Rarely has a city employee accused a Sacramento City Council member of sexual harassment. No one could recall it happening before Mayor Kevin Johnson and his close ally and friend, Councilman Allen Warren, both were alleged to have made unwelcome advances toward women working at City Hall.
That’s not to suggest that what would be considered sexual harassment today didn’t happen years ago – when workplace harassment of women was defined narrowly and was largely unpunished. It likely did, but people making formal claims of harassment and seeking damages against elected officials are uncommon for this city.
The accusation against Warren came to light on Monday and was provocative and detailed. As told by his accuser, Delia Chacon, it’s a narrative of “quid pro quo sexual harassment.” Chacon alleges that Warren used his authority “to repeatedly coerce her into submission to his repeated sexual requests.”
As Ryan Lillis of The Sacramento Bee wrote: “The claim states Chacon accompanied Warren on ‘sexual escapades to Atlanta, Jamaica, Reno and Oroville’ and allowed Warren “to grab and fondle her buttocks at work.”
Chacon’s claim also states that she tried to rebuff Warren’s advances but was threatened with termination if she did. She described herself as a single mom who couldn’t afford to lose her job.
The most disturbing allegation involved a trip Chacon says she made with Warren to his cabin near Oroville. She alleges that he brandished firearms that frightened her and that he laughed. “She feared for her life,” the claim states. “They proceeded to have relations. (Warren) told (Chacon) that at that cabin he could have done anything to her without anyone knowing.”
As Lillis wrote: “Chacon said in her claim that she was fired by the city on June 23 and that she was offered about $16,000 in a settlement agreement. However, it is unclear whether Chacon ever signed a settlement agreement or what issues the city would have settled over.”
In May, a female City Hall staffer claimed that Johnson touched her inappropriately and proposed they engage in a sexual relationship. Estrellita Ilee Muller sought $200,000 in her claim against Johnson. Sacramento’s city attorney and outside counsel hired by the city found the claim to be unsubstantiated.
Johnson denied the allegation and, very soon after it went public, Muller’s lawyer said Muller was “satisfied with the conclusion of this matter.”
The comment by Muller’s lawyer led to speculation that Muller and Johnson had reached some secret financial settlement. It sounds possible, given that Johnson had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with an underage girl when he was an NBA star. That relationship ended with a financial settlement that came with a gag order.
But we don’t know. Neither one is talking. Johnson has been press-shy this summer as negative headlines have piled up in light of Muller’s accusation and disputes over his emails and whether they should be made public.
Johnson and Warren deserve their presumption of innocence. But these are civil matters, not criminal ones. There is a process the city will undertake by hiring outside counsel to investigate the Warren matter. The process could take many weeks, and judgments should be withheld until its conclusion.
Nevertheless, these are two men who rose from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods – Johnson is from Oak Park and Warren is from Del Paso Heights. That they have found themselves accused of exploiting authority rarely wielded by African Americans in this city is dispiriting.
Johnson and Warren are not only friends and close political allies, they are both former athletes. Warren was a star, playing football, basketball and baseball at Grant High School. Johnson is, in my opinion, the greatest prep athlete ever to come out of the city of Sacramento. His number is retired at the gym at UC Berkeley, and he was an NBA superstar.
Sadly, accusations of sexual misconduct – be they harassment or infidelity or promiscuity – are not new, and not surprising anymore, in the world of sports and politics.
Former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is running for governor in three years, but he made headlines in 2007 for having an affair with the wife of his campaign manager. How do you do that? How do you have an affair with the wife of the guy working day and night for you? Yet that same year, Newsom was re-elected as mayor. In 2010, he was elected lieutenant governor of California and by 2018, it’s unlikely that his disloyalty will count against him in a meaningful way.
He’ll likely run against Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, who also had an affair and got divorced while in office.
Sacramento voters knew very well about Johnson’s past when he ran for office in 2008. More sexual accusations surfaced after he announced his candidacy, yet none were proved and voters were unmoved by them. He won easily and was re-elected easily.
That reality enrages his detractors. Some are still screaming about it years later, but it’s no less true.
Still, are we growing inured to accusations of sexual misconduct by our politicians?
No. In addition to ignominy, Warren could face a political price if the city is forced to pay a large settlement in the claim against him.
But even more importantly, you feel for his wife and family – and for the spouse of Mayor Johnson. Elected office has provided these two men with access to power and perks, but the downside is a loss of privacy when public accusations are made. You take the good with the bad in public life, but despite the downside of elected office, the officeholder still has the office. The spouse only gets the scandal.
Moreover, you wonder if there is a larger problem at Sacramento City Hall that has been illuminated by these two complaints. Where once several women served on the council at the same time, now there is only Mayor Pro Tem Angelique Ashby. There is only one female charter officer – City Clerk Shirley Concolino. And only four of 11 city department heads are women (though one is an interim).
I’ve spoken with women at City Hall who still see an old-boys network. They see too many instances in which they don’t feel valued. And clearly, two felt abused and have taken action.
As officials circle the wagons in the Warren case, someone in that building needs to ask a hard question: Is there a culture at City Hall – a vacuum of leadership – behind these sexual harassment claims?