Report puts county coroner in hot seat

Support found for allegations of sexual harassment and lewd conduct in county office

REDWOOD CITY — The County Counsel’s office Wednesday released a scathing report supporting allegations of pervasive lewd conduct at the county coroner’s office, a “mooning” by the coroner himself and other behavior that violates sexual harassment laws, following a two-month investigation.

The investigation, conducted by retired Judge Zerne Hanning, found that prior to an anonymous September 2005 complaint there were repeated instances of inappropriate conduct in Coroner Robert Foucrault’s office that violated state and federal law and created a “hostile environment,” according to the report.

Behavior included sexual jokes, remarks about female employees’ attire and appearance, viewing sexually graphic material on the Internet, according to the report.

In one instance a cake in the shape of women dressed in a negligee was brought in to celebrate a birthday, officials said.

Foucrault couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon following the report’s release. His attorney William Rapoport didn’t return a phone call for comment. In a response to the county regarding the investigation, dated Sept. 26, Foucrault “categorically” denied any instance of “mooning” and disagreed that the department’s atmosphere was hostile. “All this mutual banter referenced in the report was done as a method of relieving work place tension based on the type of job done by all members of the Coroner’s Office,” Foucrault said.

Hanning was brought in by supervisors in June, eight months after an anonymous complaint led to an investigation by the Employee and Public Service Department in September 2005 which found similar problems. The September 2005 investigation wasn’t disclosed to supervisors until April, when former Deputy Coroner Filipe Fernandez’s lawyer made a public records request for the resulting report. Fernandez was reportedly a victim of teasing regarding his sexual orientation.

“That was all handled internally,” said President of the Board of Supervisors Jerry Hill, regarding the September 2005 investigation. What action, if any, was taken by county brass between the completion of the September 2005 report and April 2006 isn’t clear. County Manager John Maltbie and Assistant County Counsel Michael Murphey couldn’t be reached for comment after hours Wednesday.

Because the coroner is an elected position, rather than appointed, Supervisors have limited oversight and no disciplinary power, Hill said. Since September 2005 there has been no repeat behavior, according to Hanning’s report. In the interim all of the coroner’s staff have undergone sexual harassment training. In addition, Hill has requested an outline by Foucrault of steps he plans to take to ensure there is no recurrence by Nov. 30, including policies spelling out how staff can report discriminatory incidents and how they will be addressed.

“What the board [of supervisors] wants is to guarantee that there is a plan in place to prevent thereoccurrence of sexual, ethnic or discriminatory behavior, which puts the county at risk and is wrong,” Hill said.

Supervisors have also given oversight to Malbie to review the coroner’s department in a year and report back to them. At that time supervisors could decide whether to refer to voters the question of whether the coroner’s post should become an appointed position, a proposal voters rejected in 2001.

As an elected official, Foucrault isn’t compelled to comply with the supervisors’ request. “He could tell us to go whistle Dixie,” Hill said.

ecarpenter@examiner.comBay Area NewsLocal

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