Officials at the Porterville Developmental Center in the Sierra foothills won’t allow public tours so the privacy and dignity of the mentally disabled people who live there are protected.
Behind the walls, though, the state facility allegedly was a hotspot of sexual harassment and retaliation among peace officers charged with protecting vulnerable residents.
According to a 2013 federal lawsuit – which cost California taxpayers $1.6 million – five peace officers accused five fellow officers of groping, leering, making vulgar comments, spreading sexually explicit rumors, penning anonymous threatening notes, playing suggestively with a banana, displaying pornographic images on a work computer and other demeaning conduct.
After the first $600,000 settlement was reached, the state acted: It promoted one of the accused officers, David L. Corral, gave him a new title, a 23 percent raise and sent him to a sister facility 200 miles away in Costa Mesa.
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Within 16 months, Corral was accused of sexual harassment again. Once again, the state paid out big, this time for $400,000.
“They were moving the problem,” said Los Angeles attorney Paul Hundley, who represented the victim, Jennifer Quinonez, in the second case. “... It was horrendous.”
In California state government, being named in a costly claim is not necessarily a career-breaker, according to a Sacramento Bee examination of sexual harassment cases settled over the past three years.
Of the 16 cases in which individual defendants were named, and payouts were more than $150,000, 10 employees continued to receive pay raises and two were promoted.
As is typical, the departments settled the cases with no admission of wrongdoing.
Corral denies harassing anybody and says he was punished for blowing the whistle on other departmental misconduct. He was dismissed from the first suit after a judge decided the allegations against him weren't "severe enough," and Corral had declared bankruptcy.
Like Corral, though, other defendants in sexual harassment cases have moved around the system.
- A correctional officer accused in a 2012 lawsuit of harassing and stalking a female guard was moved to another maximum security prison 250 miles away, where his total pay steadily rose until he retired in 2017 with a $48,000 annual pension. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation settled the lawsuit for $750,000.
One peace officer who was at the center of two sexual harassment and retaliation settlements totaling $1.1 million was granted a state medical retirement, then returned 3½ years later as a post-retirement worker, collecting more pay. Before his return, he had petitioned the state for additional benefits after accusing the Department of Consumer Affairs of ruining his health with all its "groundless" internal investigations into his conduct.
- In at least three instances, accused harassers bounced from one department to another, even after large settlements were reached. A male supervisor at the California Highway Patrol, whose conduct led to a $600,000 settlement, is now at a different department earning 36 percent more than when he joined the CHP in December 2011.
The state acknowledges that its handling of sexual harassment cases has been inconsistent, with some in-house Equal Employment Opportunity officers inadequately trained by their departments. In April, based on advice from a working group, Cabinet Secretary Keely Martin Bosler directed departments to expand training for their EEO officers, update procedures and establish a system to track complaints.
For some, the action is too little, too late.
“Me and my kids paid a very, very high price – too high a price,” said Jennifer Quinonez, a former office technician at the Fairview Developmental Center who sued Corral and the department in 2016.
According to her lawsuit, Corral targeted her in 2015 from the very beginning – during the job interview process – and hounded and harassed her over the next five months with “unrelenting pressure to have sex.”
“I had to do whatever he said, or he’d make life hell for you there… It was just awful,” she said.
A divorced mother of three, Quinonez was fired, and her family became homeless, living in a Jeep outside Walmart before her lawsuit was resolved.
Not only does California fail to track the frequency of sexual harassment allegations across all departments, as reported earlier by The Bee, but the state requires each department to investigate its own cases and decide how accused perpetrators and their victims will be treated.
Unlike private-sector employers, which usually rely on a central human resources department, each state entity is responsible for its own background checks on new workers or on those transferring in from other corners of state government.
Outcomes vary widely.
Among the 107 cases reviewed by The Bee, which encompassed 24 different state agencies and both public university systems, accused harassers have been demoted, promoted, shuffled around their own departments, shipped off to others, docked in pay, bumped in pay, forced to write apology letters – and, in most cases, had their legal fees completely covered by the state.
Meanwhile, at least a third of the alleged victims who reached settlements in the last three years resigned or were forced to leave as part of the settlement, according to The Bee’s analysis. Many were required to sign settlement agreements that guaranteed them payouts – but only if they quit, never to reapply for employment again.
For some accused harassers, there are options in the vast state bureaucracy.
Consider the case of Dennis B. Kellogg.
