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L.A. Unified to settle harassment claim against Cortines

The district will pay $200,000 plus benefits worth up to $300,000 in return for Scot Graham's resignation. The ex-superintendent denies harassment but admits 'adult behavior.'

May 24, 2012|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • Retired Supt. Ramon C. Cortines denied any harassment, but acknowledged what he called “adult behavior on one occasion.”
Retired Supt. Ramon C. Cortines denied any harassment, but acknowledged… (Los Angeles Times )

The Los Angeles Unified School District on Wednesday announced the settlement of a sexual harassment allegation against retired Supt. Ramon C. Cortines by a senior employee in the facilities division.

The district will pay $200,000 plus lifetime health benefits, valued at $250,000 to $300,000 to Scot Graham, the director of leasing and asset management. In return, Graham will resign from his $150,000-a-year job.

In a statement, Cortines, 79, denied any harassment, but acknowledged what he called "adult behavior on one occasion," adding that "as the district's former top staff member, I regret allowing myself to engage in such spontaneous, consensual behavior."

An attorney representing Graham, 56, challenged that interpretation.

"If, as the LAUSD and Ray Cortines claim, there was no wrongdoing, then one might ask why such a high settlement," said Arnold Peter.

Cortines, regarded as one of the nation's most respected superintendents, headed the school systems in Pasadena, San Jose, San Francisco and New York City. He first led L.A. Unified on an interim basis for six months in 2000, winning praise for his crisis management.

It was at that time, according to Cortines, that he alerted Graham, a friend from San Francisco, of openings in the district's rapidly expanding facilities division, which was launching a massive school construction program.

Graham joined the district and was there when Cortines returned in 2008, first as deputy superintendent, then as superintendent.

"There were facilities-related projects that required us to work together," Cortines said, adding that Graham, his partner and Cortines continued to meet socially as recently as January.

Graham alleged that Cortines made "inappropriate verbal and physical advances" during a weekend visit to Cortines' Kern County ranch in July 2010.

About a month later, Graham told his supervisor, James Sohn, but said that he would deal with the issue privately "by going to a therapist," according to a district chronology.

When Graham later reported that Cortines subsequently called him at home, Sohn insisted on alerting general counsel David Holmquist.

Graham again insisted that no action be taken, the district said.

Graham reported to Holmquist that there were no other incidents, according to the district.

According to Graham's attorneys, the district's account is inaccurate and incomplete. Graham "complained on at least three occasions to executives at the highest levels... who not only refused to investigate the very serious allegations, but encouraged Mr. Graham to drop his complaints."

They would not identify the executives.

Cortines retired in April 2011. In March 2012, Graham's attorneys alerted Holmquist of their intent to file a claim.

The school board has discussed the matter three times in closed session, approving a deal Tuesday by a 4-3 vote.

Richard Vladovic, Bennett Kayser and Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte cast dissenting votes. "The district should have utilized its resources to pursue an aggressive defense," they said in a joint statement.

Linda Savitt, an attorney for L.A. Unified, responded by saying that 98% of harassment claims are settled out of court and that even a successful defense would probably have cost more money.

Savitt, and a public relations firm, Cerrell & Associates, were brought in because the issue was sensitive, officials said. The district took the unusual step Wednesday of announcing the settlement to reporters at a briefing at the Chamber of Commerce headquarters west of downtown.

Savitt said her compensation was "less than $10,000." The district said it does not yet know the price tag for Cerrell's services.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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