How Investigating Harassment Charges Ended a Career

Kathleen Tahilramani

Former county HR manager Kathleen Tahilramani. (Photo by: Nick Gerda/Voice of OC)

Second of three parts. Read part one here.

Among the many issues facing Orange County government brought to the fore in the wake of the Carlos Bustamante sex scandal were the unintended consequences of the county's decentralized human resources system.

Many say the reason why Bustamante's alleged criminal behavior was allowed to go on so long was because the HR professionals in charge of investigating him worked for him.

Despite multiple claims of sexual harassment against Bustamante, then a Public Works executive and Santa Ana city councilman, a 2011 HR probe cleared him. District Attorney Tony Rackauckas later filed a dozen felony sex crime charges against Bustamante.

Upon announcing his charges, Rackauckas asked how county officials allowed a “wolf” like Bustamante to be kept in charge of his prey for so long.

Although former HR manager Kathleen Tahilramani left the county two years before Rackauckas filed his charges, she said she knows exactly how that came to be.

In a lawsuit she has filed against the county, Tahilramani alleges that top officials retaliated against her in her capacity as a human resources manager because she not only refused to skirt state selection rules for jobs at the county trash department but insisted that harassment complaints be investigated.

County officials have declined to speak directly to the issues raised by Tahilramani, arguing that an outside law firm examined all of her allegations and reported them to be unfounded. County supervisors, however, have refused to make that report — and others examining the conduct of executives and elected officials — public, citing attorney-client privilege.

Tahilramani’s allegations are similar to those leveled by former Deputy CEO Alisa Drakodaidis and Paula Kitchen, the county’s former equal employment opportunity compliance officer. The allegations from these female executives also mirror an Orange County grand jury report that criticized a "culture of harassment" in county government.

Tahilramani began her career at the county after her graduation from Cal State Long Beach in 1979. After a few years in the Social Services Agency, she rose through the managerial ranks, administering public assistance programs. From there, she moved into Social Services' human resources department and in 1996 transferred to central Human Resources.

Later, she was the HR representative for the county planning department and then for the library system before being promoted in 2007 to Waste and Recycling. In early 2008, after a short stint as assistant director of HR, she moved back to Waste and Recycling and was there until her departure in 2010.

At Waste & Recycling, she managed about a half-dozen staffers and administered the department’s hiring and promotions. It was during that period that she ran into trouble with then director, now CEO, Mike Giancola. Tahilramani eventually went on a stress leave and filed suit soon afterward.

Tahilramani sat down recently to talk with Voice of OC about her experiences, and we are publishing a three-part series based on the conversation about her lawsuit.

In today’s installment, Tahilramani details how insisting that harassment complaints be investigated ended her career.

Q: What can you tell us about the allegations reported to you involving salvaging allegations against then director and now CEO Mike Giancola mentioned in your lawsuit?

A: There was an incident at our Prima Deshecha Landfill, where an employee’s husband was making very serious allegations. It’s not my job to determine whether an allegation of a sexual assault is true or not. It’s also not my job, nor should it be, to investigate allegations made about my boss, whether I believe it or not.

I knew immediately that I was in over my head with this one, and I turned it over to central Human Resources. They asked me to write a summary of everything that had happened, and I did.

[Deputy Director] Dick Harabedian then came to my office and said Mike [Gianocola] was really upset that that situation had been turned over to central [Human Resources], which was my clue that he knew about it, because I had never mentioned it to him.

Again, I turned to central HR for assistance. If this is a criminal issue, it needs to go to the DA. If it’s investigating my boss, I have to go to the outside. It’s not something I can handle internally.

We know from other situations in the county [such as the Bustamante case] how investigating your own boss works: not well.

My job as HR person is to protect my boss.

And you get in a "Catch-22," when you are trying to deal with allegations involving the boss. So to protect him, I went to the outside. And also to protect myself, because I knew I was in trouble with him.

Then Dylan Wright came into my office in September and told me that Mike was going to kick me off the executive team and that he had told all the managers to stop talking to me because I was divisive and couldn’t be trusted.

Things got really icy. Mike wouldn’t talk to me, the other managers were avoiding me.

Q: This is after you talked about what’s going on with this allegation?

