SAN FRANCISCO — The executive director of a foundation created by John Burton filed a $10-million lawsuit Wednesday alleging that the former state Senate president sexually harassed her by making unwanted advances, using suggestive language and commenting on her body.
Kathleen Driscoll, who is on stress leave from the John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes, said in a 12-page Superior Court complaint that Burton began harassing her in September 2006, almost immediately after she was hired to the post with a six-figure salary. She said that he continued despite her complaints to him and other foundation board members.
"I had a dream of helping homeless children through a job I loved," she told a news conference at her attorney's office here. "John Burton turned that dream into a sexual harassment nightmare and quite frankly a living hell."
Reached by phone at his law office, Burton referred a reporter to his attorney, Susan Rubenstein, who said she had not been able to review the suit but that the longtime Democratic politician denies any sexual impropriety.
"John Burton has dedicated approximately a half century of his life to public service, and if he were a sexual harasser, I think it would have been unearthed by now," she said. "I think the allegations are shocking and a shakedown and are absolutely meritless."
Driscoll's suit outlines nearly two dozen examples of alleged harassment by Burton.
The suit says Burton made comments regarding Driscoll wearing thong underwear on about 20 occasions and embarrassed her by introducing her to business associates as a thong model on 10 occasions, and then laughing.
The suit also alleges that he commented on her breasts and buttocks, and on one occasion said, "Your nipples aren't showing and it's cold outside." It also says Burton raised his eyebrows suggestively while telling Driscoll on about 20 occasions that he had a dream about her the previous night.
Driscoll, who said she is unmarried and in her mid-40s, said she was educated at the University of Massachusetts and has worked for a dozen years in philanthropy. She said she was well aware of Burton's reputation for using salty language but was uncomfortable being yelled at, bullied and subjected to sexual harassment.
Driscoll said she had tried without success to enlist the help of Bay Area politicians whom her attorney, Kelly Armstrong, would not name.
A few hours after the suit was filed, Burton's attorney said she already was receiving information that Driscoll had written or said complimentary things about Burton that do not square with her allegations.
Rubenstein said that Driscoll, in a June 2007 e-mail to another foundation employee, wrote, "I love John because his heart is so good and pure."
"I just got off the phone with another [person] who felt compelled to tell me that she had lunch with Driscoll and she said Driscoll had nothing but admirable things to say about Mr. Burton," the lawyer added. Rubenstein would not release the e-mail nor name the parties involved.
Burton, 75 and twice divorced, is one of California's most prominent political figures and a key part of the liberal Bay Area machine once headed by his late brother, powerful Democratic Rep. Phil Burton. One of John Burton's political proteges was U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, whose spokeswoman declined to comment on the suit.
In a career spanning four decades, John Burton served in the Assembly, the U.S. Congress and the state Senate, where he was president pro tem when he was termed out of office a few years ago.
In 2004, Burton formed the foundation, which is dedicated to improving life for homeless children and developing solutions to homelessness. Its website says the foundation makes grants, works with other nonprofit organizations and does public education about the foster care system.
Among the many honorary board members are Hollywood figures Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty and Sherry Lansing, as well as Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle.