Home Practice Attorneys Cases Press Contact
     
Press

Back

 

San Francisco Examiner
Tuesday, November 28, 1995
Opening salvos in Ribera-Welsh harassment trial: Defense says she had to fend him off; prosecution says her allegations were politically motivated

By Scott Winokur
of The Examiner Staff

Former police Officer Joanne Welsh is a working-class woman who overcame tremendous odds to make a place for herself in the San Francisco Police Department, only to suffer humiliation, shame, embarrassment and loss of livelihood when Chief Tony Ribera became romantically interested in her, an attorney for Welsh told jurors Tuesday.

Ribera "hit on" Welsh in the fall and winter of 1989 and resumed his attempts to become sexually involved with her in fall 1992, when her assignment brought her back into contact with him, Roderick Bushnell said during an hourlong opening argument in Welsh's sexual harassment lawsuit against the chief in federal court in Oakland.

An attorney for Ribera countered that Welsh was a politically motivated activist who was interested in making headlines, when she went public with her charges. The attorney, Nancy Pritikin, also said that jurors would be asked to give credence to "words . . . allegedly said when no one was present."

Bushnell argued that Ribera was trapped in a sexually barren marriage and represented himself as the right man for Welsh. "Joanne felt uncomfortable with these overtures of a romantic nature . . . (but) she did not want to hurt his feelings . . . She also felt vulnerable," the attorney said.

Bushnell described a pattern of harassment, including constant verbal overtures and occasional unwelcomed physical contact. When Ribera had grown impatient with her rebuffs in early 1993, Bushnell said, he ousted Welsh from her job as police public affairs spokesman and effectively exiled her to Siberia in the department, giving her a series of assignments far below her competence.

In January 1995, after two years of "shunning," Welsh quit the department. As a result, today she is without an income, a pension or job prospects, Bushnell said. "Joanne Welsh did not welcome his advances," but "Ribera did not take 'no' for an answer," Bushnell said.

The attorney said Welsh will produce overwhelming evidence of Ribera's misconduct and Welsh's rejection of him, which, he said, had disastrous consequences for her.

Welsh was "afraid that if she made any waves, her job would be in jeopardy" and her custody of her young daughter would be endangered, Bushnell said.

But by Feb. 11, 1993, Bushnell said, it was clear to Welsh "that her rejection of his advances was going to have some serious consequences," and she tried to get Mayor Jordan to intervene. "Mayor Jordan refused to intervene," he said, "(so) she went to The San Francisco Examiner and told her story."

In an opening statement for Ribera, whose wife of 26 years was present in the Oakland courtroom of U.S. District Judge D. Lowell Jenson, Pritikin called Welsh's case "a smoke screen."

Pritikin said: "Joanne Welsh was not sexually harassed. This plaintiff is a very vocal, politically motivated activist.

"Plaintiff's counsel has spent a lot of time talking about words allegedly said when no one was present."

Pritikin said that Welsh had not exhausted her opportunities for formal complaint before she went public in an interview with The Examiner on Feb. 12, 1993.

Going to The Examiner, Pritikin said, showed that Welsh "was not interested in making a complaint B she was interested in making headlines."

As an example of an element of Welsh's case that will not hold up, Pritikin cited the ex-police officer's claim that Ribera made her an unwanted Christmas present of gold earrings. Welsh has acknowledged that she no longer knows the whereabouts of those earrings.

"Plaintiff doesn't have any earrings to show you . . . We have only her word," Pritikin said. Welsh, 34, has accused the 50-year-old chief of sexually harassing her verbally and physically on repeated occasions in 1989 and 1992-93. Ribera denies the charges. He was cleared by the Police Commission in 1993.

While Jordan, who appointed him, has stood by Ribera, Jordan's rival in the Dec. 12 runoff election, Assemblyman Willie Brown, has said that he would fire Ribera.

The chief is eligible for retirement at 65 percent of his annual salary of more than $132,000.

On Monday, a jury of five men and five women was selected. The panel, drawn from a pool of several dozen prospective jurors from San Francisco, San Mateo, Marin, Contra Costa and Alameda counties, is mostly white and middle aged; it includes one black woman, one Asian woman and one Asian man. Attorneys for Welsh, The City and Ribera used their entire combined total of eight peremptory challenges.

No alternates were selected. At least six jurors must remain for a verdict to be brought in under the federal system.

In a pair of last-minute motions Tuesday morning made outside the jury's presence, Welsh attorney M. Gerald Schwartzbach asked Jensen for an order excluding evidence and witnesses in support of the defense argument that Welsh went public with her charges in The Examine as part of a campaign of political warfare against Ribera.

According to attorneys for the chief and The City, Welsh and her fiancé, then-Supervisor Bill Maher, were trying to retaliate for the chief's denial of a permanent assignment for Welsh to the department's coveted public affairs post.


     
©2009-2012 Copyright Bushnell & Caplan LLP. All Rights Reserved.