Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: City needs to be transparent in investigation of Councilman Allen Warren

Allen Warren, at the time a City Council candidate, talks with supporters at his campaign headquarters on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012.
Allen Warren, at the time a City Council candidate, talks with supporters at his campaign headquarters on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012. Sacramento Bee file

It’s dispiriting to watch City Hall circling the wagons on a sexual harassment claim involving councilman Allen Warren.

It’s been nearly six months since Delia Chacon, a former aide of Warren, filed a claim against the Del Paso Heights councilman that contained several alarming allegations. Chief among them: That Warren created an atmosphere of “quid pro quo sexual harassment” in which Chacon was coerced into submitting to Warren’s sexual desires. If she denied him, Chacon alleged, she would have been fired. She claims she eventually did deny him and eventually was fired. The circumstances of her termination remain unclear, but more about that in a moment.

Also among the allegations in the claim: That she and Warren had sex at her home during working hours and on trips to Atlanta, Jamaica, Reno and Oroville, where Warren would use “shotguns for target practice while Ms. Chacon watched fearfully.” Chacon claims that she developed “anxiety, depression and PTSD,” due to Warren’s alleged sexual harassment.

Warren denies the allegations, and he deserves the benefit of the doubt until the case is settled. But just how that case is being settled, and how information is being shared, should cause concern for voters who want to hold elected officials accountable for their actions.

The city of Sacramento hired an outside law firm to investigate Chacon’s sexual harassment claim. Lawyers from the Van Dermyden Maddux law firm turned over their findings to the city on Dec. 29. However, the city won’t make the findings public, citing attorney-client privilege among other reasons.

Withholding the results of the investigation at this point is a terrible look for Warren and for a city that likes to claim openness in its government.

Sacramento officials may be covered legally while claiming attorney-client privilege, but they can’t claim transparency or anything within 1,000 miles of it. The City Council has met in closed session about the findings, but council members aren’t allowed to speak publicly about what’s been discussed.

This past summer, in the wake of Chacon’s and other sexual harassment allegations, Councilman Steve Hansen pushed to change the culture at City Hall. He has said he wants to make sure the city is responsive to sexual harassment claims. He has said he wants city employees to feel safe. But the city has taken sizable steps backward amid the secrecy and stonewalling on the Warren case.

“If women don’t ever know an employer was disciplined for sexual harassment … you’re not going to have women filing complaints,” said Martha West, professor emeritus at UC Davis Law School.

When making claims, city employees need to feel that they have advocates inside the building, West said, and that they will be protected against retaliation. If not “they could lose their jobs and no one would ever know why,” she said.

That’s exactly what’s happening with Chacon right now.

What can we deduce from the city’s stonewalling? The city has said that the records are exempt from public disclosure in part because they were “generated in anticipation of litigation.” However, Chacon won’t talk and neither will her lawyer. Still, as others have pointed out, the city could share the general findings of the investigation without revealing anything compromising or sensitive.

According to West and other legal experts, the Warren case will remain a mystery until Chacon files a lawsuit, the city offers her a settlement or Warren is censured in some way.

Until that time, James Sanchez – Sacramento’s city attorney – is giving a pretty good imitation of someone in the witness protection program. It’s interesting how Sanchez’s office is often so eager to discuss certain lawsuits – those challenging the downtown arena or Sacramento’s legal battle to maintain its anti-camping ordinance that’s being challenged by homeless advocates – but so quiet about others. Transparency only seems to matter when it serves their purposes.

Maybe the claims against Warren are false. Maybe they’re true. If neither the city nor Chacon takes action against Warren, it’s possible that we might never know the findings of the investigation.

It’s curious how the city has handled this case differently from the sexual harassment allegations filed against Mayor Kevin Johnson last year. In that case, an outside law firm hired by the city determined the allegations were unsubstantiated. After the investigation was completed, the law firm and Sanchez released a joint public statement about the findings.

Not so with Warren. In this instance, the city has done its due diligence but is not rendering any public judgment on the merits of the case.

Warren is up for re-election this year and the filing deadline to challenge him is March 11. If this case drags beyond that time, it may be legally protected, but it will do a terrible disservice to voters in the Del Paso Heights district Warren represents – as well as to Sacramento as a whole.

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