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Wesson criticized for endorsing Huizar before harassment probe

Herb Wesson praises Huizar at a campaign event, later says he takes the sexual harassment allegations against Huizar seriously.

October 24, 2013|By David Zahniser
  • Council members-elect Herb Wesson, left, and Jose Huizar embrace at a press conference in City Hall.
Council members-elect Herb Wesson, left, and Jose Huizar embrace at a press… (Damon Winter, Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson offered a full-throated endorsement of Councilman Jose Huizar this week, just three months after he ordered the creation of a panel to review sexual harassment allegations against him.

"Mr. Huizar is like my brother, my best friend on the council," said Wesson, headlining the kickoff event of Huizar's reelection campaign Tuesday at Exchange Los Angeles, a downtown nightclub. "I trust him with my life, he does the same for me."

Those comments, captured on a video later obtained by The Times, were made at a fundraiser attended by lobbyists, business leaders, labor leaders and real estate executives. The words quickly drew criticism from one women's rights advocate, who questioned whether Wesson would be impartial once it comes time for the council to review any finding on the harassment allegations.

"I think it's highly inappropriate," said Patricia Bellasalma, president of the California chapter of the National Organization for Women. "The allegations are serious. They have to be impartially and thoroughly investigated, and he should respect that process."

In July, Wesson instructed city officials to form a special committee to investigate a complaint lodged against Huizar by Francine Godoy, a former Huizar staffer. That five-member panel, known as the Special Committee on Investigative Oversight, must ultimately turn any findings on Huizar over to Wesson and his colleagues, according to personnel officials.

Godoy said in a recent lawsuit that Huizar punished her for refusing to provide "sexual favors." Huizar called Godoy's allegations false but said he engaged in an extramarital affair with her — one he considers to be a "huge mistake."

Bellasalma said Wesson's appearance at the fundraiser — and his fulsome praise of Huizar — is "tantamount to picking sides" in the harassment dispute. Wesson, for his part, said he takes the allegations seriously and plans to approach the committee's findings on the Huizar-Godoy matter in the way a juror approaches a case.

"I will be impartial. I will reserve judgment" until the committee's investigation process does "what it's supposed to," Wesson said. "At the end of that process, that's when it's appropriate for everyone to make judgment, not prior to that."

Wesson told The Times that he is "always 100%" behind Huizar. "I was there to support his reelection and I support him. I keep my word," the council president said.

The special committee process was created by the council in 1996 in the wake of sexual harassment lawsuits filed against then-Councilman Nate Holden. At that time, there was no formal mechanism for city officials to probe harassment and discrimination complaints against an elected official at City Hall, said former Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who helped create the committee process 17 years ago.

Under the City Charter, the council has the power to censure a colleague who demonstrates a "gross failure" to follow the "highest standards of personal and professional conduct." Still, Galanter said the most punitive thing the council could do — assuming that it received a report of wrongdoing from the independent committee — would be to refuse to pay Huizar's legal bills.

"The committee [process] was, and remains, an effort to show the public that somebody cares," Galanter said. "But it's not terribly effective. It has no power to fine or punish people … and in fact, neither does anybody else at City Hall."

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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