.Take It, or Leave

Oakland's Caltrans workers say they were punished for reporting sexual harassment and race discrimination.

If you’re female, or black, or both, beware of Caltrans’ downtown Oakland office. You could be stalked and sexually assaulted, or passed over for promotion and subjected to racial taunts. Whatever happens, don’t complain, because the bosses might blame you and transfer your job elsewhere while leaving your tormentors unpunished.

Those, at least, are the explosive charges leveled by four veteran Caltrans employees — two women and two men — in a pair of lawsuits filed last month against the state transportation agency. If the allegations prove true, taxpayers may be on the hook for huge payouts.

One of the paydays would be for Elena Villareal, a former employee in Caltrans’ engineering department, which oversees construction projects including the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge. Villareal alleges that her ordeal lasted more than two years. In court papers, she gave the following account:

Beginning in mid-2003, one of her co-workers, Bing Long, started following her on BART to her home in Pittsburg, even though he lived in Fremont. He would take the same train, and sometimes would be waiting for her on the platform when she got to the station.

Villareal moved to Pacifica several months later, but Long kept pursuing her. He would show up in town on her days off, trailing her to Albertsons, Rite Aid, or her hair stylist. She would confront him. “Why do you keep following me?” she would ask him. “Can you please stop following me?” But inevitably, he would resume the harassment after a short respite.

Co-workers told Villareal that when she left her cubicle, Long often would rifle through her desk, trash can, and purse — that’s how she thinks he found out she moved. Then he started showering her with suggestive gifts. First, a present from Victoria’s Secret. Then, in August 2004, he gave her a dildo.

Villareal tried to hand it back, but Long allegedly threatened to tell co-workers she’d given it to him. “Women always look bad,” he said, adding, “It’s for your benefit. I thought you might need it since you don’t have a man in your life. If you want, I can come by your place and show you how to use it.”

Long then became increasingly aggressive. Once he jumped into the backseat of her car, and when she tried to get him out, he grabbed her and tried to kiss her. He ogled her at work and once grabbed her bra strap. One day in the supply room, he snuck up behind her, rubbed his crotch against her, and tried to fondle her breasts.

She reacted angrily, but several times he said to her: “I know there are a lot of guys out there who like you. But if they can’t have you, I’m sure they want to destroy you.” Villareal’s co-workers told her that in 2005, Long started sending e-mails from her computer when she stepped away from her desk.

Villareal said she and at least one co-worker told supervisors about Long, but they did nothing to stop him. So in December 2005, she met with the engineering department manager, Muhammed Aljabiry, who responded: “You are old enough to take care of yourself. I know you can take care of yourself. I’m sure you have had this problem elsewhere.”

After the meeting, Long called Villareal incessantly on her cell phone and sent her angry text messages and pornographic e-mails. Finally, in January 2006, Aljabiry told her he was transferring her out of the department, and that Long was staying. When she asked why, Aljabiry said: “Because you are the one who complained.” A few weeks later, Villareal, not her alleged stalker, was reprimanded for sexual harassment.

“It was utterly absurd,” Villareal’s lawyer, Steven Robinson, told Full Disclosure in an interview last week. “What happened to her was sinister. It was a living hell for her. When she came into our office, she was crying. She was afraid for her well-being.”

Caltrans spokeswoman Lauren Wonder said the agency had no comment on Villareal’s allegations, citing a long-standing rule not to talk about pending litigation. For the same reason, she declined comment on the second lawsuit.

That one was filed by Danelle McGrue, George Crosby, and Ras Cush, all African Americans who worked in Caltrans’ Equal Employment Opportunity Department. Their division aims to ensure that the agency and its contractors do not discriminate, but that, the plaintiffs allege, is exactly what Caltrans did in their case:

Their story began in January 2005, when the three were interviewed for the position of department manager. They knew it was a long shot because, they said, Caltrans had not promoted any person of color from within the ranks of the Oakland office for thirteen years. Indeed, they and other black employees had met with Caltrans officials several times the year before to voice their complaints, but got nowhere.

Then, sure enough, Caltrans hired Esther Vicente, an employee from outside the department, even though she had no prior experience handling discrimination issues. Even one of the interviewers, Ruby Louie, the assistant director of external affairs (translation: press flack), admitted Vicente was unqualified.

Once Vicente took over, she made workers’ lives miserable. She often yelled at Cush and told them not to protest her promotion. Barely a week into the job, she called together all of the black employees. “You people are not accountable,” she allegedly told them. “You are not doing your jobs and are not working up to your ability.”

Later, Vicente told a group of white employees that black workers don’t like to work and don’t come to work on time, calling them “lazy” and “shiftless.”

McGrue, Crosby, and Cush took their allegations to Louie and other Caltrans officials, including Bijan Sartipi, director of the Oakland office, but nothing happened. Soon thereafter, Vicente issued Cush a letter of reprimand, claiming his work was substandard. One day later, Caltrans officials transferred Cush to the facilities department. “All three were eventually reassigned,” plaintiffs’ attorney Pamela Price told Full Disclosure.

Maybe it’s time to reassign some of Oakland’s top Caltrans officials before they cost us a fortune in legal bills.

Less Than Transparent

Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums’ salary recently was Topic A around City Hall after the city council raised it to $183,000. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the ex-congressman also gets a federal pension that may be worth at least $100,000 a year. But one unanswered question is how much Dellums can legally add to that total from his Washington, DC, lobbying firm.

Upon taking office, Dellums reported on his statement of economic interests that he made more than $100,000 last year as senior partner of Dellums and Associates. The disclosure form does not require him to be more specific. His clients included Rolls-Royce, Chabot Space and Science Center, and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

The Oakland City Charter, however, clearly forbids him from continuing as a lobbyist. Section 305(h) reads: “The mayor shall devote his full time and attention to the duties of the Office of Mayor and shall not engage in outside employment while in office.”

But the charter has a loophole. It lets a mayor collect “income earned from businesses or investments in which he is not actively engaged.” Ex-Mayor Jerry Brown, for example, used the loophole in 2005 when he pocketed $1.7 million from the sale of the Jack London Square Warehouse that housed his nonprofit, We the People.

Dellums, who has vowed to restore “transparency” to city government, has said he has given up active lobbying, but won’t say whether he’ll continue to collect on his firm’s profits. When asked about Dellums’ current role in the lobbying firm, mayoral spokeswoman Karen Stevenson would not comment, and referred Full Disclosure to Charles Stephenson, who has taken over as principal of Dellums and Associates. Stephenson did not return two phone calls seeking comment.

So, Mr. Mayor, why the secrecy?


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