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Legislature keeps cloak of secrecy around misconduct claims

The Assembly and Senate have paid thousands to settle workplace harassment cases. But because they're exempted from a 1968 open-records law, the details of the cases remain sealed.

July 16, 2009|Patrick McGreevy

SACRAMENTO — State Senate officials have secretly approved a $70,000 legal settlement that prohibits a staffer who accused a former colleague of harassment from going public with the charges.

The payment, made last month, is the latest in a string of such settlements, most of which include confidentiality clauses that keep taxpayers in the dark about what exactly they are paying to settle and why.

The agreement, obtained by The Times through open-records laws, does not identify the staffer alleged to have engaged in misconduct or the nature of the misconduct. It demands that the accuser not "in any way publicize the terms or amount of this agreement unless required by law" and says she is to respond to questions "by stating words to the effect that 'the matter has been resolved.' "

Such deals raise "a serious question about using public funds to pay for silence," said Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, a group advocating open government. "Buying the ignorance of the public with public money seems contrary to the spirit of open government. It seems a kind of betrayal of public trust."

The $70,000 was paid to Allison Bonburg, who was a field representative for U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock when he was a GOP state senator from Thousand Oaks. McClintock, who was elected to Congress in November from a Northern California district, is not the alleged harasser, a legislative source said.

McClintock was not available for comment, according to a spokeswoman.

Senate officials would not release details from Bonburg's complaint. Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who has promised more transparency in government and chairs the committee that entered into the settlement with her, refused to discuss the case.

"Personnel matters are confidential," said Steinberg spokeswoman Alicia Trost.

Lawmakers have repeatedly kept workplace misconduct claims secret, releasing only the settlement papers -- and only when requests are made citing state records law. The agreements are not adopted at public meetings or included in public files, as other legislative business is.

Other government entities in California, including the city of Los Angeles, do not keep secret the details of such deals. The open-records law forbids it.

But in passing the 1968 law, the Legislature specifically exempted itself. It approved a separate Legislative Open Records Act, which broadly exempts from public disclosure "records of complaints to or investigations conducted by . . . the Legislature."

"It's typical of the Legislature to cut itself a special deal," said James Chadwick, an attorney and board member for the California First Amendment Coalition. "Obviously they should be more transparent."

The Bonburg case is one of several filed, investigated secretly and settled in the Legislature in the last two decades. Most remained confidential until the information is requested by reporters:

* In 2005, lawmakers spent nearly $50,000 to settle a staffer's complaint of sexual harassment against then-Assemblywoman Rebecca Cohn, a Democrat from Saratoga.

* In 1998, then-Senate leader John Burton approved a $117,200 settlement of a claim by a female Senate staffer who alleged that then-Sen. Richard Polanco, a Democrat from Los Angeles, discriminated against her. Details did not emerge for two years; even senators who were on the Senate Rules Committee said they learned about it from news reports.

Burton, a San Francisco Democrat who last year settled a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by the head of a nonprofit foundation he created for homeless children, said at the time of the Polanco settlement that it was entered into on the advice of attorneys for the Senate.

* In 1997, the state paid a $360,000 settlement to a woman who accused then-Assemblyman Mickey Conroy of Orange of sexual harassment. A jury had earlier found Conroy, a Republican, not guilty of that charge, although it did find he had inflicted emotional distress.

* In 1995, a former Assembly employee received $59,500 to settle a complaint in which she said a top aide to former Assemblyman Rusty Areias, a San Jose Democrat, made "unwelcome sexual advances."

* In 1993, the Assembly paid $10,000 to a secretary who complained that over a two-year period, she was the target of vulgar sexual remarks made by her boss, then-Assemblyman Trice Harvey, a Republican from Bakersfield.

Although Bonburg's written grievance against the Senate staffer remains secret, she also filed a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which is subject to the broader disclosure requirements of the Public Records Act.

"I was continuously subjected to a hostile work environment based on my perceived religion and perceived sexual orientation," she wrote in that complaint, which was released to The Times in response to a formal request. Later, she wrote, "I was retaliated against."

The $70,000 payment to Bonburg, in addition to being contingent on her silence, included her promise not to sue the Senate or any of its members for discrimination or harassment, according to the settlement documents.

Bonburg's attorney, Gloria Allred, answered questions about the case by stating: "The matter has been resolved."

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patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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