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Plaintiff accuses O.C. assessor of faking evidence

Jury gets case after white staffer fighting a black's promotion says the procedure was fixed.

February 02, 2007|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

Allegations of doctored evidence and cover-ups have enveloped the reverse discrimination lawsuit targeting Orange County Assessor Webster J. Guillory, the only African American holding countywide elected office.

The assessor is accused of promoting a black employee over a more experienced white worker, who alleges that he was passed over for the job of managing auditor even though, he says, he received a higher score in interviews.

The lawyer representing the white employee, Ronald Cooper, on Thursday told a jury during closing arguments in Orange County Superior Court that Guillory "embarked on a campaign to cover up the truth" by manufacturing personnel documents and hiding interview records after he learned that Cooper planned to challenge the promotion of an African American colleague.

The allegations, adamantly denied by Guillory, capped a bizarre trial that had to be interrupted this week when the judge ordered the assessor's office to retrieve all documents on the promotion because of the apparent disappearance of a document listing Cooper's interview scores.

The document was later found in the courtroom by Cooper, who rifled through a legal binder belonging to Guillory's attorney when the judge, jury and attorneys were outside.

"I would welcome an investigation of Mr. Guillory and how he runs his office," Cooper's attorney, William Crosby, said outside the courtroom after the case went to the jury. "I think there was a cover-up. And I think I proved it."

Reached at his office later in the day, Guillory denied the allegations and defended his department's treatment of employees.

"In lawsuits, all kinds of allegations are made," he said. "This department has a stellar reputation of how it handles and promotes its people."

Guillory declined to comment further until the jury reaches a verdict.

Cooper, who has worked in the assessor's office for 29 years, sued his boss in December 2005. His lawsuit alleges that race was a motivating factor in the decision to pass him over for a management position in favor of Brian Ennis, who has worked in the office for 14 years.

Under the selection process for the job, candidates were initially interviewed by a panel. The finalists selected by the panel were then interviewed by Guillory, who filled out a rating sheet with six categories, including leadership, management skills and problem solving.

In this case, Cooper received the highest score (254) during the panel interview, followed by Ennis (234) and all three panelists ranked Cooper first. At issue in the legal dispute is what happened when they met with Guillory, and what scores they received.

During the two-week trial, score sheets presented by Guillory's attorney, William L. Haluk, showed that Ennis scored an 82 during his interview with Guillory, while Cooper scored an 80.

But Cooper contends that he received a score of 94, and his attorney told the judge that he had a copy of a personnel document provided by the assessor's office that showed that score. Guillory's lawyer said the county agency did not have the record, questioning whether it existed.

This week, Judge David A. Thompson halted the proceedings and ordered one of the managers to retrieve all files related to the hiring to look for the document. After the jury was adjourned, the judge went to his chambers and attorneys from both sides huddled in an outside deliberation room to sift through mounds of evidence in search of the document.

That's when Cooper said he took the opportunity to look through a legal binder that Guillory's attorney left inside the courtroom, and found the missing document showing he scored a 94.

Cooper sent the bailiff to get his attorney, he said, and after everyone returned to the courtroom except the jury, Haluk told the judge the document had been found, attributing the lapse to a "mistake."

Haluk wasn't immediately available for comment.

Guillory, taking the witness stand after that, maintained that Cooper received a mark of 80 on the interview with him, Cooper's attorney said.

Guillory also referred to his handwritten notes that concluded Cooper was a "negative negative" for the position, with problems such as being "destructive in the workplace" and having "issues in character," the attorney said.

Under cross-examination, Cooper's attorney suggested to Guillory that the notes and the score sheet showing his client received an 80 were manufactured. The assessor denied it.

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christine.hanley@latimes.com

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