Photo by Max S. Gerber
Like many black men of his generation, Milton Crawford never had room to make mistakes. Growing up in a family of 20 children in the South during the Great Depression, in a home where he was taught to give respect and demand it, Crawford learned the value of rules and discipline.
The Crawford family owned a farm and were among the few African-Americans in the town of Jefferson, Texas. Young Crawford and his brothers and sisters attended a segregated school and used the back door to enter public buildings. Crawford’s father drove the black school bus. On rainy days he would pick up the white kids to keep them from getting drenched and drop them off at their school. “They got on the bus, sat down, kept quiet, and they were the same as us,” recalls the 75-year-old Crawford. “My father didn’t tolerate any funny business. He’d swat the white kids with a strap as quickly as he’d swat the black ones.”
A strict upbringing served Crawford well. He focused on achievement, and made breakthroughs. In the 1940s, he joined a segregated military, where he was among the first African-Americans to receive legal training. Later he became one of the first black private investigators in California to obtain an independent insurance adjuster’s license. His deep sense of right and wrong had consequences, however — for him and for those who crossed his path. Crawford knew the ways of the military, and of society, but when he encountered unwritten rules that needed changing, his conscience told him not to turn away, but to fight. When he fought, he was formidable.
In 1987, when Crawford became the first black claims investigator for the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office assigned to the Department of Water and Power, he did not expect that over the next 10 years he would drag the DWP through an unprecedented number of employee grievances. Nor did he foresee that he would file his own discrimination lawsuit and win. Nor could he have imagined that later efforts to address harassment and retaliation at the nation’s largest public utility would fail so miserably, or that disparate treatment of women and minorities would remain a dirty secret to be kept from the public.
“I came from the private sector to work for a public entity, which should have a legal and moral obligation to its employees,” says Crawford, whose battles on behalf of other workers brought the heat down on him. “You’re talking about someone’s job, their livelihood, and I take that very seriously. All these anti-discrimination laws look so nice on paper. But when you test them, they fall apart. It’s not that complicated to follow the law if you have a sense of integrity.”
Jim Crow was long gone when Crawford arrived at the DWP in 1987, but it was still the white man’s world it has been since 1902, when an ambitious group of engineers led by William Mulholland founded it. Crawford was not the first to challenge the DWP’s white male–dominated culture, but he sounded a warning that it was in need of examination. Being branded a malcontent and followed on his off hours gnawed at his guts. In the world he had entered, white employees called the African-American wives of their co-workers “black hookers.” They called people “nigger” and posted swastikas to terrorize Jewish employees. Anyone who complained about rampant drinking and drug use on the job could suffer recrimination. Sending black line workers out to high-risk utility failures without backup put lives at risk.
In the front office at DWP, female employees complained of receiving pornography on their computers in retaliation for questioning why they didn’t get promotions. Fear of computer hacking, office bugs and car bombs arose in those who questioned the wrong people. When the equal-opportunity manager was thwarted by her own supervisors from investigating institutional discrimination at DWP, invoking the ire of both labor and management, she was warned of ruthless consequences.
Though his fighting days are over, Crawford is still rankled by what he sees as an entrenched, backward culture at the DWP. His assessment of the DWP is harsh, and some see Crawford as prone to propaganda and speechmaking, not solely motivated by justice.
Popular or not, Crawford’s demands for equality were hardly baseless. Having settled with Crawford in 1997, the City Attorney’s Office is still defending lawsuits that suggest the DWP continued to sit on a powder keg of employee discontent long after he was gone. He tried to tell them. A number of high-priced settlements — his included — merely allowed the DWP’s flaws to fester. Poor treatment of civil servants who thought working for a government agency meant more and not less protection of their rights is not the only harm done. The City Attorney’s Office has violated California public-records law in concealing outside legal costs and settlements, while the Mayor’s Office and the City Council have sat back and tolerated the DWP’s failed efforts to clean its own house at the public’s expense.
