Ventura County and ex-CEO Powers hit with lawsuit over harassment claim
The Ventura County employee who says former County Executive Officer Mike Powers sexually and racially harassed her filed suit against the county and Powers on June 2.
The woman, identified in the lawsuit only as “Jane Roe,” claims in the lawsuit that Powers, her immediate supervisor, subjected her to sexual and racial harassment and discrimination from 2019 to 2021; retaliated against her by excluding her from meetings and harming her career; threatened to “destroy” her if she reported him; and defamed her by spreading rumors about her and calling her a liar. Her suit also names the county as a defendant and says it did nothing to protect her from a hostile work environment, and that it violated the California Family Rights Act by giving her work duties while she was on medical leave.
She is seeking damages for “substantial lost earnings” and benefits, emotional distress and other causes; punitive damages; and attorney’s fees.
Powers has repeatedly denied making any sexual advances toward the employee or discriminating or retaliating against her. In a statement provided to the Business Times in April, Powers wrote, “In my 30 years with the county, I have prided myself on being an advocate for the careers of the women with whom I have worked. I categorically deny the allegation of sexual harassment that has been made against me.”
Powers also said he never retaliated against the employee. She did excellent work, he said in his statement, and he included her in high-level policy discussions and gave her “an extremely positive evaluation and a significant pay increase.”
Powers retired from the top administrative post in Ventura County government in March, after an outside investigation found the woman’s accusations were likely to be true and the Ventura County Board of Supervisors placed him on paid administrative leave.
Powers said he never saw the report that led the board to place him on leave, and was never given the chance to respond to the evidence against him. “The entire handling of this matter has been unfair and lacked basic due process for me,” he wrote in his statement to the Business Times.
According to the employee’s lawsuit, on the evening of Jan. 31, 2019, Powers walked her to her car after a work event and dinner. He then kissed her without her consent, told he loved her and made “unwanted sexual advances,” the lawsuit states.
After she refused his advances “multiple times,” the lawsuit says, Powers got into her car with her. She “continued to refuse Mr. Powers’ advances and was visibly upset, crying,” the suit states.
A few weeks later, according to the suit, Powers called the employee into his office, closed the door and again kissed her. She pulled away and walked out, shaking.
The lawsuit claims that after the employee refused those advances, her professional relationship with Powers “deteriorated.” In January or February of 2020, she claims, Powers called her into his office and told her told he would “destroy” anyone who tried to harm him or his reputation. The woman “sat in shock and was paralyzed by fear,” her suit claims.
After that, the employee claims, Powers stopped communicating with her and started to exclude her from meetings and decisions. She claims in the lawsuit that she also started hearing rumors that she and Powers were having an affair.
In May 2020, she went on leave for a medical procedure, and she claims that Powers contacted her “numerous times” with work-related questions and asked her review documents and participate in meetings. The suit claims that was a violation of the California Family Rights Act, which guarantees an employee 12 weeks of leave.
She returned to work in July 2020. About a year later, she says Powers called her into his office and told her he had a performance evaluation coming up with the Board of Supervisors.
The lawsuit says Powers “demanded” to know he should be prepared for anything to come up in his evaluation. She told him no, and concluded from the encounter that Powers thought she had filed a complaint against him, the suit said.
No complaint was made until September 2021, after a county human resources manager witnessed an incident the lawsuit describes as racial harassment and discrimination.
On Sept. 17, the employee was one of five people on a panel to interview candidates for the county’s director of airports position.
At lunch, she was eating a salad and drinking a Mexican Coca-Cola. One of the panelists remarked on this, the lawsuit states, and said that as a white person he couldn’t order a “Mexican Coke” without sounding racist.
The employee told him that would be fine, that a Mexican Coke is just a Coke made in Mexico, with sugar instead of corn syrup. The other panelist said, “it better not have actual coke in it,” meaning cocaine, and she said, no, it was the original U.S. recipe that had cocaine.
Shortly afterward, Powers walked into the room, and the panelists told him, “you’d better watch out with that one.” Powers, the lawsuit says, replied, “who? Pico Rivera [her first name]? I am aware of her.”
Powers often used the “Pico Rivera” nickname and had also amended “Pacoima” to her first name, the suit says. Pacoima and Pico Rivera are communities in Los Angeles County known as low income and heavily Latino. The employee, who is of Mexican descent, is not from either place.
In his statement to the Business Times, Powers denied all of the other accusations but did admit to using the “Pico Rivera” nickname. “Upon reflection, and learning now that she did not like it, of course, I wish I had not used it,” he wrote. “The employee regularly commented that she was raised in a “rough” neighborhood. She believed it made her stronger. … After dedicating my career to creating an open, safe and inclusive workplace, that I may have created an impression otherwise is horrifying to me.”
Later in the same meeting with the interview panel, another panelist told the employee, “wow, you’re not just another pretty face,” according to her lawsuit.
The human resources manager was also on the panel and contacted the woman afterward. She “reluctantly called” the human resources manager, her lawsuit states, and in that conversation told her about the rest of Powers’ conduct.
The human resources manager then told the county’s human resources director, and the county hired an attorney for the outside investigation of Powers. The employee took a leave of absence starting Sept. 29, “caused by the stress of sexual harassment, the comments of race, the stress of reporting Mr. Powers and fearing that he would retaliate,” her lawsuit states.
The investigation took nearly five months. On March 8, the Board of Supervisors voted in closed session to place him on paid leave, after the investigator concluded that the accusations were likely true “by a preponderance of the evidence,” which is the typical burden of proof in a civil lawsuit.
That board vote was taken in closed session, and was not publicly disclosed two days later, when Powers retired and said it was because he wanted to spend more time with his family. The investigation into his conduct was also a secret until a week after he retired, when the Thousand Oaks Acorn first reported on the accusations against him.
The report by the attorney the county hired to investigate still has not been released. The Business Times requested a copy in March and the county’s attorneys replied that it was exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act because it is covered by attorney-client privilege.
Powers said in his statement that after 30 years working for the county and 11 as CEO, he had been contemplating retirement already to spend more time with his wife and young children. But he signed a new contract in 2021 — with a 5% pay increase, bringing his annual salary to $328,975 — because he said he wanted to “try and see the county through the pandemic recovery and transition.”
Powers wrote that he changed his mind and retired due to “the unfounded allegations and the lack of fairness of this process.”
“I wanted to spare my family a public fight and spend invaluable time with my wife and boys during this important time in our lives,” his statement said.