Marin lawsuit cites anti-Semitism in probation office

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A lawsuit filed against the County of Marin claims the probation department is rife with racial hostility and anti-Semitism.

The complaint alleges that the Department of Probation, Chief Probation Officer Ronald Baylo and the Marin County Board of Supervisors have effectively conspired to tolerate harassment in that department for years.

Those entities "create and allow to exist a hostile, intimidating, abusive and offensive working environment," alleges the suit, filed by Lonnie Morris, a 14-year veteran probation officer, and Wilfred Broom, who no longer works for the County of Marin.

The two men, who are African American, contend they were denied promotions and subjected to the overt animosity of other officers and superiors. They also say their colleagues who are Jewish — particularly Jewish women — have endured a similar hounding.

The lawsuit, filed Aug. 10 in Marin County Superior Court, seeks $1 million for each plaintiff.

According to the suit, Morris "was subjected to frequent racial slurs and racial epithets, including the liberal and frequent use of racist, offensive and sexist words towards African Americans, Jews, women, Asians and Mexicans," beginning in 1995 and continuing "up to and including the present."

Baylo has repeatedly declined to investigate the complaints, the suit alleges. Baylo's office referred calls to the Marin County Counsel's office.

County Counsel Charles McKee said the case has no merit. "The department is as diverse as it can be, and has been certified by the affirmative action officer as having met the appropriate criteria."

But the plaintiffs paint a grimmer picture. For example, the lawsuit claims a "jokebook" assembled by a co-worker was put on the desk of Morris and others, including two Jewish women in the department. The book includes such "jokes" as: "How do Jews celebrate Christmas? They install parking meters on the roof," and "What's black and white and red all over? A KKK housewarming party."

"My superiors knew about it and took no action," Morris told the Jewish Bulletin. "I said, 'Fine.' I called papers representing every ethnicity that was targeted in these 'jokes.' I think they have a right to know."

Morris, Broom and probation officer Judy Reinstein were interrogated after a 1996 discrimination suit against the department by probation officer Luis Shedrick, according to the suit.

It alleges that Baylo and Assistant Chief Probation Officer David Rogers queried all three, asking such questions as "Can we trust you?" "Do you like us?" and "What do you think about that bunch down the hall?" — an apparent reference to a group of employees who did not support Baylo in the Shedrick suit.

Reinstein was not available for comment.

Charles Bonner, the Sausalito attorney representing the men, said Morris heard one of the probation officers tell an anti-Semitic joke to a Jewish client. Stunned, he reported the incident but "was brushed off," Bonner said.

"There are a powerful minority of people in positions of authority there, and they just don't care," he said. "People are intimidated, and don't rock the boat. The danger of that is you get unrestrained, unchecked discrimination that manifests itself in horrible ways."

Those who are promoted are white, non-Jewish males, Bonner said.

Officials with the Jewish Community Relations Council were stunned to learn of the allegations.

"If it's true, it's abominable," said Sharon Gordon, who co-chairs the North Bay African American-Jewish Dialogue.

She added that it is a positive thing that the plaintiffs "are coming together and unifying against bigotry and against the kind of prejudicial actions that appear to be taking place in a governmental agency, of all places."

Bonner expressed similar sentiments. "People don't understand the importance of civil rights," he said. "It's like the shooting in Los Angeles: it hurt every Jewish person. When a victim is singled out because of their ethnicity, it hurts everyone of that ethnicity."

Broom said his troubles began when he witnessed officers kicking Latino suspects in the groin. He reported the 1995 incident and opened the floodgates to racial slurs, ugly jokes and veiled threats, the suit claims. Twice, he arrived to find 9-millimeter bullets placed on his desk.

He now works as a deputy probation officer with the Contra Costa County Probation Department, a job for which he took a pay cut of about $300 a month. However, "he could no longer tolerate and endure the hostile work environment in the Marin County Probation Department," the suit claims.

Morris contends he's been denied promotions six times since 1992 despite a top ranking by an outside evaluator.

Morris charged that the county, by failing to take appropriate measures, has failed to support its own policy on discrimination in the workplace.

"This is despicable," Morris said. "I'm still here doing my job. I'm still pleasant. I'm a probation officer 2 and I wanted to go to a 3."

In seeking $2 million in damages, Bonner said, "We have to make it cost too much for them to ignore."

He was confident the county will settle and remedy its failure to enforce its policies effectively. "There has got to be zero tolerance for this kind of thing," he said. "I would like to see this resolved in a win-win way and have the county make a commitment to qualitative change."

McKee said the county is "always interested in alternative dispute resolution," but added that there is no compelling need for system-wide change.

"The department and Mr. Baylo follow a strict non-discrimination policy," McKee countered. "The County of Marin has a very progressive stance on discrimination and Mr. Baylo and the department are very proud of the steps they've taken to meet those goals."

A preliminary settlement conference is scheduled in court on Nov. 16.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.