As DA Todd Spitzer faces a flurry of allegations from his own staff – including that he tried to retaliate against a sexual harassment victim – his top opponent is also fielding criticisms, in this case about how he allegedly treated women when working as a prosecutor at the DA’s office.
Spitzer’s campaign has been circulating an alleged internal DA memo, in which Peter Hardin’s then-supervisor during his time working for the OCDA raises concerns – based on information from an unnamed person – that he developed a reputation as a “womanizer” who tried to date a former defendant and a former witness in cases he had prosecuted.
“The [unnamed] person indicated that Hardin was developing a reputation for being a womanizer and there was a perception that this may be impacting the way in which he handles cases,” states the alleged August 2015 memo by Jennifer Contini, who at the time supervised Hardin at the DA’s Harbor Court office in Newport Beach.
“I was told that this was the general perception of many people on his team, but they were reluctant to come forward because they believe he is well connected,” she added in the alleged memo.
Spitzer’s campaign has been publicly circulating the memo, though the DA’s office said they could not find any such memo in their records in response to a public records request from Voice of OC.
Its alleged author – Contini, who is now an OC Superior Court commissioner – declined a Voice of OC request to verify whether or not the document is authentic, with a court spokesman citing judicial ethics rules.
[Click here to read the alleged memo distributed by Spitzer’s campaign, parts of which were blacked out before the campaign disseminated it.]
In an interview with Voice of OC, Hardin addressed the memo, denying its allegations and said the first he ever heard of its existence was this January when Spitzer’s former communications director authored an article about it.
“I want to state absolutely unequivocally that there is zero truth to any of those statements or accusations,” Hardin said when asked about the memo’s specific descriptions of his alleged behavior.
“This definitely is Todd Spitzer politics, distraction techniques in politics at its worst,” he added.
“I want to make very clear, in my entire career as a prosecutor I have never made any decisions that weren’t made entirely based in justice and safety.”
Yet Spitzer’s campaign says that’s false.
“What Pete Hardin, Harvey Weinstein, and Matt Lauer all have in common is that they are predators who abused their position of authority to prey on vulnerable women for sex,” Spitzer’s campaign said in a statement to Voice of OC.
“In Hardin’s case, he used the power of the criminal justice system – and the fact that he had control over the outcome of certain cases – to pressure women into sleeping with him,” it continued.
“As for Hardin’s flailing denials, no one is buying it. The memo describing Hardin’s actions was authored by his former Supervisor in 2015.”
The alleged memo from Hardin’s supervisor lays out an “action plan” to “Counsel Peter on the reputation he has developed – appearnece [sic] of impropriety, lack of professionalism,” “Caution him that the workplace is not place to spark romance — certainly not with [victims], witness or defendants”, and direct him to take sexual harassment training.
But Hardin says he was never asked to do any of that.
“I was never offered counseling, I was never ordered to take sexual harassment training…which I think belies the validity of the statements,” he said.
“I was never told about this memo or these allegations,” Hardin added.
He also disputed suggestions that his departure from the DA’s office two months later for a federal prosecutor job was in any way connected to the memo or its concerns.
“I had applied for that job months – months – before these allegations apparently were made,” Hardin said.
According to the alleged memo, the unnamed person reported that Hardin tried to “hit on” a defendant just after the case was dismissed against her, tried to date a witness in another case he had prosecuted, and told a clerk and victim witness employee that “you look hot today,” to which the victim witness employee allegedly looked uncomfortable.
And in another criminal case, the unnamed person alleged Hardin offered a defendant a diversion program instead of an outright conviction “‘just’ because the [defendant’s] aunt was attractive,” the memo states.
Contini didn’t find that Hardin did anything wrong with his diversion offer, according to the alleged memo circulated by Spitzer’s campaign.
After looking into it, the document says Contini concluded the offer “was not inappropriate.”
In the other two cases, in which Hardin allegedly tried to date a victim and a witness, the memo states, “if any inappropriate contact occurred it was after the cases were closed.”
“No further investigation is warranted,” the alleged memo states.
“As to the the possible comments that could be interpreted as “sexual harrassment,” [sic] there have been no complaints made from any parties,” it continues.
“This leads me to believe the comments overheard (the only example of which I was told ‘you’re hot’) were not so ‘unwelcomed’ or ‘offensive’, nor were they, ‘so sever [sic] or pervasive that a reasonable person would conclude that it created a hostile work environment.’ ”
Yet Hardin’s supervisor did find Hardin’s alleged pattern of behavior to be a problem, according to the document.
“Give [sic] the pattern that appears to be developing, there is clearly cause for concern,” the alleged memo states.