Crawford is one of nine former and current DWP employees since 1997 to receive confidential out-of-court settlements in resolving discrimination lawsuits. These settlements have cost the public more than $10 million, including substantial legal fees paid to juggernaut law firm O’Melveny & Meyers, and Foley & Lardner. The human toll is impossible to calculate. Racial and gender inequities and retaliation have damaged skilled workers and administrators alike. Because the public has not known, the DWP has not been held accountable for these losses.
The Board of Water and Power Commissioners, appointed by Mayor Jim Hahn, has voted in private to approve the confidential settlements that have kept the DWP’s problems underground. The last time the City Council took action was in 1994, demanding that the DWP create an independent investigative unit for employee discrimination complaints. But it only made matters worse. DWP managers promoted their minions, tormented employees who tried to enforce equal-opportunity procedures, and intimidated employees who came forward to complain about racism and sexism. Past commissioners at the DWP condone confidential settlements to the extent that they “dry up a lake of problems.” Board President Dominick Rubalcava, a lawyer, says of the DWP’s systemic discrimination, “I don’t give a shit where the causes lie, I care that it will not be tolerated.”
Employee lawsuits at the DWP over the past decade speak to rank harassment and retaliation. In September 1994, after 98 incidents of sexual harassment had been reported over two years, DWP security guard Ruby Zilly received the largest settlement of such a case by a government agency in California: $1.5 million. Zilly’s would be the last settlement the public would learn about for the next 10 years. In December 2003, when confronted by the L.A. Weekly with written requests for disclosure of seven confidential settlements under California’s Public Records Act, including amounts spent on outside law firms, the City Attorney’s Office stalled. (Since then, the Weekly has learned of two more. In April, Crawford waived his confidentiality and agreed to tell his story. In June, the DWP finally released a copy of his 1997 agreement to settle for $750,000.)
Before they settled, some who challenged the DWP broke down emotionally. Others retired early after years of abuse. The strikingly modern concrete-and-steel headquarters of the DWP — a fortress of impenetrability atop Bunker Hill — sits in stark contrast to the belittling effect Los Angeles’ founding institution has had on these employees. Inside the fortress, at the base of a sweeping spiral staircase, a wall-size mural of sepia-tone images tells a story of Los Angeles’ cultural diversity — “from pueblo to American city: The New Ellis Island” — that mocks the minority workers who huddle together in the cafeteria and on smoke breaks. The DWP’s pledge — “We hope these images will encourage understanding, the beginning of respect” — has proved meaningless to female civil servants who were forced to accept less than their male counterparts and punished for their complaints.
Then there was Milt Crawford. None fought so fiercely or persistently as he did. For 10 years, he went to work each day and kept challenging the system. And whether the DWP or the City Attorney’s Office approved of him or his methods, they are hard-pressed to deny that he stood up against a lack of equality that they covered up as though they ran a private corporation, not a public utility.
A product of a brutal era, Crawford was born in 1928, and counts among his blessings that none of his 19 brothers or sisters was lynched or physically abused. Anna and Fletcher Crawford taught their children to mind their business, but also taught them not to back down. “You had to actively avoid trouble in those days,” Crawford says. “But sometimes you had to be active in not avoiding it.” Though he suffered discrimination from birth, Crawford did not understand the ugliness of racism until he left home.
Fresh out of high school in 1946, Crawford enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, which was still segregated. He recalls riding on a train from Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi to Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, just months short of his 18th birthday. “I traveled in uniform, so if they hung me, they’d know I was a serviceman,” he says of his journey. Hungry for something to eat, Crawford recalls, he entered the train’s dining car to find a sea of white faces gawking at him. The maitre d’ led him to a booth in the corner and drew a curtain around the booth. “Something happened inside me when he closed that curtain,” Crawford says. “I pulled it back and said, ‘Don’t close the damn curtain.’ I had given an ultimatum, and I did not know what would happen next.” Eventually the manager came back and allowed Crawford to stay and eat in the open booth, he says. “On my way out of the car, one of the white patrons whispered to me, ‘Attaboy, soldier.’”
