Suit by County’s Former EEO Officer Alleges Harassment

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Paula Kitchen, Orange County government’s former equal employment opportunity official, alleges in a lawsuit filed last week that the county’s 17,000 employees work in a toxic environment of sexual harassment and discrimination, fueled by a decades-long practice of pushing political aides into the county’s bureaucracy.

Kitchen is the third high-ranking female executive to level charges against the county alleging systematic workplace harassment.

In the Orange County Superior Court suit, Kitchen alleges political aides have introduced a fraternity environment to county agencies. She asserts that her reports of harassment resulted in the end of her short stint as the county’s equal employment opportunity or EEO compliance officer last year after District Attorney Tony Rackauckas filed a dozen felony sex crime charges against county Public Works executive and Santa Ana City Councilman Carlos Bustamante.

After a six-month stint as the EEO compliance officer, Kitchen was moved back to the county’s Social Services Agency, where she received favorable reviews before and after her transfer to monitor harassment complaints for the entire county government.

Kitchen’s suit specifically names Human Resources Director Steve Danley, alleging that on July 26, 2012, he retaliated against her after she reported that Fullerton City Councilman Greg Seborn could not be appointed the next county surveyor because Seborn was the subject of sexual harassment allegations from female workers.

Seborn could not be reached for comment.

Danley declined to comment on Kitchen’s lawsuit but noted that a law firm hired by county supervisors had cleared him of any wrongdoing.

Voice of OC recently reviewed Kitchen’s claim as part of an ongoing lawsuit against the county that seeks a series of public records about workplace harassment that county leaders have kept secret.

The Board of Supervisors and Rackauckas succeeded recently in persuading an Orange County Superior Court judge to seal a series of public records about harassment because of their potential connection with Bustamante’s prosecution. Voice of OC has appealed that decision.

Kitchen’s allegations follow those made by other high-ranking female executives against the county.

Kathleen Tahilramani, a human resources manager at county Waste and Recycling, also has filed suit, alleging retaliation for blocking politicized hiring practices and for relaying fraud allegations against then Director Mike Giancola, now the county CEO.

Alisa Drakodaidis, a former county deputy CEO until her firing earlier this year, also has filed a claim alleging politicization of executive county jobs with supervisors’ aides and retaliation for whistleblowing.

Kitchen and Drakodaidis share the same attorney, Joel Baruch, who most recently won a large settlement from the county in favor of disgraced former Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo for violations of the state Peace Officer’s Bill of Rights.

Supervisors’ Chairman Shawn Nelson declined comment on the specifics of the Kitchen lawsuit but defended the county’s human resources department, saying that he spearheaded a complete reorganization of the department. Nelson and Supervisor Pat Bates co-chaired a supervisors’ subcommittee last year that reviewed a highly critical audit of the department by Danley, who was then the county’s performance auditor.

Kitchen’s lawsuit paints a dark picture of the county work environment when she took on the job of EEO compliance officer in 2011:

The county’s human resources departments were “blowing up.” Carlos Bustamante, a manager in the OC Public Works Department, was under criminal investigation for a series of alleged sexual assaults and sexual harassment of female employees. These female employees were reluctant to come forward because of the male dominated management hierarchy, not only in Bustamante’s Public Works Department, but also throughout Orange County government. Many of the county’s departments had their own human resources functions, and there was no centralized human resources structure. Female employees were treated like second-class citizens, often harassed, and not protected by their managers and supervisors. Nepotism abounded as well. Male employees made more money than similarly-situated female employees. Members of the board of supervisors played favorites and ensured that former staff, primarily male, received plum assignments. And, the Republican Party ensured that their candidates, again primarily male, were accorded better treatment when job assignments were handed out.

Kitchen’s complaint goes on to allege that her appointment went sour in March 2012 when county supervisors promoted Danley to the post of director of Human Resources.

Later than month, according to the court filings, Drakodaidis filed an EEO complaint with Kitchen regarding what Drakodaidis found as she investigated county Waste & Recycling:

The subjects of one of the complaints that Ms. Drakodaidis had made to Plaintiff Kitchen were two other Orange County managers in the Waste & Recycling Department who were both very good friends of the Defendant Danley. Plaintiff Kitchen ultimately conducted interviews regarding the complaint of Ms. Drakodaidis about these same two Waste & Recycling managers.

Plaintiff Kitchen learned, among other things, that: (1) these male managers played golf games in the hallways of Waste & Recycling during work hours on a regular basis (2) these male managers bragged about binge drinking after work hours with executive assistants employed by the board of supervisors and (3) other Waste & Recycling employees who did not join in socializing, drinking and playing around during work house were ostracized and isolated.

Kitchen alleges that when she brought these kinds of situations to light, “Defendant Danley retaliated against Plaintiff Kitchen, in part, because of his friendship with the accused managers.”

The lawsuit asserts that in May 2012, Kitchen was made aware of a sexual harassment complaint against Seborn, just as he was applying to be county surveyor and in the midst of a campaign for a Fullerton City Council seat.

In court documents, Kitchen states she recommended strongly against considering Seborn for the job, and while Seborn did not get the job, Danley tried to change her mind, given Seborn’s Republican Party connections and endorsements.

In June, Seborn was elected to the Fullerton City Council. Later that August, the City Council voted down a proposal to outsource police operations to the sheriff in the wake of the Kelly Thomas police beating death.

Kitchen alleges in her lawsuit that she was retaliated against after county officials lost that vote by being failed on her probationary period and transferred back to the Social Service Agency.

After that transfer, Kitchen sought whistle-blower protection and began the process of filing her lawsuit.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Alisa Drakodaidis filed a lawsuit against Orange County. She has filed a claim, but not a lawsuit.

Please contact Norberto Santana Jr. directly at nsantana@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/norbertosanana.

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