A judge Friday short-circuited bombshell accusations of sexual harassment allegedly committed by the head of the nation’s largest school district by dismissing the $10 million claim made by a West Hollywood resident.
Los Angeles County Superior Court William F. Fahey dismissed LAUSD real estate manager Scot Graham’s case against former schools Superintendent Ramon Cortines because he failed to file his sexual harassment claim within the six-month time limit allowed in such cases, say court documents.
The dismissal came down from the bench Wednesday, but was made public only Friday. The judge made no ruling on the allegations’ merits. Mr. Graham’s attorney said he plans to appeal, and he may also seek redress through the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which handles sexual harassment complaints.
The suit stems primarily from a visit to Mr. Cortines' ranch in July 2010. Mr. Cortines has said that he and Mr. Graham engaged in consensual "adult behavior," which Mr. Cortines characterized as “bad judgment on his part.” However, Mr. Graham alleges that, over the course of two days, the Superintendent of schools repeatedly tried to engage him in unwanted sexual behavior. Furthermore, he felt trapped into succumbing to Mr. Cortines’ importuning.
There was one incident, though, in 2000, shortly after Mr. Graham began working for the district, in which he alleges that Mr. Cortines took him to dinner at the Water Grill and the two returned afterward to LAUSD headquarters. There, the suit said, Cortines groped him and asked him to have sex in the superintendent's office.
The district released a statement from Mr. Cortines in May, 2012, in which he denied that he had sexually harassed Graham at any time. His attorney said in February, 2013, that Mr. Cortines still stands by that statement. Mr. Cortines, now age 80, is widely considered to be a leading national figure in education. He retired in April, 2011 after becoming the district’s deputy superintendent in 2008 and chief supt. in 2009.
According to Mr. Graham, Mr. Cortines invited his partner and him to the Supt.’s Tulare ranch in July, 2010, but because his partner could not go and because Mr. Graham felt a refusal would bring retaliation, he accepted the invitation and went alone. According to his lawsuit, Mr. Cortines made unwanted sexual advances to him after dinner on a walk. Later that evening, said the suit, Mr. Cortines allegedly came nude to Graham's bedroom – which had no lock – and attempted to engage Mr. Graham in sex. He allegedly masturbated next to Mr. Graham, who says he lay "frozen from fear and shock," the suit said. The suit charges that Mr. Cortines repeated the same activity on Saturday night then again made advances the following morning.
He felt trapped, said the suit, as he could not get cell service, Mr. Cortines refused him access to a land line and would not drive him home – the pair rode together to the ranch on Friday afternoon.
Mr. Cortines issued a public statement denying the accusations:
“I first met Mr. Graham prior to his tenure at the Los Angeles Unified School District. I respected his work and had considered him a colleague and a friend for many years. In 2000, when Mr. Graham expressed interest in potentially working for LAUSD, I indicated to him that the Facilities Division may have openings. Subsequent to Mr. Graham's hiring and after I returned to the District in 2008, there were Facilities-related projects that required us to work together. I deny any and all allegations that I sexually harassed Mr. Graham. In 2010, during a weekend trip, we did engage in consensual spontaneous adult behavior on one occasion. This brief private encounter occurred during a non-District related trip, outside of Los Angeles County and at my private residence.
“As the District's former top staff member, I regret allowing myself to engage in such spontaneous, consensual behavior. However, Mr. Graham had never indicated to me that our interaction was unwelcome. Even after I retired from the District in April 2011, Mr. Graham continued to seek me out to interact with him socially. This included going out to brunch and being invited to have dinner at his home along with his partner as recent as early 2012.”
Mr. Graham spoke out publicly in the summer of 2012 after LAUSD tried to prevent the accusations from erupting into a scandal. He sat for an interview with the Daily News in hopes of providing context for understanding his three-decade long friendship with Mr. Cortines.
In that piece, which can be read here, he told the Daily News that he and Mr. Cortines met in San Francisco in the 1980s, introduced by mutual friends.
Mr. Graham, the great-grandson of the founder of the Sears department store chain and a successful commercial developer, led a closeted life. "I was leading a secret life," said Graham, now 56. "It was awful, horrible. Gays didn't socialize with the straights, so people stayed in the closet. People were afraid to touch or be around gay people."
At the time, Mr. Cortines had worked as superintendent of San Francisco's school system. He was well-known within the gay community, Mr. Graham said, but carefully concealed his sexual orientation from the public. That did not prevent him from pursuing the younger man. "He really pursued me, but I never showed any interest," Mr. Graham said. "He was an older, gay man and I was really struggling. I did talk to him a lot about the fact that this AIDS crisis was devastating to go through … It was emotional hell."
Mr. Graham's attorneys notified LAUSD of their intent to file a harassment claim in March, 2012. In May, the Board of Education approved a cash settlement of $200,000 plus lifetime health benefits in exchange for Mr. Graham’s departure from his $150,000-a-year job as director of leasing and asset management. Except the agreement broke down when district officials made it public before it was finalized. Mr. Graham returned to work later in the year.
Meanwhile, the LA Times reports that “parents, students and staff last week voted to change the name of the downtown Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts. Mr. Cortines' name on the district's visually striking $232-million high school was an issue of contention even before the harassment allegations,” as the school board overrode its own school naming process to honor Cortines. Still, says the Times, “the allegations helped stoke continued unhappiness over the naming.”
They say a ballot organized at the school found 60 percent of respondents in the Grand Avenue-location choosing Grand School of Visual and Performing Arts while 36 percent chose “a name that incorporated "#9," which refers to the project number before the school was named and the fact that the campus opened on Sept. 9, 2009.”