MORE

Out of the Darkness

Photo by Max S. Gerber

Responding to the L.A. Weekly’s recent exposé of rampant discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation against minority and women employees at the Department of Water and Power, City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski called last week for a review of working conditions at the DWP and an end to secret out-of-court settlements.

Also reacting to political pressure building since the L.A. Weekly’s July 22 cover story (“The Black Avenger”), City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo on Monday overruled city attorneys assigned to the DWP and released nine confidential settlements totaling $6.3 million, which pertain mostly to electrical helpers, line patrolmen and repairmen, who were allegedly subjected to racism and retaliation, then forced to keep quiet. Legal fees to outside law firms defending the DWP in these cases cost the public at least another $2 million. For nine months, the DWP had refused to release the records, in violation of the California Public Records Act.

Acknowledging that several of the settlements had occurred since he took office in 2001 — one as recently as June — Delgadillo vowed a new era of openness. On Monday, speaking at the Public Affairs Forum at the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, he conceded the inconsistent policy of responding to public requests for information by his office, and stated his commitment to ending the use of confidential settlements. Announcing the creation of a “Freedom of Information Unit,” he pledged to fully disclose public information, particularly when “The interests of the city bureaucracy compete with the people’s right to know.” Afterward, he said he has assigned special assistant city attorneys to oversee legal operations at the DWP and at the other so-called  proprietary airport and harbor departments, which sources in his office have referred to as “graveyards of unaccountability.”

City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who along with Councilman Dennis Zine joined Miscikowski in calling for a review of the DWP’s anti-discrimination policies and a citywide review of the approval process for legal settlements, particularly at the proprietary departments, says, “It is a new day, and all these departments need to know that transparency is key.” Adds Zine, “This is the first I’ve heard of the DWP burying liability cases. It is disturbing this is not being brought to the attention of the City Council. People are paying for these settlements out of their rates.”

 

While some council members have awakened to millions of public dollars spent on outside lawyers and secret settlements, and while Delgadillo has recognized the need to rein in legal operations at the behemoth utility, those willing to speak out have stepped into the vacuum of power and leadership that has allowed a backward culture to fester in the first place. What was striking in the reactions last week and on Monday was not so much who was calling for action, but who was not. Mayor Jim Hahn, the Hahn-appointed DWP Board of Commissioners and the upper management at DWP all declined to take a stand or present any plan for addressing what critics are calling yet another symptom of old-boy government.

Meanwhile, numerous City Council members ducked the issue, demonstrating a hesitancy to mess with the insular culture of the DWP. “These are sensitive legal matters, and we must defer to the judgment of the city attorney,” says David Gershwin, a spokesman for Council President Alex Padilla. “The proprietary structure of the DWP is such that legal settlements don’t even make it to the City Council,” says a spokesman for Councilman Eric Garcetti, who declined to comment personally. “Tom does not like to comment on things like this,” says a spokesman for Councilman Tom LaBonge. “He likes to comment on positive things.”

As Delgadillo and concerned council members drill deeper at the DWP, they are likely to confront inbred resistance to change. The mantra that has characterized the DWP’s omnipotence — for better and for worse — is: What’s good for the DWP is good for the people of Los Angeles. On Friday, Renette Anderson, the head of the DWP’s Equal Employment Opportunity Section, put the matter in tighter perspective when she said, “I know I’m not going to turn the DWP around in two years. We have behavior that is hard to change. But if we are to grow and survive, we have to change. And where we see red flags, there will be action.”

Anderson is already two years into her assignment, which is to instill mutual respect among employees at all levels. She inherited her job from predecessors who were virtually forced out of the DWP for trying to make it a better place to work. She faces institutional limitations, and she knows it. Anderson is accountable only to acting general manager Henry Martinez and the Board of Commissioners. If there are problems among assistant general mangers, she has no authority to knock heads.

“The board thought I had power over the departments inside the DWP, and that is not so,” she says. “I am responsible for monitoring compliance with equal-opportunity laws, re-training the workforce and recommending discipline. At some point, managers have to take responsibility for implementing change.” Martinez, who recently took over after former acting GM Frank Salas stepped down to chief operating officer, did not comment.