Crawford was struck by how many black soldiers returned from World War II, compared to the lack of black officers. But he found that as long as he did not aspire too greatly, he could expand his horizons. He became the first black stenographer at the Naval School of Justice. A technical sergeant who received his legal training in the service, he became proficient in personnel matters, administrative policies and courts-martial. In 1962, he received an honorable discharge and moved to Los Angeles with his wife and three children. With an eye toward becoming a private investigator, he looked for a job in the insurance industry. Though overqualified for some jobs, he was denied. “I went to every insurance company in town with an ‘Equal Opportunity Employer’ sign,” he says. “Couldn’t get a hit.”
Rarely seen without a dark suit and hat, Crawford has a pencil-thin mustache and a twinkle in his eye. He speaks slowly and with a Southern accent as he describes his struggle to find work in the early 1960s. He cracks a smile as he describes himself using a deft touch and occasionally resorting to bullish insistence in kicking down the race barrier. In 1963, he obtained his private investigator’s license and became the second African-American in the state to be licensed as an independent insurance adjuster. “I did things others had not done,” he says with pride. “I got confessions from fraud perpetrators, I planted investigators inside fraud rings, I knew when fraud was going to be committed before it happened.”
Over the next 25 years, Crawford built a name as an investigator. He lived in Watts. Part of his success had to do with his willingness to work in the middle of the night, in parts of town where his white counterparts were not comfortable. After cracking a major automotive-repair and insurance scam, he went on CBS’s 60 Minutes. In 1987, in the twilight of his career, Crawford answered a job listing with the City Attorney’s Office at the DWP. He was hired as a “senior claims investigator.” From the start he sensed there could be trouble.
The DWP has its own in-house legal team from the City Attorney’s Office. There are 40 assistant city attorneys who work at the DWP, and for many years it has been regarded as a plum assignment. Crawford noticed that his fellow claims investigators in the office were retired police officers — all were white. “There was a strange attitude there,” he says. “One investigator came and poked his head around my desk one day and said, ‘I just had to come see for myself, I heard they hired a black investigator. You must be really good to get hired here.’ I thought, goddamn, this is 1987, not 1957.”
Crawford sensed issues of race and resentment lurking close to the surface in other areas of the DWP. Management had allowed a number of minority-employee associations to develop, which had the unintended effect of bringing workers together to gripe across racial lines. Soon he found himself representing troubled workers in their grievances before the Civil Service Commission. With his military legal training and a grasp of rules and procedure, Crawford excelled at these hearings. He often prevailed against assistant city attorneys who represented the DWP, he says. “Once I started doing administrative hearings, it spread like a forest fire,” Crawford says. “People started asking for me.”
Meanwhile, Crawford clashed with his supervisor Harvey Lutske, who joined the office six months after he did. In Crawford’s lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in 1996, Crawford charged that Lutske harassed and disciplined him in retaliation for challenging the DWP’s employment practices. Among Crawford’s claims were that Lutske docked his pay and prevented him from taking his earned time off when he went to court on behalf of other employees. Lutske allegedly accused Crawford of soliciting business outside of his duties at the DWP. In April 1992, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission concluded that Crawford had been disciplined solely because of race, prompting Lutske to declare, “To hell with them and their findings.” The EEOC continued to “investigate the matter” for four more years, but took no action other than to issue Crawford a letter that granted him approval to file a lawsuit.
Matters only got worse during that time. Crawford said he was forced to address a white hearing officer as “Mister” and that officials were eavesdropping on his confidential conversations. A clandestine group of supervisors launched a campaign known as “Crawford Watch,” he charged, once tailing him on his way to jury duty. Lutske attempted to provoke Crawford into a fight, according to Crawford’s lawsuit. By then, Crawford had filed several dozen grievances with the Civil Service Commission. He was at war with the DWP and the City Attorney’s Office.
Lutske is retired, and declined to comment. In court papers, he maintained he was castigated for doing his job as a supervisor. In a letter to the EEOC, Assistant City Attorney Terso Rosales, head labor lawyer at the DWP, wrote: “I believe there is some tension between Milton Crawford and his Jewish supervisor ‰ Harvey Lutske, in part stemming from Crawford’s low opinion of his supervisor. I have known Lutske for 10 years, and whatever his weaknesses may be, he is no racist.” Rosales says he faults Lutske for allowing tension to mount. “And I credit Crawford for bringing it out into the open,” Rosales says. “But I was suspicious of the merit of the cases Crawford took on. He became an advocate, an adversarial one. It was very personal with him. He thrived on it.”
