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Harassment claim against legislator settled in secret, records show

State Senate leaders privately approved a $120,000 settlement with a legislative aide who accused Sen. Roderick Wright of making inappropriate comments. The Times obtained the document through a public records request.

December 16, 2011|By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times
  • The secrecy surrounding the settlement of a sexual harassment claim against Sen. Roderick Wright was justified because it was a personnel issue, a spokeswoman for a Senate leader says.
The secrecy surrounding the settlement of a sexual harassment claim against… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)

Reporting from Sacramento — The state Senate secretly paid $120,000 to settle a claim by a legislative aide that she was sexually harassed by Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood), according to her attorney and government documents released this week.

Senate leaders acting behind closed doors approved the payment to Fahizah Alim, who was a district coordinator for Wright, in an agreement that required "no publicity." The document, approved last year, said the deal was made "to avoid the costs, uncertainty, and operational burden of a further dispute.''

John Poswall, an attorney for Alim, alleged in an interview Thursday that Wright's actions included inappropriate comments to Alim "over some period leading up to her ultimately leaving that office.''

"We're talking about the conduct of Roderick Wright," he said. "The claim said it was sexual harassment. It was not something she should ever be subjected to in the workplace.''

Poswall declined to provide further details because of the settlement's confidentiality clause.

The deal, signed in April 2010, was secret until now because it was not approved at a public meeting and Senate leaders sealed the complaint. Only the settlement was released, in response to a public records request from The Times.

Wright, who is facing six felony counts in a voting-fraud and perjury case in Los Angeles County, declined to comment through a spokeswoman Thursday on the allegations of sexual harassment.

Winston Kevin McKesson, one of Wright's attorneys in the voting-fraud case, said he had not heard of Alim's allegations but has known the senator, 59, most of his life and "would dispute he would sexually harass anybody.''

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) declined to discuss the case through his spokeswoman, Alicia Trost, who said the secrecy was justified because such complaints and settlements are personnel issues.

"We don't comment on personnel matters,'' she said.

Alim, who now works for Sen. Curren Price Jr. (D-Los Angeles), also would not comment Thursday. "I can't discuss anything with you on this,'' she said.

The secrecy drew objections Thursday from open-government advocates. Lew Uhler, head of the California-based National Tax Limitation Committee, accused lawmakers of paying hush money.

"It is totally unacceptable,'' Uhler said. "When the taxpayer is asked to pay those funds, then the taxpayer has the right to know those details.''

Steinberg's office refused Thursday to release a letter from Poswall that provides details of Alim's allegations. Nor would the Senate release a harassment claim filed by Tahra Goraya while she was a legislative aide to another senator.

A settlement approved behind closed doors in May paid Goraya $89,500 after she filed the claim. The accord, obtained by The Times, does not disclose the identity of the person alleged to have harassed Goraya or say what form of harassment was involved.

Goraya, former national director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, worked for Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge) at the time of the settlement. It is unclear when the complaint was filed.

Asked why taxpayers, rather than individual lawmakers, fund the payouts, Trost said the complaints and their resolution are matters "between employer and employee," and the Senate is the employer.

The Senate routinely settles such claims privately, with confidentiality clauses that leave taxpayers in the dark. In 1975, the Legislature broadly exempted itself from the California Public Records Act, determining that "records of complaints to or investigations conducted by . . . the Legislature" need not be disclosed. The exemption applies to the Assembly as well as the Senate.

But Terry Francke, general counsel for the open-government group Californians Aware, said that under state records law governing the executive branch, judicial branch and local government, claims resolved with cash payments are not exempt from disclosure as personnel records.

"Nor should they be in the Legislature,'' Francke said.

Uhler said any alleged misconduct that results in a payout of taxpayer dollars should be sent to the Legislative Ethics Committee, which was set up to review such complaints, for consideration of sanctions against the lawmaker. The allegations against Wright were not sent there, said a representative of the committee.

Wright, a veteran legislator, was charged in the voting-fraud case in September 2010. Prosecutors allege that he registered and voted using the address of a multi-unit rental property in Inglewood that he owned but never lived in, which was in his Senate district.

They allege that he actually lived in a house in Baldwin Hills, outside the district.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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