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California Pays for Guard's Sexual Misconduct

by W. Wisely

California taxpayers must pay $154,212 in damages to a former female prison guard sexually harassed on the job, according to the Sacramento Bee . Ray Collie, the lieutenant who couldn't seem to control his urges, owes just $75,000 in punitive damages out of his own pocket to the victim, Cindy Costello. Collie has a long history of sexual assault and harassment of females in and out of the system. Yet, rather than fire him, prison administrators conspired to cover up Collie's misconduct in order to protect their own records.

Robin Perkins, Costello's lead counsel in the federal civil rights jury trial in Sacramento, said a captain testified the warden tried to shield herself from liability in the case by changing official reports of Collie's actions. According to Perkins, the captain's story was consistent with the department's long history of minimizing civil exposure by watering down the findings of its own investigators.

"If the state is ever going to end sexual harassment at the Department of Corrections, the discipline has to be for sexual harassment when that's what its own investigation shows," Perkins said. Predictably, Collie claims he never harassed Costello, and their contact was simply mutual joking. "She didn't put up any stop sign, so how could there have been an accident that was his fault?" protested Collie's attorney, Michael Bishop.

More disturbing than Collie's record of over two decades of sexual misconduct is Warden Cheryl Pliler's interference in two sexual harassment investigations against him. Pliler was the warden at California Correctional Center at Susanville where Collie and Costello worked. Now she is warden at New Folsom in Sacramento.

Captain Larry Gray testified during trial that Pliler directed a coverup of the Costello affair to mask its seriousness, and solicited help from a friend of hers, Captain Tom Lempke.

Department spokesperson Russ Heimerich refused to speak about the allegations against Pliler, Lempke, or the agency. "The record speaks for itself," he snorted. It does indeed.

Twice during Collie's two and onehalf decade career as a prison guard the department tried to fire him for sexual misconduct. Neither attempt succeeded. In 1989, Collie was fired after he molested a teenage babysitter at his home. Criminal charges were eventually dismissed by a prosecutor less than enthusiastic about pitting an underage girl against a seasoned prison guard who filled the courtroom with supporters at every appearance.

The State Personnel Board quickly and quietly ordered Collie reinstated with back pay. In 1998, as a result of Costello's complaint, he was once again fired, but after an appeal allowed to resign in order to preserve retirement benefits.

Between those dates, Collie racked up quite a reputation for sexually assaulting and harassing female staff. In one case, his pay was docked 5% over four months after he tried to pressure a prison nurse into providing him with sexual favors. The nurse's lawsuit was eventually settled at a cost of $50,000 to the state. And taxpayers shelled out $50,000 more to hush up a complaint of sexual harassment by another female guard. A third incident with a female guard brought Collie a captain's admonishment against making "off the cuff" remarks. Collie, 49, has always denied every accusation. A lieutenant when forced to retire, he will be eligible for full retirement benefits in one year. He is currently working as a truck driver.

Costello, 43, spent a little more than three years in the California prison system. The sexual harassment verdict brought some closure for her. She began working in the department in 1996, and was forced to leave on disability in 2000 with just 45% of salary. Her retirement was based on the emotional damage she sustained as a result of Collie's harassment and the social ostracism she experienced from fellow staff after she decided to file a complaint.

Between September and December of 1997, Collie routinely made sexually explicit remarks in conversation with her. He repeatedly told her how much he wanted to have sex with her, and said it would be "good for you and good for me." Collie said Costello never complained to him.

But, on December 30, 1997, according to a department internal memorandum, Collie told a captain "he had engaged in inappropriate conversations with Officer Costello, which he considered mutual kidding." Captain Steve Onoski said, "He stated that he had never lied to me and wanted me to know that he knew better, but felt it was all right with Officer Costello because she teased him back." Collie was transferred to a different area as a result of that admission.

Gray was assigned to investigate the Costello incident. After dozens of interviews, he concluded in a written report that a "preponderance of the evidence substantiates allegations of sexual harassment and hostile work environment." This conclusion set off alarms for Pliler, however. Gray testified Pliler was unhappy with the result of the investigation because she was named in a complaint about Collie by Costello filed with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Pliler told Gray his report virtually made Costello's case. She strongly suggested he change it.

Pliler was "more concerned about the possibility of litigation than putting out a factual report," Gray testified at trial. She told the captain she didn't want to lose her retirement, or even her house, because of a complaint filed by a female guard. So, the June 19, 1998, final draft of Gray's report merely stated Collie behaved inappropriately.

The lieutenant was fired for "discourteous treatment" of a subordinate and "other failure of good behavior." Gray filed a complaint with department headquarters detailing Pliler's attempts to influence the outcome of the investigation, and noting that Lempke made changes to the final report at her insistence. A department internal investigation cleared both Pliler and Lempke of any wrongdoing.

This wasn't the first time reports about Collie were altered. The captain who investigated prison nurse Donna Hopson's complaint against Collie found the lieutenant's actions fit the department's narrow definition of sexual harassment. "The unprovoked, unsolicited statements were of a sexual nature," the report said. "RN Hopson was subjected to a hostile work environment."

But, by the time Pliler passed the report on the headquarters July 2, 1996, the accusation became "discourteous treatment" and "other failure of good behavior." Sound familiar? Yep, these are the same terms Pliler insisted Gray and Lempke use two years later when writing their report about Collie's sexual harassment of Costello.

Following the verdict for Costello, jurors interviewed at the courthouse were dumbfounded as to why the Department of Corrections allows these incidents to take place. "The training and handbook [provided to staff by the department] are badly outdated," one juror noted. "The policy is vague. The department has to do a better job of addressing the problem."

Unfortunately, California prison guards are pretty successful at avoiding personal responsibility for the sexual harassment of coworkers. Rather than take prompt and appropriate disciplinary measures against staff guilty of such misconduct, prisoncrats are more likely to sweep the matter under the rug. It's a big rug, bought with tax dollars.

And, with your snout down sucking at the public trough, perhaps it's hard to tell this is the 21st Century, when making unwanted sexual remarks or overtures to women at work is just not acceptable. Rest assured, though, if you just can't control yourself, there's a job waiting for you at the department of corrections. The toughest beat in the state.

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Related legal case

Costello v. _____