The DWP went to considerable lengths to try to defeat Crawford and other critics. Some of those resources, he figured, should have been devoted to addressing their complaints. Looking for support anywhere he could find it, Crawford says, in the early ’90s went to civil rights lawyer Constance Rice, who was then president of the board of commissioners at the DWP, with a stack of documents to support persistent claims of discrimination. “I never heard a damn thing back from Connie Rice,” he says. “Sexual and racial harassment and discrimination was a huge problem,” Rice says. “Just like with every department in this city. We were forced to address this problem through the settlement of lawsuits, but also by hiring consultants, targeting particular units for training.”
An atmosphere of secrecy has kept the DWP’s tainted culture hidden from public view. Beginning with Crawford, when the DWP settled a lawsuit, its attorneys insisted on a confidentiality clause, and silenced employees who took a stand. The utility ignored California law requiring government agencies to inform the public about the settlement of lawsuits. Secrecy deprived management of an incentive to reform bad practices. Efforts to impose secrecy on the Crawford litigation and cases that followed prevented a light from shining on patterns of harassment and retaliation.
Rosales defends the decision that allowed the public utility to function like a private business. Following the Ruby Zilly sexual-harassment case, he says, the DWP was subjected to demands in cases that lacked merit. “The objective was to not encourage frivolous filings by putting a lot of money in the public eye,” says Rosales, who made his recommendation of using confidentiality clauses to Chief Assistant City Attorney Thomas Hokinson. The use of secret settlements by the DWP would become an effective way of burying allegations of mismanagement — but not of discouraging more lawsuits. (Now an assistant general manager at the DWP, Hokinson says he cannot recall the details of the decision to use confidentiality clauses. Hokinson’s successor, retired Assistant City Attorney Philip Shiner, questioned whether it was necessary, according to Rosales, but nevertheless took Rosales’ recommendation.)
Rosales further contends that the settlements are exempt from public-records laws due to employee-privacy protections. Yet it was not the employees who initially demanded secrecy in settling with the DWP. Most employment-law experts vigorously oppose such practices. Judges, when they know it is happening, will not allow it, experts say. Phil Horowitz, chair of the California Employment Lawyers Association, says, “With taxpayers’ dollars, there is no privacy protection. That’s malarkey. A public agency has no right to withhold that information.”
Still, upon request from the Weekly, Rosales invited Crawford and others to waive confidentiality. Only one other plaintiff, an electrician’s helper named Augustine Serna, agreed. In 1999, Serna, a Mexican-American whose wife is African-American, alleged harassment and retaliation after cooperating with an internal investigation of a discrimination complaint by a black colleague, who at a retirement luncheon gave a speech about more than a decade’s worth of abuse and racism he had suffered. Serna’s co-workers, including a white man who also claimed he was abused because his wife is black, suffered retaliation as well. Serna received a settlement of $300,000, but his co-workers did not agree to waive confidentiality.
The City Attorney’s Office disclosed in April that it paid O’Melveny & Meyers and one other firm “at least” $1 million to fight the Serna lawsuit. Serna’s two co-plaintiffs likely accepted larger settlements than he did. They declined to comment. “Plaintiffs have a choice,” says one Los Angeles trial lawyer who specializes in employment law. “They can fight it out at trial, or settle under a confidentiality clause. We all know which will win out. It’s an easy form of coercion by a public entity.” Yet, when asked about its policy regarding confidential settlements, Oakland City Attorney John Russo says, “There isn’t one. You can’t do it.”
The DWP had incentive to keep cases like Serna’s below the radar. It could not afford a window into a blue-collar world over which it had little control. Serna says ratepayers would be outraged if they knew about the drinking on the job, the drug use and racial abuse that is tolerated in whites, or the harsh punishment of minorities for petty infractions. He worked with the “Trouble Section,” a unit that fixes high-risk power failures. “Some guys you’d rather have them drinking up on the pole, ’cause their hands are so shaky otherwise,” he says. Dangerous situations also occur, he says, when racial tension exists between workers who are supposed to protect each other. A code of silence exists, Serna says. “If you are tied in with the right people, you can get away with anything. If you want to keep your job, then keep quiet. If you complain, they run you off by intimidation.”
