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Friday, Aug 16 2013 10:30 PM

Kern official denies sexual harassment claim

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    By County of Kern

    David Kuge, Kern County chief probation officer.

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BY LOIS HENRY Californian columnist lhenry@bakersfield.com

The head of the Kern County Probation Department has been accused of sexually harassing his secretary for more than a year and then retaliating against her when she refused to have an affair with him.

Chief Probation Officer David Kuge dismissed the allegations as lies and said the county cleared him more than a year ago.

He also noted the secretary, Lisa Phillips, was on administrative leave and under investigation when she first brought up the alleged harassment.

The county's top lawyer agreed this week that an earlier investigation found the allegations to be "unsubstantiated" but that more detailed allegations from Phillips will prompt another investigation.

The allegations surfaced publicly this week after Phillips filed a claim against the county. A claim is the first step toward a lawsuit.

Phillips has been on paid administrative leave since February 2011. She was under investigation for allegedly threatening a co-worker, according to Phillips' claim and court documents.

She directed all questions to her attorneys, who could not be reached for comment.

Kuge, however, did talk.

"The whole thing is fabricated," he said. "I've done nothing wrong. The county already investigated this and found it wasn't true.

"I have enough to prove this is all lies."

Two other former Probation Dept. employees, Paul Paris and Sandra Stockton, also filed claims against the county earlier this year. Those claims, in part, back Phillips' story.

Paris and Stockton state Phillips told them of the harassment and they personally witnessed some acts, such as Kuge draping his arm around Phillips' shoulders as she typed and patting her on the back.

Their knowledge of the alleged harassment, among other things, spurred the department to retaliate against them, they allege. Both are claiming the department's actions unlawfully ruined their careers. Though Stockton's claim doesn't mention money, Paris is seeking $2.5 million in damages.

Kuge shrugged off their allegations.

"They were all in on it together," he said of Phillips, Stockton and Paris. "They say they observed actions on my part, but it never happened. I made a point to never be alone with her (Phillips)."

County Counsel Theresa Goldner said the county did look into Phillips' allegations more than a year ago and "I found them to be unsubstantiated."

But the allegations in Phillips' new claim are much more detailed than those that first came to the county's attention in October 2011, Goldner said.

Since a claim is now on the books, Goldner said, the county has an obligation to investigate.

That's fine, Kuge said, adding that he has definitive proof Phillips is making it all up, though he wouldn't say specifically what that proof entails.

"All I can say is thank God for email and stupidity. If we hadn't found what we found, it would have been her word against mine. God was watching out for me."

Though he was loathe to have the allegations dragged out in public, he said he's ready to go to the mat on this.

"I'm not going to lay down and let her do this to me. She's attacking my character and integrity and that's what I pride myself on."

The Probation Department employs approximately 500 people who monitor adult offenders, oversee juvenile hall and various programs as well as drug intervention programs.

Phillips writes in her claim that she started with the department in 1996 and worked closely with several chiefs.

Less than a month after Kuge took office in January 2010, her claim states, the alleged harassment began.

He told her she could no longer wear shorts to the office but encouraged her to wear short skirts "to show off my nice legs."

Phillips' claim states she was immediately uncomfortable with such comments and confided in her friend and co-worker Stockton and later sought advice from Paris.

Neither woman knew whom to report the behavior to, the claim states, as the Probation Dept. doesn't have its own human resources office and protocol says problems must be reported to the chief -- Kuge.

Barring that, hers and Paris' claims state, policy mandates that problems go to County Administrative Officer John Nilon. But the employees were concerned, asserting in their claims that they believed Kuge and Nilon were good friends.

Policy would then mandate that the concerns be expressed to a Kern County Superior Court judge, but the employees also felt this would be awkward, as Kuge worked directly with the judges for 10 years and was appointed by the presiding judge to the chief position.

"I thought the only thing I could do was 'tough it out,'" the Phillips claim states, until Kuge retired in 2015.

However, according to her claim, the harassment became physical in about March 2010 as Kuge began hugging her, patting her legs and back, kissing her cheek and, on one occasion, allegedly sliding his hand down from her shoulder to the top of her right breast.

In November of 2010, Phillips and Stockton discovered their emails were being read, according to both women's claims. They asked their supervisors and were told that, yes, the emails were being read as part of an investigation but that neither of them was the subject of the investigation.

In December of 2010, Phillips' claim states, Kuge called her into his office to give her a Christmas gift card and asked if she would have an affair with him.

"Even worse, he said I should 'take time to think about it' before I rejected his proposition," Phillips writes in her claim.

She refused.

Two months later, on Feb. 11, 2011, she was "walked off the job," her claim asserts, and put on leave. Stockton had been put on leave two days earlier. Neither woman was told the reason behind the leaves, they say.

It wasn't until May 2011, in her first interview with the department, that Phillips learned that another co-worker, Kelly McDaniel, had officially reported being threatened by Phillips.

Phillips was served with a temporary restraining order in June 2011 filed on behalf of McDaniel by the Probation Dept. It wasn't clear why the department obtained the order, rather than McDaniel.

The case was dismissed two months later and settled with a mutual stay-away agreement between the two women, according to court documents

In her second interview with the department in October of 2011, Phillips apparently made the sexual harassment allegations against Kuge, according to Kuge.

At that point, he said, he put the matter in the county counsel's hands.

Meanwhile, Paris said nothing of what Phillips had told him.

"I knew if I did, I'd be putting my head on the chopping block," Paris said in an interview with The Californian.

In February of 2012, Paris said, someone in the Risk Management division of the County Counsel's office called him to a meeting where he was asked about Phillips' allegations against the chief. He said he confirmed that Phillips had come to him with her concerns.

Three months later, Paris was also put on administrative leave. Like Stockton and Phillips, Paris was also not told the reason.

While on leave, he told the Californian, he "saw the handwriting on the wall" and resigned in August of 2012, taking a job in Wasco. To this day, he doesn't know why he was put on leave.

Though he believes the underlying reason has something to do with his involvement in the Phillips issue, Paris also confronted Kuge -- a man he said he held in high esteem -- over several other departmental issues.

The county has already denied Paris' claim and his lawyer is moving forward.

Stockton, who retired in January of 2013, will likely follow suit.

The Probation Department's original investigation of Phillips allegedly threatening McDaniel has been completed with a recommendation that she be fired, according to Phillips' claim.

She is fighting the recommendation through what's known as a Skelly process for public employees. A hearing has yet to be set.

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