Anderson’s dilemma is apparent in the experiences of those who suffered and were paid off for their silence — and in some cases threatened with legal action if they broke that silence. “They say you can’t fight City Hall,” says a former line patrolman who was degraded and racially abused before taking an early retirement and agreeing to a settlement that until Monday was buried for years. “I wasn’t interested in a monetary settlement as much as I wanted to see some discipline of people who had done employees of color really bad. But I got no satisfaction. It’s deep and rooted at the DWP. People coming up the ladder all have connections, even family connections. And it’s always your word against someone else who has the right connections.”

Martinez has only been at the DWP since 1998, and he has barely had time to catch his breath as the acting GM. But he has come up through similar ranks as Frank Salas, and a look at Salas’ exposure to employee complaints in the past speaks to the longevity of the crisis, which includes several pending gender-discrimination and sexual-harassment lawsuits, and failures to remedy it.

 

In 1999, Salas, chief operating officer at the time, received a report from former Equal Employment Opportunity Section (EEOS) director Imelda McGuirk. It stated that institutional racial and gender discrimination, harassment and retaliation ran throughout the DWP, that her office lacked the staff to deal with it, and that she herself had been the subject of retaliation for trying to address it. Last month, a full five years later, Anderson, the current EEOS head, presented the board with a “Confidential Report” describing employee frustration with a retaliatory culture and resistance by management to change. The L.A. Weekly has obtained a copy of the report. According to Martin Schlageter, energy program director for the Clean Air Coalition, who attended the briefing, Commissioner Silvia Saucedo asked Anderson what she did with the report. “Anderson informs the commissioner that six months ago she gave the report to the legal department and to Salas,” Schlageter says. “But it caught my attention that Salas is sitting right there, and nobody even bothers to ask him what he did. He just sits there and says nothing.” Anderson replies that the report had been expanded to additional sections, and will be released to the public in September. Salas, who had not yet stepped down as acting GM at the time, did not comment.

If concerned council members, Delgadillo or the mayor were to poke around, they might find other high-ranking managers at the DWP who also are no strangers to a retaliatory culture. One happens to be former chief assistant city attorney Thomas Hokinson, a veteran of the City Attorney’s Office, now an assistant general manager in charge of corporate services at the DWP. Hokinson approved the use of secret settlements that covered up harassment and retaliation when he was the head of the DWP’s legal team from 1995 to 1999. Foremost was that of claims investigator Milton Crawford, a member of Hokinson’s staff who alleged retaliation after helping employees with their harassment grievances. At the same time, African-American and Latino workers in the Electrical “Trouble” Section, a high-risk utility-repair outfit, were alleging they had been terrorized with racial epithets. A line patrolman alleged he had been sent out alone to dangerous work sites because he is black. Hokinson knew that the workplace was roiling with trouble.

On one occasion, in 1998, a Los Angeles superior-court judge told lawyers at Epstein, Becker and Green, who had been hired out of the DWP’s budget on Hokinson’s watch, that the use of a confidentiality clause to resolve an anti-Semitism lawsuit was against California law and public policy. The clause somehow found its way into the final settlement anyway, according to sources who are familiar with the agreement, but who declined to comment. Recently, Hokinson told L.A. Weekly he had no recollection of specific discrimination cases nor of any office policy related to confidentiality. Yet one of his subordinates and eventual successor, retired chief assistant city attorney Philip Shiner, had experienced similar admonitions from a judge in 1994. The practice of secret settlements occurred throughout the 1990s at the DWP and continued even after Hokinson left to take over the civil-litigation section of the City Attorney’s Office, where he worked from 1999 to 2001.

Shiner was transferred to the legal team at the airport department for several months before retiring in 2003. Despite repeated requests, he too has declined to discuss his approval of confidential settlements, citing lack of authorization from the DWP to comment. In 2001, Hokinson moved into the front office of the DWP, and is now one of the high-level managers charged with implementing reforms recommended by Renette Anderson, a purported agent for change who has no formal authority over Hokinson or any other assistant general manager.