The Trouble Section is controlled by the union and the line managers, electrical workers say. Not only is it tolerant of racism and harassment, African-Americans working the graveyard shift would get sent out alone to dangerous areas of the city — nigger town, as some workers called it — to deal with power outages that required backup support. Lives were at risk. White electrical workers would ostracize and degrade their black colleagues by excluding them from employee functions and giving them watermelons. By the late 1990s, the Trouble Section also exposed a rift between the DWP and the City Attorney’s Office. DWP managers and the Board of Commissioners were reluctant to deal with it — until it got out of hand.
Ten years ago, it looked like the City Council might finally gain control over the dismal working conditions at the DWP. In 1994, former City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, chair of the Personnel Committee, led hearings on sexual and racial harassment at the utility. Employee lawsuits were costing the city money, Goldberg says. The committee ordered the DWP to develop an independent internal unit to investigate employee complaints. In response, the DWP created the Equal Employment Opportunity Section, located outside the DWP’s headquarters to create privacy for complaining employees and witnesses. The EEOS reported directly to then–General Manager William McCarley. Goldberg recalls having little faith that the move would work. “There was inherent conflict,” she says. “It’s very tough for EEOS personnel to investigate employee complaints and at the same time report to [civil service] managers in their chain of command.”
A backlash against the EEOS followed. In 1997, former head of the Tennessee Valley Authority David Freeman took over as general manager at the DWP. He had his own ideas about rooting out discrimination. He had no time for detailed investigations by a so-called independent internal department. He favored direct action between labor and management. Under his regime, the DWP brought the equal-opportunity office back into its headquarters in the John Ferraro Building, downtown on Hope Street. The office would report to the Human Relations Department. This eventually caused the City Attorney’s Office to confront conditions that could be damaging if known to the public.
Perhaps the greatest casualty during this time was an equal-employment manager named Imelda McGuirk. In 1999, McGuirk was investigating discrimination complaints in the Trouble Section when she discovered that line managers were obstructing her inquiry. With lawsuits against the DWP imminent, she sought help from the City Attorney’s Office. Rosales and McGuirk became allies. Assistant City Attorney Daniel Lowenthal began sitting in on witness interviews. “She asked us to assist her,” Rosales says of McGuirk. “We gave her clearance to go where she needed to go.” In retaliation for cooperating with McGuirk, several workers and Lowenthal were depicted on a bulletin board in the Trouble Section, with a caption that read, “Rats die with sinking ships.” Next to the likeness of Lowenthal, who is Jewish, was a swastika. (Lowenthal had no comment.) Before she could get to the bottom of the incident, McGuirk’s supervisor, Assistant General Manager Raman Raj, shut down her investigation, according to a complaint she filed with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
By locking arms with the City Attorney’s Office, the EEOS alienated Freeman, who recalls having problems with the alliance. “There was a bad culture of sexual and racial harassment at DWP. It was lurid,” says Freeman, now the chairman of the Hydrogen Car Co. “I wanted to clean the place up. But EEOS wasn’t tough enough. I was inclined to jump in myself at times to get past the red tape.” Conversely, he saw the City Attorney’s Office as turning to scorched-earth legal tactics in an effort to spare the DWP public embarrassment. The City Attorney’s Office treated the DWP like a corporate client, not a public entity, he says. Its main goal was to keep the DWP out of the newspapers. “I think they were confused,” Freeman says. “The city attorney’s job is to see justice is done, not act like a defense attorney trying to get a criminal off.” Rosales contends that he and McGuirk were trying to fix the DWP’s problems and enforce equal-opportunity protocols. He doubts that Freeman was tough on harassment. Others say Freeman and his assistant Raj were too tight with the union, and that Freeman grossly overstated his commitment to cleaning house at the DWP. ‰
Meanwhile, McGuirk became the victim of retaliation for doing her job and suffered an emotional breakdown, according to employees who witnessed her ordeal. She fought to improve the DWP and was demoted for her efforts to investigate sexual harrassment, sources say. But she also treaded on thin ice, using the City Attorney’s Office as subterfuge to gather information on the Trouble Section. “I told them they need to be careful to stay independent,” Raj says. “I told them they shouldn’t do it.” Though Rosales also stuck his own neck out, it was McGuirk who paid the price, he says. According to lawsuits filed in Superior Court by other employees that describe her efforts to investigate racism, sexism and retaliation, McGuirk went up against a largely white, male management system that was determined to break her. Former colleagues say it almost did.
