Crime - Sacto 911

A prison officer was charged with groping. The state now refuses to provide records

Days after Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that will open files in police sexual misconduct cases next year, state prison officials refused to release records that could show if a recent groping charge filed against a prison captain is indicative of a larger pattern at the facility.

Last week, The Sacramento Bee reported that High Desert State Prison Capt. Christopher Lewis was charged Sept. 5 in Lassen Superior Court with a misdemeanor count of groping an unidentified woman.

Details about the allegation were scant.

State officials declined to say whether the woman was an inmate or a fellow employee at the Susanville prison.

In a brief statement last week, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said its internal affairs investigators were working with the Highway Patrol on the case.

Lewis’ criminal case came less than a month after the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing gave a High Desert employee permission to sue the prison system over allegations Lewis subjected her to “severe, pervasive and unwanted sexual conduct and comments” that began in January 2017 and lasted for a year. She alleged she faced retaliation when she complained to prison officials.

It’s not clear whether the woman named in the state filing is the same person as the “Jane Doe” described in the criminal complaint.

The day after the story published, The Bee filed a request under the California Public Records Act seeking any complaints filed the past three years by High Desert employees alleging they were sexually harassed, abused or mistreated by coworkers.

The paper also sought records in which prison officials discussed the complaints, as well as Lewis’ emails dating back to the 2017 criminal allegation.

Corrections officials on Thursday declined to release any of the records, citing exemptions to the Records Act that allow investigative and other files to be kept secret.

The Sacramento Bee plans to protest the state’s denial, said Karl Olson, an attorney who represents The Bee in public records cases.

CDCR’s denial of The Bee’s request comes less than a week after Gov. Brown signed laws intended to open records in certain law enforcement misconduct cases, such as those in which officers are found to have committed sexual assault.

Prior to the legislation, California had one of the strictest police privacy laws in the country. It was a criminal offense for agencies to release peace officers’ disciplinary files, internal affairs investigations or any complaints, substantiated or not.

This legislation Brown signed allows for the public to inspect records that include sustained findings of sexual assault or cases in which it was proven an officer lied on the job.

The bill doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1. Open records advocates say CDCR’s denial of The Bee’s request at the very least violates the spirit of new legislation.

“In light of the Legislature’s recent strong action demanding access to police records, flat-out denying access is contrary to that,” said Nikki Moore, an attorney who represents the California Newspaper Publishers Association, which helped write the new law.

However, Moore and other experts said it’s unlikely the new legislation would play a role should The Bee sue CDCR to unseal the documents.

Besides not taking effect until January, the law’s sexual misconduct provision only applies when assaults occur to members of the public who are “not employed by the officer’s employing agency.”

Moore said the intent of the bill was to focus on police abuses of authority, separate from sexual misconduct in the workplace.

The allegations against Lewis come as critics accuse CDCR of fostering a culture of sexual harassment behind prison walls, a charge the agency denies.

A Sacramento Bee investigation published in January found that the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had paid out more than $15 million to settle sexual harassment and abuse complaints the past three fiscal years, more than any other state department.

The largest settlement — $10 million — went to four young men in a Southern California youth correctional facility. They accused a male staff counselor of coercing them into sex in exchange for contraband and special treatment.

CDCR spokeswoman Waters told The Bee in January that “even one harassment complaint is one too many,” and her agency encourages reporting complaints, but she said the sheer size of the department may skew the numbers. CDCR has more than 61,000 employees – about a quarter of the state’s entire executive branch.

The Bee’s January investigation highlighted a sexual harassment complaint at High Desert in which a woman alleged one of her supervisors engaged in unwelcome, sexually-charged behavior.

Diana Bernhardt, a former office assistant at the Susanville prison, alleged that a male supervisor, Lt. David Griffith, made unwanted sexual advances, called her and others “pissy-pants,” grabbed a co-worker’s breast in front of her and pulled down his trousers to expose his bare buttocks, bragging that he had butt scratches from his sexual encounters.

Bernhardt settled her case for $310,000.