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  • Report Reveals OC Officials Botched Bustamonte Investigation

    As Carlos Bustamonte, the Santa Ana City Council member, awaits trial for sexual assault, false imprisonment, and battery of seven of his female subordinates, the County is now concerned about its potential civil liability for Bustamonte’s conduct; and with good reason, since its officials seriously botched their investigation.

    An internal audit of Orange County’s handling of the claims indicates that the investigation was so inadequate that it violated county workplace policy and that of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  The report, intended to be confidential, was recently leaked to the Voice of OC, an online publication that was quick to publish details of the findings.

    The February report by Internal Auditor Peter Hughes indicates that there were several complaints lodged against Bustamonte, beginning as early as March 2011, but it took a full year before the case was directed to the district attorney’s office.

    The first report, an anonymous letter addressed to Jess Carbajal, then director of Orange County Public Works, was not directed to the county’s central human resources department in accordance with policy, but rather was directed to Patricia Daniells, one of Bustamonte’s direct subordinates.

    Daniells’ report was one-page, “unaddressed, undated, unsigned” and not on county letterhead, and it concluded that the allegations against Bustamonte could not be substantiated. This finding was later refuted.

    Hughes’ report revealed that where Daniells claimed she interviewed two witnesses, these witnesses denied to an independent investigator that they ever spoke with Daniells. And Daniells had no explanation for failing to interview a third victim identified in the letter. Daniells also violated policy by not keeping any records indicating the time, place, or content of her interviews.

    Hughes concluded that Daniells’ investigation into the validity of the first letter violated EEOC policy, was “superficial,” and “in error” in its conclusions.

    Tom Mauk, the county’s CEO at the time, hired an outside law firm to conduct the independent investigation after learning of second and third anonymous letters alleging harassment by Bustamonte. This investigation found “ample and credible” witnesses substantiating the allegations. Additionally, it revealed that numerous employees feared retaliation from Human Resources.

    After receiving the independent report in October, Mauk forced Bustamonte to resign. But it was not until March when Hughes’ report was sent to the Board of Supervisors that they became aware of the independent investigation ordered by Mauk. The fallout: Carbajal was put on paid administrative leave and was later fired, Daniells retired after 25 years with the county, Carl Crown, the then director of the county’s central Human Resources Department retired, and Mauk has since resigned.

    The County’s Board of Supervisors forwarded the independent report to the District Attorney’s Office which began its own investigation leading to the criminal charges filed against Bustamonte. Make no mistake sexual harassment activity can hold criminal penalties. If you or someone you know is being harassed in the workplace, consult with a sexual harassment lawyer in Orange County to assess your rights.

    The significance of the county’s failure to conduct an appropriate investigation into the allegations against Bustamonte, however, is that when an employer doesn’t take adequate steps to prevent harassment, they open themselves up to civil liability.

    An employer can only defend against vicarious liability for the sexual harassment conduct perpetrated by an employee in a supervisory position when the employer exercises “reasonable care to prevent” and promptly corrects the harassment behavior; and the employee does not take advantage of the preventative measures offered by the employer. For additional information on employer liability consult a sexual harassment lawyer in Orange County.