McGuirk declined to comment for this story. She filed a civil-service claim of harassment and retaliation with the DWP in August 2001 but agreed to private mediation. The mediation resulted in a confidential settlement. In January 2002, a small item ran in L.A.’s legal newspaper, the Daily Journal, reporting a $1.3 million settlement involving “an Equal Employment Opportunity Manager in the employ of the defendant utility company.” The report does not identify McGuirk or the DWP, but states that the EEOS manager tried to investigate egregious sexual harassment “but was thwarted by management.” It further says that the EEOS manager, in connection with her deposition in a discrimination case, “maintained she was pressured to give false testimony” but refused. The report finds that the EEOS manager was “effectively removed from investigating discrimination and sexual harassment claims.”
Female role models of McGuirk had warned her that EEOS manager was a contentious job, but she did not expect pressure to lie, according to sources who know her. And if McGuirk indeed was asked to bend the truth in her deposition, that may explain why the DWP had to find a new attorney in the Serna case. Serna recalls that private attorney David Lawrence, who was hired to defend the DWP, asked the judge to remove him early in the case. “The can of worms kept opening wider and wider,” Serna says of the Trouble Section investigation. “I think when he realized he couldn’t protect himself against what the DWP managers were doing, he got the hell out of there.” Lawrence confirms leaving the case as McGuirk was preparing to give a deposition. When asked if he bailed because of an ethical conflict related to pressure on McGuirk by DWP managers to lie, he declined to comment. Once he left, O’Melveny & Meyers took over and racked up at least three-quarters of a million dollars in legal-defense costs, before settling the case — confidentially.
There is no mystery about what broke McGuirk down, as far as former Utility Manager Brenda Barr is concerned. Barr sits in a Westside coffee shop days before her own deposition recently as she describes her DWP experience. In 1990, as a utility management assistant, Barr, who is white, sided with a group of female computer consultants who filed a lawsuit claiming they had not been paid $1 million in fees because of an allegedly discriminatory audit by the DWP. (McGuirk was one of Barr’s assistants.) Barr claims that in retaliation for siding with the consultants, she came under suspicion of taking kickbacks. She also claims the City Attorney’s Office threatened to leave her without legal defense if she ‰ did not support the DWP in the case. When her testimony in the case in 1993 nearly caused a mistrial, and the DWP was forced to grant the consultants new contracts, Barr says, she was ostracized and received limited work opportunities that led to her own emotional breakdown. “I was too ill to think, work or live,” Barr says.
The 54-year-old Barr is a former class president at California State University, Dominguez Hills, with a degree in public administration. She trained in the DWP’s Office of Chief Legislative Analyst. Former Mayor Tom Bradley once lauded her for recruiting minority contractors. After the trial in 1993, she was hospitalized for depression and suffered long periods of disability. She remains on medication for a mood disorder. In 2002, after she fought unsuccessfully for promotional opportunities for four years, she sued the department along with three other women. Barr has been on permanent disability, which the DWP is paying under a workers’ compensation settlement, since 2002.
According to Barr’s lawsuit in Superior Court, the DWP rewards male employees with better pay and opportunities by manipulating the job-classification system to deny promotions to women. The DWP retaliates against those who complain through the use of false promises and investigations designed to intimidate them, Barr claims. In 1998, Barr began complaining that the DWP would not upgrade her employment status to equal that of her male predecessor. In August 2000, after she complained directly to her boss, former Distribution Manager Mahmud Chaudhry, she was removed from a companywide task force assigned to develop a budget and cost system for the DWP, she says. Chaudhry would not give her a reason for the removal, says Barr, who considered it retaliation. McGuirk was the EEOS manager, but Barr says the DWP had rendered her ineffective by then. “Use the word discrimination at DWP and your career is over,” says Barr, who would commiserate with McGuirk. Barr recalls that McGuirk had warned her of retaliation.
