In the latest in a series of reports severely critical of county government leadership, the Orange County grand jury declared Wednesday that an “atmosphere of fear” hinders county employees from reporting sexual harassment, among other issues.
“This atmosphere of fear seemed to come from the very top of County government,” according to the 16-page grand jury report titled “The Culture of Harassment: Change on the Horizon.”
“Many witnesses who testified and persons interviewed by the Grand Jury expressed an aversion to presenting the progress or results of their work product to County elected officials and executive management because they had experienced severe criticism on a personal basis,” the grand jurors reported.
In their report, the grand jurors urged county government leaders, both elected officials and top managers, to take responsibility for changing the culture, including concrete steps like requiring Human Resources employees to be well-trained and hold basic job qualifications.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Shawn Nelson responded in a news release:
While the Grand Jury does acknowledge that positive change is occurring, we feel that the significance of the County’s forward progress in this area was downplayed. The Board has consistently demonstrated its commitment to self-examination, transparency, and accountability, not only in response to the results of internal investigations but also through structural changes, such as the creation of the Office of the Performance Audit Director and the recentralization of Human Resources.
The grand jury gave the county credit for taking human resources responsibilities away from individual agencies and applauded the hiring of an equal employment opportunity manager.
But the report described a dysfunctional reality that has existed for the past 18 years. Each agency had its own human resources department and therefore its own interpretations of state and federal laws. The departments were “staffed by many managers who had little or no training and little or no experience in human resource matters,” the report said.
And issues remain. As of April, according to the report, it is “unclear to employees how they can report sexual harassment anonymously and without fear of retribution.”
This report comes just a day after supervisors refused a grand jury request to augment its budget by $20,000 so it could finish the work of its one-year term, which ends June 30.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer said Tuesday that grand jury reports seem to be more about “grabbing headlines” than helping supervisors improve services.
Sexual harassment of county workers became public in 2012 when District Attorney Tony Rackauckas charged former county Public Works executive Carlos Bustamante on a dozen felony sex offenses.
The charges against Bustamante, who was also a Santa Ana city councilman and rising star in the local Republican Party, included false imprisonment, assault with intent to commit a sexual offense, stalking and attempted sexual battery by restraint.
In the fallout from the Bustamante case, county CEO Tom Mauk and Public Works Director Jess Carbajal resigned and deputy CEO Alisa Drakodaidis left county government.
The grand jury based its findings on information it learned as part of the Bustamante criminal case and from 21 witnesses from all levels of county government who, the report states, painted a “disturbing pattern of sexual harassment claims being overlooked, ignored, poorly investigated and even surpressed.”
“The Grand Jury found a severe lack of understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment,” the report states. “Also distressing was a strong tolerance for inappropriate behavior, especially when it concerned high-ranking elected officials and executives.”
The report goes on to state that the jurors “heard that many think the culture in the County has changed and inappropriate behavior will never be tolerated, or ignored, as it was in the past. However, the Grand Jury does not find this to be true after hearing testimony and reviewing a series of fairly recent emails that shows the County may not have learned its lesson.”
Without citing names, the report described a troubling chain of events when an elected official from an Orange County city was under consideration for a management position at a county agency:
This person had worked for this County agency in years prior and had sexually harassed multiple female employees in the department. When this person’s name surfaced as a candidate, one of the females brought this to the attention of executive management. The harassment was confirmed by many others in this department. The hiring process for this person did not stop and continued for another two months. The female who had been harassed and frustrated by the continuation of the hiring process within the agency where she worked, contacted the new Human Resource Services Department. Within one day, the hiring process for this person was stopped.
The full exchange in the emails that the Grand Jury read showed fear from many in the department that the political alliances of this candidate would outweigh the fact that he had previously sexually harassed County employees.
The disregard, by an agency executive, of confirmed sexual harassment clearly showed an ongoing tolerance for inappropriate behavior for elected officials and potential County managers at the expense of safe and equitable working environment.
“This event,” the report adds, “shows the continuation of a culture in their agencies that officials and executive managers have loudly denied was still in existence.”
It called on county executives to openly and clearly lead a change in attitude.
“The culture will be changed by actions and examples and no elected official or County executive, manager, or supervisor should feel they are exempt from leading by example,” the report asserts.