A: Yes.

Q: What was your sense of the validity of the salvaging allegations mentioned in your lawsuit?

A: At no point did I render any type of assessment as to whether I thought any of it was true. Again, I’m not in a position to do that, because I can’t investigate it. I turned it over in good faith to the people who should handle it outside my department and also have an expectation that they will have regard for the position that I’m in. They did not.

Q: What happened?

A: Mike found out about everything that I had alleged, and he was extremely angry with me. And again, he told another manager I never should have gone forward on both situations: The recruitment situation [detailed in part one] and the employee relations issue out at the landfill. And so he was very angry. What happens in OC Waste & Recycling stays in OC Waste & Recycling. And that is his, that is his mantra. I had broken the golden rule by daring to go outside. But again, I did it for his protection and mine.

Q: What was the impact?

A: Giancola stopped talking to me. He refused to have conferences with me. He cancelled meetings with me. He would not even talk to me in the morning, which was very different from before. He wouldn’t respond to necessary workload items in order for me to do my job, so the entire HR team went into a free-fall stall, which is always a bad thing.

Again, I’m reporting this all to central HR saying … you know: "Help me. This is really becoming onerous. I can’t function here."

Then on Nov. 15 at 9 o’clock I went into the executive team meeting as normal, and we had a normal meeting until about 10:30 a.m. when Mike asked everybody to leave and come back in 10 minutes.

After 10 minutes I came back into the room, and all the managers from the fourth floor plus the executive team were in the room. I couldn’t figure out why everybody was there. Mike walked in with a handful of papers that he split in half and he gave out half to one side and half to the other side and said, "As you all know, we’ve been looking at a reorg [reorganization] to enhance organization efficiencies."

And I thought: "There’s a reorg, and I didn’t know anything about it. What the heck is going on?"

And he said he wants all of us to handle this professionally and cooperatively, and if you have any questions go to your new manager.

And then he walked out the door and shut the door behind him and left everybody with an org [organizational] chart.

And then when I looked at the org chart, I realized I had been moved from HR manager to a position supervising the safety officer. I already supervised the safety officer, so basically I was being relegated to a position with less than a third of my previous duties.

And somebody who was a competent manager in business services but little if any experience in HR had been moved into the HR slot. I was sitting next to her and said welcome to HR and that I guess there’s nothing more to say. And then I walked out and never went back.

Needless to say, I needed some professional medical assistance to deal with that. And it took over a year, and when I was able to return to work I sent [an] email to [then Human Resources Director] Carl Crown with a copy to county counsel asking, I am able to come back to work, but not to OC Waste & Recycling, because of what I feel was retaliation.

I didn’t feel that that was a very safe — professionally or emotionally — place for me to work.

Carl said to put myself on the transfer list, so I did.

At the time there were openings for HR managers in the county — I even suggested one I would fit into where I had worked before — and the answer was "No, you have to go back to Waste and Recycling and not as an HR manager." So they were, in effect, taking me out of my career path that I had been successful in.

I was a 31-year employee and not a blemish on my record. Never had I ever had any — nothing but exemplary reviews for my entire career. And they wouldn’t accommodate that.

Q: Why? Because you had bucked the system?

A: One of the things that’s come out in recent years with huge problems at the county is the whole EEO [equal opportunity employment] system. I’m losing track of how many employees will say they made a complaint and "two seconds later my manager knew what I was complaining about and knew it was me."

I have a good quote for you if you’ll bear with me, something I’ve kind of held onto that I think is reflective of my feelings. It’s a quote from the board response about the grand jury report [on Human Resources titled “Culture of Harassment”].

“The grand jury report did not demonstrate that the existing network of oversight functions has failed to catch and correct unethical behavior once it occurs.”

I think they did. I think the reason we’re sitting here is because they failed to catch it and correct it. And they shared information that they shouldn’t have. And they didn’t protect somebody who came forward in an effort to ask for help.

I just feel betrayed.

Q: Given your experiences, should employees have faith that county HR can effectively and fairly investigate harassment complaints?

A: As a long-term county employee, I never thought the day would come that I would say that it cannot be trusted. But that day is here. And it hurts me very much to say that no, it cannot be trusted in its current state.

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