Jess Carbajal, the county’s former director of Public Works, has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit, arguing that county supervisors improperly forced his firing in July 2012 to help quash a brewing political firestorm that threatened to uncover their own mismanagement of sexual harassment allegations against one of their own.
In July 2012, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas filed a dozen felony sex charges against Carlos Bustamante, a former Public Works executive and rising Republican star as a Santa Ana city councilman.
Bustamante, who is accused of harassing women working under his supervision, has pleaded not guilty to the charges and faces an upcoming trial.
Immediately after an early July press conference held by Rackauckas to announce the charges against Bustamante, shock waves were sent through the county Hall of Administration.
Rackauckas himself announced that there were nagging questions about how a “wolf” like Bustamante could have been kept in charge of his prey for so long, confirming that an ongoing probe into the upper political echelons of the county was underway.
Nothing has come of that investigation in terms of additional charges against any top executive.
Nonetheless, county Supervisor Shawn Nelson sat front and center in the audience with reporters during that press conference. And when he got back to his office, Nelson – who would later become chairman of the board – took the reigns during supervisors’ closed sessions and successfully pressed for a mass shakeup of the county bureaucracy.
The first one to go was Carbajal, who had been on administrative leave since March when supervisors first referred the matter to the district attorney.
Nelson emailed then CEO Tom Mauk after the Rackauckas press conference and demanded that Carbajal be let go. Until that moment, there was a general sense among county supervisors that Mauk was protective of Carbajal and that he would soon be coming back to work.
This week, Nelson defended that action, scoffing at the contention that Carbajal is a whistle-blower who took action and was fired because of it.
“Perhaps, is it possible that it the lack of intervention prior to the anonymous complaint is the part that he’s responsible for?” Nelson said this week when interviewed about Carbajal’s lawsuit.
“You go to Tony Rackauckas’ press conference, and if you think about the frequency and pervasiveness of this person [Bustamante] … that kind of pervasiveness going on and you’re the manager of the department?” Nelson said. “I don’t care who you are, if you run a department and in your department you’ve got someone in your midst molesting everyone of the opposite sex and you didn’t figure that out, it’s totally appropriate for the manager to be held accountable,” Nelson said.
Nelson didn’t stop there in the summer of 2012.
Mauk himself soon would be gone, forced to resign in the wake of the Bustamante scandal. Deputy CEO Alisa Drakodaidis, who was in charge of public works, quickly went out on a stress leave and was eventually fired. Human Resources Director Carl Crown also retired.
The reigns on the Board of Supervisors also shifted away from outgoing Supervisor Bill Campbell and toward Nelson, the newest but increasingly loudest and most steadfast supervisor on change.
Yet according to Carbajal’s legal filings, Nelson was wrong to focus on him.
“Any claim that Jess Carbajal failed to take action on Bustamante is absurd,” said Wylie Aitken, who is legal counsel to Carbajal.
“When the first complaint surfaced, Jess’s superiors dictated over his objections the particular procedure he was to follow. The one thing that is clear in this case was that Jess Carbajal was the only one who acted affirmatively by putting Bustamante on administrative leave. His superiors either did nothing, tried to cover up the smoke or ran and hid when the barn caught fire.”
One seeming challenge facing Carbajal in his official complaint, already highlighted by Nelson, is the lack of documentation — memos, emails amd so forth — to prove his objections over the official action on Bustamante.
Aitken disputed that characterization but declined to go into specifics.
“We stand by the factual allegations in our complaint. We do not intend to try this case in the press and look forward to presenting it to a jury,” said Aitken, who also serves as board chairman for Voice of OC.
“We believe discovery will uncover all the documentation we need,” Aitken said. “However, Jess Carbajal is a man of integrity, and his testimony is all the law requires.”
Carbajal alleges in his complaint that the first anonymous allegations against Bustamante arrived in the mail on March 3, 2011, and the letter was addressed to Carbajal as the head of Public Works.
In his complaint, he argues that he immediately instructed his agency’s internal human resources manager to refer the matter to central Human Resources, given that Bustamante was a top manager at Public Works. That request was ignored, with central HR referring the matter back to Public Works, according to Carbajal’s complaint.
Carbajal alleges that in March he spoke with former HR Director Carl Crown to directly suggest that central HR direct the investigation into Bustamante. His request was again rejected. He also alleges that when he told CEO Mauk about his concerns, he was told “to leave it alone.”
In August, Carbajal notes, he met directly with Nelson himself, who asked about his knowledge of a second anonymous letter complaining about Bustamante. “Where there is smoke, there is fire,” Carbajal quotes Nelson in his complaint.
That prompted Carbajal to speak directly with then Deputy CEO Drakodaidis, who told him the matter was being investigated.
By September, Carbajal alleges, he spoke with Bustamante’s secretary, who told of what she saw as harassing text messages from Bustamante. At that point, Carbajal advised his superiors that he was placing Bustamante on paid administrative leave.
Carbajal notes that he was never shown a private law firm’s report looking into the veracity of the allegations against Bustamante. He says he was “deeply disturbed” by allegations that he should have contacted central HR on the issue, including a later internal audit report stating that he should have referred the matter to central HR.
County leaders allowed Bustamante to quietly resign with a confidentiality agreement and a severance in October 2011. By March 2012, when county supervisors referred the matter to the district attorney, Carbajal was called into the CEO’s office.
According to the complaint:
On or about March 15, 2012, CEO Mauk called Plaintiff (Carbajal) into a meeting that included Deputy CEO Drakodaidis. CEO Mauk tried to place Plaintiff on administrative leave to allegedly let things cool down. Plaintiff reminded CEO Mauk of the actual facts and circumstances of what had transpired, and reminded both Mauk and Drakodaidis that they had both been involved in how the Bustamante matter had been handled, and how CEO Mauk had directed Plaintiff during the investigation. CEO Mauk advised Plaintiff to not do anything that Mauk would get back to him.
By March 20, Mauk placed Carbajal on administrative leave and advised him he had done nothing wrong but needed to “hang in there,” according to his complaint.
By July, he had been fired.