Former Ventura County Executive Officer Mike Powers is suing the county, claiming he was forced him out of his job a year ago without the chance to defend himself against a harassment accusation from one of his employees.
Powers filed suit Wednesday against the County of Ventura. He is seeking unspecified damages for invasion of privacy, wrongful termination, infliction of emotional distress and other claims. He is also asking the court to force the county to defend him in the lawsuit brought by his accuser and to pay the legal costs he's already incurred.
His lawsuit is similar to a series of claims Powers filed with the county in September. The county rejected those claims, and state law gives Powers six months from that rejection to pursue the matter in court. That clock was about to run out when Powers filed his lawsuit, said his attorney, Anthony Strauss.
As CEO, Powers had an employment contract that gave the Board of Supervisors the ability to remove him at any time, with or without cause. Strauss said that Powers is suing in part because government employees "have a property interest in their good name," even if they are at-will employees.
Ventura County Counsel Tiffany North, the county's top attorney, would not comment on Powers' lawsuit except to say, in an email, that the county "will vigorously defend against the lawsuit once served."
A year ago, Powers retired abruptly from the top administrative job in county government. The Ventura County Board of Supervisors had voted two days earlier to put him on paid leave, after an outside attorney hired by the county investigated the harassment complaint and concluded it was likely true, "by a preponderance of the evidence," which is the standard burden of proof in civil lawsuits.
Powers' accuser worked for him in the county executive office. In 2021, she told a human resources manager that Powers had subjected her to years of harassment, including unwanted sexual advances, touching and kissing her against her will and calling her by a nickname that she considered derogatory, based on her Mexican-American heritage. She also said Powers retaliated against her, threatened her career and froze her out of meetings and decisions after she refused his advances.
She sued Powers and the county in June. Last month, a second county employee sued Powers and the county, claiming he inappropriately flirted with her and along with other managers, retaliated against her when she complained.
Powers has denied all of the accusations but one. He had admitted to amending "Pico Rivera" or "Pacoima" to the first name of the woman whose accusations led to his retirement, but said he did not consider it derogatory. Pacoima and Pico Rivera are both known as low-income, heavily Latino communities. The employee is not from either place.
The county has never released the report from the outside attorney who investigated the accusations against Powers; the details are known only because they were first published in the Acorn newspaper.
The Star has repeatedly requested the results of the investigation, and the county has refused, claiming the document is exempt from release under the California Public Records Act because it is covered by attorney-client privilege.
According to his lawsuit, Powers has also not seen the report and was never told the full details of the accusations against him. He claims he was interviewed twice by the attorney investigating the matter - in October 2021 and again in January 2022. He was told only "portions of the complaints" during those interviews, his lawsuit states, and "the allegations were vague with respect to both substance and time."
At the end of the second interview, Powers says he was told he would be brought back for a final interview. That never happened.
Powers says in his lawsuit that he next heard about the investigation two months later when the county's top lawyer and its human resources director told him the Board of Supervisors would hold a closed session to discuss the investigator's findings.
After that closed session, they told Powers the board had placed him on leave. He retired a few days later before the board could hold another closed session on whether to further discipline or fire him.
Powers claims in his lawsuit that this process "did not afford him due process or the ability to protect his good name, reputation, honor or integrity because there was no way to respond specifically to allegations made against him or present his side to the Board of Supervisors."
He also claims that county officials damaged his reputation by leaking the report to the Acorn and by making statements to the media and to the county workforce "that effectively acted to confirm the allegations."
"This has impacted his ability to find comparable employment, has limited his ability to engage in community service and has caused him to suffer emotional distress and anxiety," his lawsuit states.
Powers earned a base salary of $335,554 before he retired. He now draws a pension of about $250,000 per year.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the language in the second lawsuit against Powers.
Tony Biasotti is an investigative and watchdog reporter for the Ventura County Star. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was made possible by a grant from the Ventura County Community Foundation's Fund to Support Local Journalism.
This article originally appeared on Ventura County Star: Former Ventura County CEO Mike Powers sues county over his departure