When Politicians Settle Claims, Why Do Taxpayers Foot The Bill?

A state senator facing six felony counts in a voting-fraud and perjury case in Los Angeles County was also accused of sexual harassment by a legislative aide. The Los Angeles Times reported on December 16, 2011, that the state Senate paid $120,000 to settle a claim by the former district coordinator for Senator Roderick Wright.

According to the Times, the deal was signed in April 2010 and kept secret “because it was not approved at a public meeting and Senate leaders sealed the complaint.” Only the settlement was released after a public records request by the Times.

Senate leaders acting behind closed doors approved the payment to Fahizah Alim, who now works for Senator Curren Price Jr., the Times said. The office of Senate leader Darrell Steinberg refused to release a letter from Alim’s attorney that provides details of her allegations. Steinberg’s office also refused to release a harassment claim filed by Tahra Goraya, who was paid $89,500 in another settlement approved behind closed doors.

Whether it’s a hostile working environment or quid pro quo sexual harassment, we have spoken before about the confidentiality agreements both parties enter in settlements for these types of harassment. A majority of the people interviewed in the story could not comment about specifics in the case, but the Times also brought up another issue that arises from the secrecy: Why do the taxpayers, rather than individual lawmakers, fund such payouts?

As the Times pointed out, “the Legislature broadly exempted itself from the California Public Records Act” in 1975, determining that “records of complaints to or investigations conducted by … the Legislature” do not have to be disclosed. Terry Francke, general counsel for the open-government group Californians Aware, told the Times that “under state records law governing the executive branch, judicial branch and local government, claims resolved with cash payments are not exempt from disclosure as personnel records.”

What do you think? Should the taxpayers essentially funding these settlements be entitled to more information about the original complaints?

Law Offices of Kesluk, Silverstein & Jacob – Los Angeles employment attorneys