Government employees in Sen. Tom Berryhill’s former Modesto office engaged in “racist, sexist and homophobic” banter, illegally conducted campaign activity while on the public clock and left the building to avoid disturbing one staff member’s extramarital affair, a former Berryhill field representative says in a discrimination lawsuit against the California Senate.
With a November trial date looming, Senate attorneys have refused demands that Berryhill answer questions about the firing of Douglas Miller, say court papers in Miller’s lawsuit. The Senate also hopes to block testimony from sergeants-at-arms and former Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, Sacramento’s mayor-elect, Miller’s attorney said.
Berryhill is not personally named as a defendant. Those who are named deny Miller’s accusations, and Senate attorneys say he was fired for his own misconduct and for refusing to cooperate when Senate personnel tried to investigate a complaint against him.
Miller, who is Latino, alleges racial discrimination, harassment and retaliation for having complained about improprieties in Berryhill’s district office, which moved from Ripon to Modesto in 2011 and to Oakdale in 2014. He had worked for Berryhill since 2006, when Berryhill was a state assemblyman, until Miller was fired in 2013.
(Miller) was required to perform duties that violated state election and campaign laws and involved improper usage of government offices and government property for campaign activities, sexual rendezvous and other nonpublic-benefit activities.
Douglas Miller’s lawsuit
Bob Phelan, director of Berryhill’s district offices in the three local cities, is a defendant. Asked Tuesday about the lawsuit, he said, “I’ve got absolutely nothing to say about it at all.”
Many of Miller’s accusations focus on Phelan, who the lawsuit says told Miller during office hours to help with campaign work, which by law must be conducted off duty and away from the office. Phelan also told racist jokes, used the N-word, chanted racist ditties, used slurs when referring to gay people and Latinos, and directed office staff to lock the door as they left the office to facilitate “sexual tryst(s)” with another legislator’s employee, who was terminated in a separate scandal, the lawsuit says.
Miller went over Phelan’s head in complaining to Berryhill’s chief of staff in Sacramento about the affair and campaign work during office hours, but “no actions were ever taken by Senator Berryhill” or his lieutenants, the lawsuit says. Instead, the Senate fired Miller after an office argument that started with comments about San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s tattoos, documents say.
Stress in Berryhill’s Modesto office was high, the lawsuit says, as the senator prepared to defend money-laundering charges brought by the California Fair Political Practices Commission in 2013. After the tattoo argument, Miller came clean to an investigator about the “racist, sexist and ageist” office culture, only to find himself targeted and fired, the lawsuit says.
Berryhill’s claim to immunity from testifying is a sham, Miller’s attorney said, because such protection applies only to an “agency head” or “top government executive.”
(Miller) admitted that he not only laughed at Phelan’s alleged racist stories and rhymes, but that he willingly used the n-word throughout his employment with the Senate.
Senate attorneys, in court briefing
Senate attorneys contend that Miller was fired for “misconduct and uncooperativeness during the investigation” after the tattoos argument. In a deposition, Miller admitted laughing at off-color jokes and using the same racial slurs and profanities that he alleged others used, the Senate said.
The alleged affair had nothing to do with Miller’s termination, and isn’t relevant because the allegation stemmed from a period when Phelan and Miller both worked for Berryhill when he was in the Assembly, Senate attorneys said.
“Defendants strenuously deny making the racist, sexist and other inappropriate comments alleged by (Miller),” a briefing says.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390