had no recollection of the case.

"I don't know anything about that," Hughes said. "I read it in the newspaper."

Polanco, the Democratic floor leader who will leave the Senate next year under term limits, abruptly abandoned his campaign for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council last month.

He said he wanted to concentrate on his legislative agenda. Within days, it was reported that the married lawmaker had fathered an out-of-wedlock child with a member of his staff.

Through an aide, Polanco declined to comment. For weeks, he has turned down requests for interviews.

A summary of the Senate settlement document, obtained under the Legislative Open Records Act, said Velasquez had made related claims in a 1996 case filed with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

In that case, Velasquez alleged that she had been transferred in retaliation for refusing to "respond to Polanco's advances." She dropped the action, indicating to the department that she intended to sue instead.

Subsequently, Velasquez took her complaint to the Senate. But Gregory Schmidt, chief executive officer of the Rules Committee, said in an interview last week that the Senate settlement was based on charges different from those Velasquez had made at the employment department.

"The complaint that we investigated and upon which the settlement was based was a different complaint," he said. "It's not the same thing."

Panel Has Wide Discretion

Schmidt declined to discuss the charges she took to the Senate. Sources with knowledge of the case have said that Velasquez complained to the Senate that she was unfairly passed over for promotion and was discriminated against by the senior Polanco staffer who is the mother of the lawmaker's child.

Schmidt said the Rules Committee has wide discretion in dealing with complaints filed by staffers. "Most of them are investigated and mediated at the state level. Most tend to be staff-to-staff problems," he said, characterizing those as cases of "adverse conditions in the workplace."

Typically, Schmidt said, he takes controversial issues involving litigation or personnel disputes to a closed meeting of the Rules Committee for a review and a decision.

In the Polanco case, he said, the matter was investigated by attorneys and the Senate's personnel office. But the settlement proposal was not finalized until late October 1998, almost two months after the Legislature had adjourned for the year and senators had scattered, Schmidt said.

He said he brought the proposal to the attention of Burton and contacted the committee's senior Republican, Vice Chairman John Lewis of Orange, for their approval.

Schmidt said when he contacted Lewis, the lawmaker concurred in the recommendation to settle. But Lewis said last week he had no recollection of being consulted in advance on any settlement.

"I have a recollection of hearing something about a Polanco matter, but it was after the fact," Lewis said in an interview.

He declined to comment further on what he was told or by whom, saying only that he learned of a resolution to a Polanco problem from "someone who referred to this deal as a pain in the butt."

"He may well not remember. It was 2 1/2 years ago," Schmidt said of Lewis.

Schmidt estimated that since 1993, the Senate has paid about $160,000 in compensation in four workplace settlements, including the $117,200 to Velasquez.

He said that in no case was a member of the Senate charged with sexual harassment. No cases are pending that involve senators accused of such conduct, Schmidt said.

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