Kellogg has worked more than 28 straight years as a labor relations specialist for the state of California, winding his way through six departments – three of them multiple times.
Along the way, he has been accused of sexual harassment in three lawsuits filed by three female state workers and one male. The allegations, arising from the Department of Rehabilitation and the Department of Parks and Recreation, described a pattern of behavior in which Kellogg allegedly would instigate personal conversations about sex, touch and grab subordinates, make lewd comments and ogle his co-workers’ bodies.
Two of the lawsuits cost taxpayers $841,500 to settle. The state has no record of any settlement being reached in the third case.
“They shuffled him around. There was never any justice,” said Annette Unruh, a former Department of Rehabilitation analyst who filed her lawsuit in 2006 against Kellogg, personnel officer Deborah Yue and the department.
The case was settled for $276,500 in 2008. By then, Kellogg had moved on to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
“It’s like in the Catholic church, the priests moving from place to place to place to place,” Unruh said. “If nothing stops it, it’s just going to keep going.”
Under California civil service rules, an employee who has gained permanent civil service status in a classification by passing probation has a right to return to that job if their next civil service job doesn’t work out for a variety of reasons. For instance, the worker has return rights if the employee is rejected on probation or is demoted from a managerial position in the new job, or if the position is eliminated.
Workers fired for cause from permanent positions do not have return rights.
Kellogg adamantly denies the claims in all three lawsuits. In a recent interview at his former lawyer’s office near the Capitol, he was flanked by two former female supervisors, including Yue, who support his version of events.
Like several other defendants interviewed by The Bee, Kellogg said the system is especially unfair to the accused. He said he wanted to fight the allegations against him, see the cases go to trial and clear his name, he said.
“You are guilty by accusation, not by a trial, not by an analysis of the facts,” he said.
Kellogg said it is not at all unusual for labor relations specialists to move through different agencies to widen their knowledge and improve their prospects for promotion.
“In labor relations, it is an advantage to work in various departments with various department missions,” he said.
While the first two lawsuits against him involved the Department of Rehabilitation, it was at the Department of Parks and Recreation that Kellogg was sued a third time by two female employees. In 2010, Dianne Chapin, a labor relations specialist, and Tammy Helie, a staff services analyst, filed a lawsuit in Sacramento Superior Court in which Kellogg’s history became a key element.
According to the lawsuit, the department knew that Kellogg had been sued twice before for sexual harassment, and that Chapin had asked for “protection and guidance from the agency to keep herself and other employees safe in the workplace.” Instead, the lawsuit contends, Chapin and other workers were told not to discuss Kellogg’s history.
The state settled the case in 2013 for $565,000, but Kellogg already had left the parks department to go back to the DMV – his second time at that agency.
Until recently, Kellogg had a “limited term appointment” at the California Department of Human Resources, where he was earning about $91,000 annually, his highest pay in nearly three decades of state service, according to the Controller’s Office.
Kellogg acknowledged that he was terminated at Cal HR in March, but the details were not immediately released to The Sacramento Bee. Kellogg said his dismissal had nothing to do with sexual harassment.
He is now back at the DMV.
Some accused harassers fired
Some argue the state is prudent to resolve contentious cases, even when the accuser’s story is suspect. In lawsuits, the state's legal team weighs a host of risk factors, including the possibility of an even larger judgment – and the investment of additional time and resources.
And while some accused perpetrators have held onto their state jobs, others have been fired – and required to help pay the settlement costs.
William E. Flores, a former parole agent with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, was terminated for cause in 2011 after he was found to have had "improper, overly-familiar relationships and sexual misconduct” with two female parolees, according to CalPERS documents. Flores had applied in 2016 for an industrial disability retirement, which was rejected because he had been fired for cause.
One of the harassment cases, filed by Leah Buck, was settled in 2014 for $27,750. As part of the agreement, Flores was required to contribute $7,750 toward the settlement.
Even so, it is rare that California requires sexual harassment defendants to reach into their own pockets, according to more than a dozen employment attorneys contacted by The Bee.
Genie Harrison, a Los Angeles employment lawyer, said that office friendships and allegiances can influence and even tilt the outcomes of sexual harassment cases.
“In bureaucracies, it’s easier not to hold people accountable because there often times are long-standing relationships,” she said.
“Work relationships turn into friendships. People help each other get promoted,” she said. “There’s a perception that one owes the other.”
David Thornton was chief of enforcement at the Medical Board of California when an old friend, Jerry A. Smith, joined the board as supervising investigator in 2000.
