The political rise of Senator Kamala Harris: From California attorney to Congress
A misconduct claim naming one of Kamala Harris’ top deputies arrived at the California Department of Justice three months before Harris left the attorney general’s office in early 2017.
The Democratic senator has said she had no knowledge of the discrimination and retaliation complaint involving Larry Wallace, a longtime aide and one of her closest professional confidantes, before The Bee inquired about it last week. A lawsuit by Wallace’s former executive assistant against the department, which ultimately settled for $400,000, was filed just days before Harris was sworn into the U.S. Senate.
But an intake form from the Equal Employment Rights and Resolution Office, which oversees discrimination investigations and compliance at the Department of Justice, shows that the department was first notified on Oct. 3, 2016, of Danielle Hartley’s intent to pursue legal action.
Hartley had already requested the right to sue from the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Her complaint, filed in late September, alleged sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation by “Wallace and those who worked for him.” It named the Department of Justice, Division of Law Enforcement, as respondent and Wallace, the division’s director, as a co-respondent.
The department’s EER&R form briefly describes Hartley’s allegations that she “experienced discrimination, harassment, retaliation, demotion,” among other violations of federal equal employment law, and names Wallace as her division chief.
Noting that Hartley had sought an immediate right to sue, the intake analyst wrote that “No action is required by the Department” and referred the complaint to “Intake Results.”
Jill Telfer, Hartley’s attorney, said she served the right-to-sue complaint to the EER&R office as she was preparing Hartley’s lawsuit against the Department of Justice, which was filed nearly three months later, on Dec. 30, 2016.
In the suit, Hartley accused Wallace of “gender harassment,” including that he frequently forced her to crawl under his desk to change the paper and ink in his printer, and the department of retaliating against her when she complained about his behavior.
The lawsuit settled for $400,000 in May 2017, two months after Harris hired Wallace as a senior adviser in her Sacramento field office. He resigned the position last week. The settlement was reached by Harris’ replacement as attorney general, Xavier Becerra.
Harris, who is currently weighing a run for president in 2020, told The Bee last Friday that she took “full responsibility for what happened in my office.” She said she was “frustrated” that she hadn’t been briefed on the complaint against Wallace, which she considered a “breakdown” in the system.
“That’s what makes me upset about this. There’s no question I should have been informed about this. There’s no question. And there were ample opportunities when I could have been informed,” said Harris, who has been a prominent voice in the #MeToo movement against workplace sexual harassment.
The Department of Justice declined to comment on what happened with the EER&R complaint regarding Hartley’s right to sue, who was notified about it and whether an internal investigation was launched.
Complaints are normally assessed by the office to determine whether they demonstrate that a “protected characteristic may have been a factor in an adverse employment situation,” thus prompting an investigation, according to spokeswoman Bethany Lesser. The results of the investigation are shared with the chief deputy of the attorney general, who decides whether a policy has been violated and action should be taken.
But in the “unusual circumstance” where an employee only requests an immediate right to sue, Lesser wrote in an email, there would not be an EER&R investigation. “The fact of a complaint with a right to sue attached would be shared with legal counsel,” Lesser wrote, and “the complaint would be handled and investigated by the Department’s counsel as part of the litigation process.”
Telfer said the department never followed up with Hartley, who was still an employee at the time, to acknowledge receipt of the EER&R complaint or to attempt to resolve her concerns outside of the court process.
She found it odd that the department did not begin looking into Hartley’s case as soon as she provided notice of her intent to sue.
“It makes no sense to me that they would say they’re not going to investigate that, because now they have legal exposure,” Telfer said.
Mary-Alice Coleman, a Davis employment law attorney who has also sued state agencies, agreed. She said the whole purpose of requesting the right to sue through the Department of Fair Employment and Housing is that it serves as an early notification system for organizations, so they can begin “making some inquiries to see whether this is something explosive that is going to rock your whole department or just a little bump in the road.”
“Good management, in my mind, would implement a process so that it wouldn’t just sit on a desk,” Coleman said. “It’s really an inappropriate response if no action is taken.”