Humboldt Sheriff's Office Accused Of Sexual Harassment

Sexual Harassment
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An ex-employee of the Humboldt County sheriff's office filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the county and sheriff Gene Hill, saying she was forced to work in a "sexually hostile" workplace.

Holly King, who now lives in Lyon County, said she quit her job of two years in December 2003 as a result of the harassment. She also claims she suffered retaliation and malicious interference with future employment opportunities.

"Throughout a substantial period of (her work there) she was subjected to a sexually and gender hostile work environment that a reasonable woman would have found to be offensive and hostile," according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Reno.

The work environment "became so hostile and offensive that (King) had no reasonable alternative except to resign her employment," the complaint states.

Hill said the allegations are "unfounded." He told The Humboldt Sun on Wednesday the charges were fully investigated by the sheriff's department and the county administrator's office.

"We made every single effort possible to resolve this issue and to find out if the allegations were true or not," Hill told The Sun. "We cannot substantiate that they were true."

Hill said there have been cases in the past when employees filed different legal actions as a result of dissatisfaction or unhappiness.

"Unfortunately in this business not everybody is happy," he said. "The best thing we can do is do what's right and make good decisions and stand by them."

Hill, Undersheriff Brian Jonas and Humboldt County are being represented in the case by Stephen Balkenbush, a Reno attorney. Jonas referred calls to Balkenbush, who did not immediately return a telephone call from The Associated Press seeking comment on Friday.

Although Jonas is named several times in the complaint, he is not identified as a defendant in the document.

Among other things, King accuses Jonas of "protracted and overt staring," "improper and unnecessary inquiries into (her) private life," "sexual statements" and "unwanted touching."

Mark Mausert, King's lawyer, said Hill is named as a primary defendant because of his status in the county as a policy-maker.

King claims that although she repeatedly complained of sexual harassment, retaliatory hostility and retaliation, county officials "refused and otherwise failed to enforce the paper policy that it purports to have relative to prohibiting sexual harassment."

The suit said Hill "has himself, on a number of occasions, made sexually inappropriate statements at work, in the presence of other Humboldt County employees."

King also alleged that Hill interfered with her attempts to find a new job by giving at least one prospective employer "negative information," effectively "sabotaging" her chance of employment.

Hill is being sued as both an individual and a county official because his conduct was "so offensive and so malicious and so cruel that anybody engaging in that kind of nonsense deserves to be sitting up in a witness box in a federal courtroom explaining to a ... federal judge and a federal jury why they think they can engage in that kind of malicious behavior," Mausert said.

Mausert said if King wins the case, Humboldt County will have pay the costs of attorney fees in addition to any damages to the plaintiff. Regardless of the outcome, the county will be responsible for defense fees, he said.

A worst-case scenario could see Humboldt County pay as much as $500,000 in litigation and award costs, Mausert said.

"I think the taxpayers need to start asking some real hard questions about whether this conduct is true, about the course of conduct, and maybe take a real hard look at the elected officials who have tolerated this course of conduct," he said.