Fear, suspicion and secrecy had become pervasive at the DWP when, in May 2001, Barr and 19 others were asked to participate in an investigation of the Human Relations Department to assess its compliance with equal-opportunity protocols, treatment of employees and workplace morale. The investigation was spearheaded by Assistant City Attorneys Rosales and Lowenthal, along with McGuirk, at the request of incoming General Manager David Wiggs. Barr and the other interviewees received written assurance from Wiggs, who had brought in a special investigator from Texas, that they would remain anonymous and free from retaliation. Barr recalls driving in a car from the DWP motor pool to the Wilshire Grand Hotel with Rosales. “He told me he was scared to be participating in the process,” Barr says. “Colleagues of mine were showing up in baseball caps and sunglasses.” Rosales says the matter was unnerving. They even announced one location for the interviews and changed it at the last minute, he says. “My car wouldn’t start that day,” says Rosales. “I was afraid to try the ignition a second time.”
The investigation focused on Assistant General Manager Raj, the head of Labor Relations, who sources say was responsible for demoting McGuirk and compromising the DWP’s equal-opportunity office. In 1999, David Freeman had hired Raj on the recommendation of Jackie Goldberg, then a city councilwoman, but over the objection of Mayor Richard Riordan. Raj had been a labor negotiator with the Metropolitan Transit Authority, where sources say he ran afoul of management. Freeman says he is not sure if Raj was fired or resigned. (After a brief telephone conversation, Raj canceled two interviews for this story.) Freeman also maintains that management at the DWP had seen enough of him and Raj as well. “I was pro-labor, and DWP was determined to get rid of me and all vestiges of me,” Freeman says. “For all I know, Raman said something to piss someone off. But his performance was on par with oodles of people they kept.”
After the hotel interview, Barr says, DWP employees started asking her about it. Her anonymity had been violated, she says. The DWP also had used her psychiatric information to deny her promotions, she says. Barr claims she was victimized for complaining about job discrimination and for cooperating with the hotel interviews. Several months later, Raj was fired. He filed a claim for wrongful discharge, however, and as part of a settlement was allowed to resign in August 2001. But not before he bypassed civil-service procedures and accelerated the promotion of several key figures, two of whom remain at the DWP: Director of Labor Relations Peter Lakatos and Director of Human Resources Michelle Nagin. In her lawsuit, Barr claims that Lakatos and Nagin , along with former Director of Labor Relations Albert Magwene, acted as Raj’s henchmen in retaliating against minorities and women who complained about discrimination. “Raman could not hold people back by himself, he needed lieutenants,” Barr says. (In McGuirk’s complaint to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing in March 2001, she described being told by Magwene that if she crossed Raj she would be “dealt with ruthlessly.”) Shortly before Raj was fired, Barr says, McGuirk came to her office in tears, distraught that Lakatos would not come clean about the nature of his own promotion. “Imelda was on medication, and she told me she had thought about committing suicide,” Barr says. “That was the last time I saw her.” Nagin and Lakatos would not comment for this story.
Barr’s final days at the DWP were bizarre. By October 2001, she had been turned down for seven promotions. Then her boss, Mahmud Chaudhry, asked her to join him, Utility Supervisor Thomas Parker and Assistant Distribution Director Thomas McCarthy at a conference in Orlando, Florida. The implication, Barr thought, was that Chaudhry was coming through with her promotion. “It was like a family vacation,” she says, still perplexed by the trip. Once in Florida, Barr says, Chaudhry urged her to blow off the conference and go sightseeing at Cape Canaveral. She and Chaudhry posed for a charcoal caricature sketch, she says. “They bought me a lot of drinks, and encouraged me to stay up late talking,” says Barr, who was taking lithium at the time. “I couldn’t tell what was going on. All they wanted to know was if I was suing DWP. I’d go back to my hotel room and cry.” Chaudhry, in customer service at the DWP, did not return calls for comment.
