Joyce Terhaar

Secrecy at Sacramento City Hall begs questions

On May 14, Sacramento Bee reporters Ryan Lillis and Marissa Lang broke the story that another sexual harassment allegation had been made against Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.
On May 14, Sacramento Bee reporters Ryan Lillis and Marissa Lang broke the story that another sexual harassment allegation had been made against Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. Sacramento Bee file photo

If you believe public employees and officials should be accountable to the public they serve, recent news from the city of Sacramento should give you pause.

The first news story seemed somewhat simple: The city’s new budget proposes an extraordinary increase in staff for Mayor Kevin Johnson, from seven to 12 people. Turns out, one of those staffers was hired well in advance of any public vote on the budget. And, inexplicably, for 27 days the city refused to disclose who was hired or what that person’s job would be. Why? Such information is routinely public.

The second story involves an investigation and lawyers, many sealed lips and little public accountability.

On May 14, Bee reporters Ryan Lillis and Marissa Lang broke the story that another sexual harassment allegation had been made against Johnson. The mayor held a hurried news conference denying the allegation as he read a prepared statement. He said he couldn’t answer questions on advice of city counsel. His spokesman, Steven Maviglio, deflected questions.

What we know is this: Estrellita Ilee Muller filed a claim in April alleging the mayor sexually harassed her multiple times while on the job at City Hall, and her supervisors did not protect her. The claim followed a separate formal discrimination complaint with the city’s Human Resources Department last October. The city investigated and denied Muller’s claim, according to City Attorney James Sanchez. The City Council voted 7-0 in closed session to approve the denial.

Attorney Etan Rosen represented Muller, and was initially talking to Bee reporters; however, those talks ceased after a statement issued by the mayor’s office on behalf of Rosen following the mayor’s press conference. The statement said Muller was “satisfied with the conclusion of the matter.” Muller herself texted The Bee a day later to say she could not comment.

Should the public be satisfied with this level of accountability as well?

We think not. Lillis and Lang have asked questions and requested documents under the Public Records Act. As I’m writing this, the response has mostly been no comment and no documents.

While Sanchez did say the city is not involved in settlement negotiations connected to the Muller allegations, he was not similarly conclusive about the question of any private settlement, saying only that “I’m not able to comment on any of that.”

Whether or not there is a private settlement is relevant for Sacramentans. Johnson has a history of allegations against him for sexual harassment and molestation, including a personal $230,000 settlement that was confidential until a Bee news report in 2008. The allegations never led to criminal charges.

In addition, the harassment is alleged to have happened at City Hall, against a city employee, whose formal allegation also states that city officials mishandled her complaint, and that the mayor behaved inappropriately toward other employees.

“If the mayor created a hostile work environment, we should know,” said City Editor Kevin Yamamura, who is directing our coverage. “If he did not create a hostile work environment, we should know why the city believes the allegation is false. And if he settles this on the side, it’s relevant because he would be paying someone to resolve an alleged incident that occurred by virtue of the power of his public office in a building that belongs to city residents.”

In his prepared statement in May, Johnson suggested that the newest allegations are politically motivated because the discrimination complaint was filed in October, just before voters went to the ballot to decide whether Sacramento should have a strong mayor.

Yet the allegations were not publicly revealed; voters – and the media – were unaware.

Dirty politics was the Johnson campaign’s response in 2008 as well, when allegations surfaced that a 17-year-old student at Sacramento High charter school had confided to a teacher she was inappropriately touched by Johnson.

The Bee reported that Johnson’s longtime attorney, Kevin Hiestand, questioned the girl with school officials before police were called in, even though California law required that authorities be notified immediately. She then recanted, and police investigators did not pursue a case.

Hiestand also was involved with a Phoenix police investigation into a 16-year-old girl’s allegation that Johnson, then a 29-year-old NBA star, molested her. The allegations came long before Johnson’s political career. But details of the investigation became public in Sacramento because Johnson’s mayoral opponent, Leonard Padilla, released the police report to the media. The Bee, however, obtained draft documents of the $230,000 settlement separately from the political campaigns.

It is common for reporters to run into sealed lips when they ask questions about legal issues involving government officials, although far less so for routine questions about newly hired staff.

Both situations, however, warrant questions. We’ll continue to ask.

Note: A previous version of this column incorrectly said City Attorney James Sanchez issued the statement on behalf of Estrelita Ilee Mulller, who has accused Mayor Kevin Johnson of sexual harassment. The statement was issued by the mayor's office on behalf of Muller's attorney, Etan Rosen.

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