Smith, who previously was an investigator at the board’s umbrella agency, the Department of Consumer Affairs, was godfather to Thornton’s child, according to court documents. The two men went fishing together and their families socialized, court records state.
Within six months, Thornton, who was Smith’s supervisor, was investigating his old friend over allegations that Smith had created a hostile work environment with his sexually inappropriate comments and racial slurs. Thornton found no evidence of a hostile work environment in his investigation, but he did sustain the allegation that Smith had made racial slurs, according to the confidential report, dated July 13, 2001.
In a recent interview, Thornton told The Bee that his friendship with Smith was long over by that time, and that he also had found Smith’s behavior offensive and disruptive.
“He probably never should have been promoted, but that wasn’t my decision to do that,” said Thornton, noting that he had inherited Smith, already a supervisor, from the Department of Consumer Affairs.
In 2005, the matter turned into a contentious sexual harassment lawsuit that dragged on for five years, ending in 2010 with a $750,000 settlement against the medical board. The suit, which named Smith and Thornton and three other senior managers, described a workplace replete with sexual activity, harassment and racial discrimination.
Smith already had been named in an earlier sexual harassment case that settled for $350,000.
Despite the sizable settlements, Smith was granted a medical retirement in 2003 and returned to state service in 2007 as a retired annuitant. A retired annuitant is an employee retired from state civil service who is rehired to work up to 960 hours in a fiscal year - 24 weeks – without losing CalPERS retirement benefits.
Smith had pursued extra compensation even before his formal retirement. In 2002, he petitioned the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board for additional benefits, arguing that he was subjected to a hostile work environment due to the numerous investigations of his conduct that he characterized as "without merit and groundless." In the petition, he accused the Department of Consumer Affairs of "serious and willful misconduct" that resulted in his debilitating stress, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Smith did not return Bee phone calls for comment. The outcome of his appeal is unclear, as the documents have not yet been released by the Department of Industrial Relations.
Thornton also signed on as a retired annuitant, as did another defendant in the case, Denise Brown, the former deputy director of the Department of Consumer Affairs.
California has found ways to resurrect the careers of some accused offenders and shield them from negative fallout.
In 2016, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation settled a sexual harassment lawsuit for $750,000 following an accusation against prison guard Sydney Smyth.
It was the highest amount paid by the department to an individual plaintiff in the last three fiscal years, according to a Bee investigation published in January.
Irma B. Sanchez, a former correctional officer, had accused him of sexually harassing her over about a three-year period. Among other things, Sanchez had accused Smyth of repeatedly rubbing up against her, staring at her breasts and crotch, making offensive sexual comments, stalking her and calling her at home.
“I was scared to go to work, I was scared to come out of my house. It was horrible,” she said. “I felt so helpless.”
Smyth transferred to San Quentin in 2014 and, with overtime, increased his total pay by 13 percent in his final 2 ½ years as a state employee. Smyth, who could not be reached by phone or mail, retired last year with a $48,000 annual pension.
Sanchez retired from the department in early 2016 and is still looking for work.
While Smyth stayed within his department, one former CHP manager, Leonard Johnson III, was able to move on following his demotion.
Hired by the CHP as a data processing manager in December 2011, Johnson was soon accused of harassing a female office assistant, Carmyn Fields. In her 2014 lawsuit, which later settled for $600,000, Fields claimed that Johnson repeatedly caressed her hair, sat in her lap while wiggling and grinding and forcibly tried to kiss her.
The CHP demoted Johnson in May 2013 for engaging in “repeated inappropriate incidents.”
Less than a year later, Johnson had moved on to the Franchise Tax Board with a 5 percent pay bump, according to the Controller’s Office. After two more stops in 2016, he landed at the Department of Health Care Services in August 2017 as a staff information systems analyst.
Johnson’s base pay of $7,253 a month is about 36 percent higher than when he joined the CHP in December 2011.
Anthony Cava, a spokesman for the Department of Health Care Services, said in an email that the department was aware of the $600,000 settlement when Johnson was hired.
“Mr. Johnson was disciplined five years ago by the CHP and hired by DHCS into a non-supervisorial position,” Cava wrote.
Fields, who was required to retire as a term of her settlement, said she was crushed to leave a job she loved. She hopes the Legislature will seize on this aspect of sexual harassment cases and provide equity for victims.
“All of those people have the power to give me my job back,” she said.