“Peter needs to be put on noticed [sic] and counseled that: 1) As a representative of this office he is held to the highest standards, 2) Nothing other then [sic] the pursuit of justice should in any way influence his decisions as a prosecutor.”
The alleged memo from Hardin’s supervisor also states she was told Hardin was sharing custody of his son and “it is common knowledge among the ‘troops’ that in recent month [sic], Peter ‘broke’ into the home of his son’s mother by climbing through the window because he wanted to talk to her,” but that police were not called.
Hardin also disputed that allegation as false.
Spitzer’s campaign says the memo shows Hardin has a pattern of workplace sexual misconduct, pointing as well to Hardin’s 2013 exit from the Marine Corps related to alleged adultery.
Hardin has a “disturbing history of sexual misconduct that resulted in him losing his job twice, both as a Marine and at the Orange County District Attorney’s Office,” Spitzer said in a February campaign news release.
Hardin acknowledges he left the Marine Corps amid adultery allegations against him, but says the rule was wrongfully applied to him because he was legally separated and divorcing his then-wife, and that his new dating relationship didn’t involve another military member.
“I was separating in the process of filing for a divorce, when I met the mother of my child,” Hardin said in the interview, adding he had been “legally separated for a year and a half.”
The military later changed its rules in 2019 so that it’s no longer considered adultery if the service member is legally separated.
Voice of OC asked Hardin what he says to those who look at his military exit and say he made a commitment to follow the military’s rules and codes, violated that, had to leave as a result, and that that creates doubt about his ability to follow the codes he commits to?
Hardin called that “the most insightful question I’ve gotten on this topic,” but said his situation did not violate the military’s adultery rules.
“I didn’t break the rules. This rule was misapplied,” he added, saying the adultery allegation didn’t meet the military’s requirement that it be “service discrediting or prejudicial to good order and discipline.”
“I fell in love with a woman, we decided to start a family, and I went all in on that. I dedicated myself to supporting her and my son and continuing to serve my country. If that’s wrong, I don’t want to be right,” he added.
When asked about the path of his relationship, Hardin’s campaign said he never got married to the mother of his child.
Yet he says the situation with the Marines was a mistake on their part.
“I don’t think the Marine Corps…writ large, always makes the right decisions. And this rule was misapplied in this case,” he said.
Spitzer says Hardin’s behavior shows he’s a sexual “predator” who should be kept away from children.
“Hardin doesn’t belong within 1,000 feet of a school, let alone the District Attorney’s office, if these allegations are true,” Spitzer said in an August campaign news release citing the DA’s office and Marine Corps allegations.
“Hardin’s abuse of women and the criminal justice system is disgusting, perverted, and fits a disturbing pattern, which also includes getting kicked out of the military for sexual misconduct,” Spitzer’s campaign added in its statement to Voice of OC this week.
Hardin says that’s an outrageous, desperate move by Spitzer to distract from his own controversies.
“[Spitzer] is clearly alluding to the notion that I committed, like sexual offenses. And that is not what this is about,” Hardin said. “This was never about sexual misconduct.”
“I want to make very clear: in my entire career as a prosecutor I have never made any decisions that weren’t made entirely based in justice and safety.”
Hardin’s campaign referred Voice of OC to three female attorneys who represented clients prosecuted by Hardin during his time at the DA’s office, all of whom said they never heard him say anything inappropriate towards women.
“He never demonstrated anything other than professionalism in handling the cases and communicating with me and other attorneys, and the folks that he worked with,” said Lauren Johnson-Norris, a criminal defense attorney who is also vice chair of the OC Democratic Party, which has endorsed Hardin.
Meghan O’Brien Taylor, another defense attorney, said she interacted with Hardin many times when he was prosecuting her clients and that she never saw or heard anything inappropriate about him.
“Everything was by the book,” Taylor said, adding she also “never heard a grumbling” about him being inappropriate.
The existence of the 2015 memo about Hardin was first publicly reported in an article by Spitzer’s former communications director that did not note that she previously worked for Spitzer.
Spitzer campaign subsequently circulated it to media outlets in a news release.
In an effort to verify the memo, Voice of OC filed a Public Records request with the DA’s office for it.
But the DA’s office says they couldn’t find it in their records after searching far and wide.
“We have conducted an exhaustive search of the Orange County District Attorney’s (OCDA) physical and digital files for the requested record, but we have been unable to locate the requested record in any of the OCDA’s physical and/or digital files,” wrote Deputy DA Johanna Kim in the DA’s official response to the records request.
[Click here to read the public records response.]
Hardin is facing off against Spitzer and two other DA candidates – Mike Jacobs and Bryan Chehock – the June primary election.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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