Barr may never get her career back. Divorced, with three grown children, she is facing a brutal court battle. Attorneys for the DWP will paint her as a crazy woman, she says. “My experience at DWP could fill a book,” Barr says. “It hurts. I love DWP, but I hate what it does to people.” Part of what motivates her is the women and minority women who have been driven away, Barr says, choking back tears. Legal experts say her case is similar to the recent class action filed by female employees of Wal-Mart. “No question that throwing myself in front of a Mack truck would be less painful than this,” she says.
The DWP could never break Milt Crawford — even after its attorneys from Foley & Lardner litigated his retirement benefits for seven months following his settlement. Though it is not likely the City Attorney’s Office realized it at the time, what with all the rancor that had developed, he was trying to tell them something. They responded by spending ratepayer dollars on outside legal costs and settling lawsuits under dubious confidentiality agreements. Now the DWP is still defending several other lawsuits charging discrimination, harassment and retaliation, Barr’s included. Just recently it settled another one under strict confidentiality.
After years of dysfunction and discrimination at the DWP, the five-member Board of Commissioners, which includes a Latina, a Korean-American woman, an African-American male and a Latino, finally took action — but did nothing it intended to make public. In 2001 and 2002, the DWP paid the law firm of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips $500,000 to investigate discrimination complaints and to do a confidential internal study and make recommendations for reform. It also paid another firm $130,000 to assist with a backlog of discrimination investigations. As a result of the Manatt study, the DWP has paid $2 million to outside consultants to provide equal-opportunity training, and expanded the EEOS’s budget to $4 million. Renette Anderson, the head of EEOS, now reports directly to acting General Manager Henry Martinez. (Former acting General Manager Frank Salas stepped down Tuesday in the wake of the Fleishman-Hillard public-relations scandal, and would not comment for this story.) Anderson says she is not fazed by the DWP’s sordid past. “My goal is to make DWP a best-practices employer within the next five years,” says Anderson, a veteran equal-opportunity expert with a law degree from Pepperdine University.
Yet a hostile environment still exists at the DWP for blue-collar minorities, according to current and former workers. “It’s business as usual as far as I know,” Serna says. “The battle is far from over.” For women seeking the same promotional opportunities as their male counterparts, a glass ceiling remains firmly in place. “The denial of individual opportunities for advancement by a government entity is the ultimate hypocrisy,” says J. Bernard Alexander III, who recently settled a discrimination lawsuit for $300,000 on behalf of an African-American woman who alleged she was passed over for promotion in favor of a white male with less experience than she.
Meanwhile, elected officials who should know better continue to defer to the DWP and the City Attorney’s Office. The Los Angeles City Council has not formally taken any action in 10 years to address discrimination at the DWP. City Councilman Tony Cardenas, chair of the Commerce, Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has asked legislative analysts to study the City Charter to determine the legality of confidential settlements by the DWP. He has not taken a position. And, based on advice from the City Attorney’s Office, City Controller Laura Chick has refused to release financial information related to harassment settlements by the DWP.
On a recent Friday, relaxing at home, where a framed copy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech hangs by the door, and photographs of his children and grandchildren line the walls of his study, Crawford reflects back on his experience at the DWP. He says if he had to do it over, he would not have accepted a confidential settlement. “I couldn’t see any redeeming value in fighting more than I had,” he says. Crawford figures he was offered hush money more than compensation for his damages, which were stress-related and hard to prove. Still, a jury might have been outraged to hear what he had to say. “I was a nuisance,” he says. “Someone to be gotten rid of.”
Crawford likes to say his life is made up of little stories. The DWP will be a long, ugly chapter. “You would think, after having a black mayor for 20 years and a couple of black police chiefs, that life in this town would not be so blatantly along race lines,” he says wearily. “To think that racism is so embedded in our institutions, and to flaunt the notion there’s nothing we can do about it, is offensive.” Yet that’s not entirely true, he realizes, perking up at the thought of all the grievance hearings he won before the Civil Service Commission — many against superiors in the City Attorney’s Office. “I had the rules memorized,” he recalls. “And I had read the opinions of Justice Thurgood Marshall. See, I know our history.”