 

Mayor Hahn was the city attorney from 1995 to 2001, a period of upheaval at the DWP. His office would not respond to repeated requests for comment on how legal matters were resolved during his time in office, or how he views the recent revelations of employee mistreatment at the DWP. Delgadillo has shown he is willing to speak to the issue of respecting California’s public-information laws, and has raised the expectations of how his office will serve the city. “Who do we work for?” he rhetorically asked the gathering of business and political leaders on Monday. “Is it the general managers, the commissioners or the mayor? My lawyers work for me, and my client is the city of Los Angeles. Not the DWP. Not the harbor. Not the airport. We are always answering to a higher client.”

Delgadillo recognizes he may not have had a firm hand on the legal advice dispensed at the DWP. He has put special assistant city attorney Josh Pertulla in charge of watching over the DWP’s and the other proprietary departments’ legal advisers, and special assistant city attorney Anne Haley in charge of monitoring the service provided by outside attorneys. He says he would like his staff to be proactive and head off problems before they become lawsuits.

Yet the DWP is still a high-stakes client — and an unruly one at that. Recent history shows the DWP’s managers and legal advisers have preferred to sweep discrimination, harassment and retaliation lawsuits under the rug. “There is always the risk of being ‘captured by the client.’” Delgadillo says. “There’s always the potential for a tug of war. The ultimate check has to rest with the people.”

It could be hard to reform an old-boys’ culture at the DWP when upper management is comprised largely of men who grew up in it, whether or not they approved of it, or benefited from it. Anderson laughs nervously as she points to three high-level female managers, and says she’d like to turn the DWP into an “old-girl’s club.” For now, there is a group of managers who are not conditioned to bend to public concerns for decency in the treatment of workers. “If you ever go to a Board of Commissioners meeting, you will notice that the managers sit at this long conference table facing the commissioners — but with their backs to the audience,” Schlageter, the clean-air advocate says. “That, to me, says it all.”


The Good, the Mad, and the Mum

What Los Angeles’ City Council members are saying about racism, sexual harassment and retaliation against employees filing complaints at the DWP, and the city attorney’s use of secret settlements to cover this up:

Ed Reyes (District 1)

Did not return calls for comment.

Wendy Greuel (District 2)

“I worked for [former Mayor] Tom Bradley, and he fought to give individuals a chance. These allegations are disturbing. [Discrimination] settlements don’t come to the City Council. We are not informed, and maybe we should be. Proprietary departments need to know that [openness] is key.”

Dennis P. Zine (District 3)

“Every day we learn something new about DWP. I have faith in the system, but I sometimes question the people running it. We shouldn’t have to increase [water] rates to pay settlements because employees are being mistreated by management.”

Tom LaBonge (District 4)

“Tom does not like to comment on things like this. He likes to comment on positive things.”

Jack Weiss (District 5)

“The idea that there is something special about the DWP that requires additional secrecy doesn’t make sense. Someone said if we made the terms public, we would be looking at more lawsuits. That logic doesn’t fly. The fact that DWP is proprietary does not give it license to operate as a poorly run private company. It is still the public’s business.”

Tony Cardenas (District 6), chair of Commerce, Energy and Natural Resources Committee

“We can’t use settlements as Band-Aids for systemic problems in any department. We need to get these claims on the record in the City Council in full purview of the public. It’s time we expand the scope so that taxpayers know how their money is being spent.”

Alex Padilla (District 7)

Would not comment.

Bernard Parks (District 8)

“You can educate people, train them, put policy out and discipline them. It doesn’t matter how many rules we create, there will be people who choose misconduct. But I don’t think settlements should be confidential from the City Council. I don’t think you should have that veil of secrecy because you are a proprietary department.”

Jan Perry (District 9)

Did not return calls.

Martin Ludlow (District 10)

Would not comment.

Cindy Miscikowski (District 11)

“I was shocked at the length of time these things were going on and the number of persons who were willing and able to tell a story. We need to know, what is the DWP’s record? How do they rank in comparison with other governmental entities? Proprietary departments are a whole other realm. We have to look into it.”

Greig Smith (District 12)

Did not return several calls for comment.

Eric Garcetti (District 13)

Declined comment.

Antonio Villaraigosa (District 14)

Did not return calls.

Janice Hahn (District 15)

Declined comment.

—Compiled by Christine Pelisek