An Orange County grand jury report issued Tuesday concludes that a perception exists among many investigators in the Orange County District Attorney’s Office that the unit is plagued with sexual harassment, favoritism and fear of retaliation for raising concerns.

Orange County grand jury report on hostile work environment. (PDF)

The grand jurors said they could not delve into the truth of the claims because they lack the authority to do so, but added that just the perception of a hostile workplace is enough to spur the panel to make multiple recommendations on addressing the issues.

The grand jury report states that “whether or not the specific allegations presented to the grand jury are true, the sheer volume and pervasiveness of the perception of favoritism and retaliation based on sexual relationships is problematic as that perception alone can create a hostile work environment. A hostile work environment can undermine morale, reduce productivity, negatively impact agency operations and can pose a financial liability for the county.”

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas issued a statement thanking the members of the grand jury “for their service to our community, for their report that provides a great recitation on the laws and policies regarding sexual harassment, and for recognizing that even a perception is important to address.”

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. Photo via orangecountyda.org

“The OCDA takes this issue seriously and has been conducting its own internal personnel investigation for the last seven months, taking appropriate actions as necessary,” he said. “I have requested that the OCGJ turn over any specific information on actionable items so we can bolster the current investigation; I eagerly await their response.”

The grand jury, which interviewed about 100 employees in the District Attorney’s Office, said some believe it would be pointless to raise concerns about a hostile workplace because their supervisors would not take it seriously. Some fear retaliation.

The grand jury also speculated that the bureau of investigators “has shifted away from its mission as a support unit for trial preparation and evolved into a separate law enforcement agency,” which also explains the reluctance to speak up.

“The solidarity of law enforcement personnel has been well documented and it was apparent to the OCGJ that many of the individuals we interviewed believe any problems faced by bureau employees should be dealt with in-house and not discussed outside the bureau,” the report says.

Some investigators have complained there is an “A” team of employees who socialize with management after hours and receive more favoritism, according to the grand jury, which also cited claims that “sexually suggestive pictures” are sent through emails and text messages among employees in the bureau. Some of the messages also include “inappropriate sexual and racial jokes and pictures.”

There were also claims of “unwelcome sexual behavior between some members of management and subordinates, unwelcome touching, sexual encounters at training conferences and sexually explicit comments about co-workers’ body parts,” according to the grand jury.

The grand jury found sexual harassment training to be lacking in the office.

“Some employees could not remember or if they received harassment training; others had taken the training over a year ago,” according to the report.

When management was asked about the complaints, those concerns were pooh- poohed, the grand jury said.

“In interviews with management in the OCDA office, there often did not seem to be recognition of the severity of the alleged behavior but rather a discounting and a dismissive `boys will be boys’ mentality,” the report says.

The grand jury is recommending more management training and more coaching of employees on sexual harassment, along with reforming how investigators are given assignments.

The panel also recommends consideration of a policy that prohibits sexual relationships between managers and subordinates, and requested that the Board of Supervisors hire an outside, independent investigator to look into the hostile workplace claims.

The investigations unit has been roiled by whistleblower claims from three employees since April.

Rackauckas put his top investigator, Craig Hunter, on leave and said he was “not expected to return.”

Assistant Chief Lou Gutierrez was also placed on a leave of absence in April.

Hunter filed a claim with the county in May, alleging Rackauckas has been selectively choosing public corruption cases, giving passes to friends while prosecuting others.

Last month, investigators Tom Conklin and Abraham Santos filed claims alleging they were “whistleblowers” who were being subjected to unfair discipline at work.

— City News Service

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