San Diego County has agreed to pay nearly $100,000 to settle a lawsuit brought after the District Attorney’s Office refused to turn over detailed records of sexual harassment and misconduct by its employees.
The First Amendment Coalition, a San Rafael-based nonprofit that focuses on government accountability and open records, sued the county for the records in July 2018. The coalition was seeking similar records from the seven largest district attorney offices in the state – not because of any one incident or tip, but rather to test compliance with the state’s public records law.
Why this matters
The purpose of the California Public Records Act is to ensure that government records related to how agencies conduct the public’s business are open.
The San Diego DA’s office said it didn’t have to provide the records but instead provided its own summary of what those records said. The office argued its employees do not “occupy positions of such public trust and responsibility” that the disclosure of their identities and disciplinary records would be required by law.
Other DA offices refused to release records, but none cited San Diego’s line of reasoning, according to David Snyder, the coalition’s executive director. Snyder told inewsource San Diego’s response was “untenable under the California Public Records Act, and frankly dangerous.”
A spokeswoman for District Attorney Summer Stephan told inewsource at the time that the office is fully committed to transparency and met their obligations under state law.
The First Amendment Coalition disagreed and took the county to court. A San Diego Superior Court judge sided with the coalition in July, ordering the DA’s office to turn over the documents. The county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Wednesday to settle the coalition’s claim for attorneys’ fees and costs for $97,500.
“The purpose of the public records act is to allow the people to see the records of their government, not to see what the government says those records say,” Snyder said Monday.
Steve Walker, the DA’s communications director, responded to inewsource’s request for comment on the settlement with an email saying the office works “to be as open and transparent as possible when fielding the dozens of public record act requests we receive every year.
“Sometimes those requests intersect with employee privacy and personnel records, creating a gray area. We appreciate getting the court’s interpretation in this area of the law.”
What the records show
The documents outline five incidents that occurred between July 2013 and May 2017, ranging from sexual comments and unwelcome physical contact to taking nude photos in the workplace. The original summaries included six incidents; one is missing from the newly released documents.
In one case, someone sent emails in April 2016 accusing Deputy District Attorney Michael MacNeil of misconduct. The emails included nude photos of MacNeil while in the workplace and copies of him “sexting” an unknown person, records show.
In another case, in May 2017, a student employee who reported to Alberto Lepe, a senior IT engineer, made several complaints about Lepe’s unwelcome touching, derogatory comments and racist language, according to DA records.
The DA’s office investigated the complaint, corroborated two of the allegations and issued Lepe a warning letter. The student employee transferred to another position, and later reported to officials that she was happy with the change, records show.
The documents describe three other employees who were reprimanded for sexual harassment, including:
- Don Morton, a paralegal supervisor, who made sexual statements to a female subordinate for three months.
- Andel Williams, a paralegal, who was upset about missing out on a promotion, told a female colleague who had been promoted, “Maybe I should grow a pair of boobs?” He was given oral counseling.
- Desmond Townsend received a warning letter for commenting on a female subordinate’s work attire that referenced her body, and for making an inappropriate joke about her in front of others.
The First Amendment Coalition lawsuit does not set a legal precedent, but Snyder said he hopes it will ensure that county offices, including the DA’s Office, don’t withhold these kinds of public documents again.
“We hope that through making this ruling public, it’ll become clear to other agencies that this is an improper way to provide the public information under the California Public Records Act,” Snyder said.