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Handling of Harassment Cases Faulted

Orange County officials were lax in responding to five employees' accusations against two personnel managers, a grand jury report says.

March 18, 2003|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Orange County's top executives failed to promptly and thoroughly investigate allegations of sexual harassment, a hostile work environment and retaliation by two high-ranking personnel officials, according to a grand jury report released Monday.

The misconduct allegations were lodged by five employees who said they were victimized by two female managers in the county's Office of Human Resources -- the agency that normally investigates such complaints.

The Orange County Grand Jury recommended that the cases be reopened and that an independent group investigate the complaints, which spanned several years. The report also says that then-county Chief Executive Michael Schumacher's office was informed of the allegations in 2001, but failed to call any witnesses and let the matter drop after the managers denied the charges.

One of the managers was accused of sexual harassment and creating a hostile environment by using vulgar, profane, sexually demeaning and provocative language with subordinates. Employees who complained were subjected to retaliation and intimidation by the managers, according to a 26-page complaint supplied to the grand jury. The jury's report did not name the managers or employees.

Tom Wilson, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said the grand jury report has "serious implications" and encouraged officials to reexamine the complaints. But in a written statement, interim county Chief Executive Jim Ruth and County Counsel Benjamin de Mayo said the allegations were "already thoroughly investigated."

By law, the board must respond to each of the grand jury's findings.

The grand jury report focused only on the handling of the harassment and retaliation complaints by the managers and Schumacher, the county executive whom county supervisors fired last month, in part because of a financial crisis in the county's planning department.

When the harassment allegations surfaced in 1999, the report noted as an example, Schumacher's office relied on assurances from one of the accused managers that complaints against the other had been resolved. County attorneys also said the federal and state deadlines for filing formal complaints about the behavior had passed.

Schumacher was traveling Monday and couldn't be reached for comment.

In February, different concerns prompted two Orange County supervisors to recommend an oversight committee to monitor the human resources office. The oversight was needed, supervisors said, because some county officials complained that they hadn't been told in advance about changes in employee benefits that cost the county millions of dollars.

Among the benefit decisions were negotiating annual leave with the county's employee unions, which allowed additional payouts at retirement, and proposing an incentive that would have given two years' credit to employees who retire early.

At the same time, county managers, who expected raises last year, were told not to plan on getting them. They responded by forming their own bargaining unit.

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