The ex-chief of San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer's controversial streetlights that spy program has filed suit against the city, charging gender discrimination and retaliation for leading an investigation into an "egregious" sexual harassment case at the environmental services department.
The action, filed May 13 in San Diego superior court by attorneys for Lorie Cosio-Azar, comes at an inopportune time for Faulconer, with his so-called Smart City initiative, drawing questions from the city council, and an April audit that found widespread gender-based pay disparity at city hall.
"On or about July 31, 2017, Mario Sierra, director of the environmental services department, assigned plaintiff to the fact-finding investigation regarding Elizabeth Spinello, an employee of the city who alleged sexual harassment," says Cosio-Azar's complaint. "Plaintiff ended up chairing the investigation and drafting the final report."
"During the fact-finding investigation," the document continues, Cosio-Azar "expressed concerns regarding retaliation to both Louis Merlin, the senior human resources officer, and Selam Keleta, the equal employment investigator in the personnel department."
According to the filing, Cosio-Azar "explained that the fact-finding investigation was likely to reveal egregious misconduct on the part of Mario Sierra, management staff, and the city, therefore she feared retaliation from upper management. In response, Keleta told plaintiff that it will be 'fine.'"
The suit says Cosio-Azar submitted the fact-finding report, which "exposed numerous instances of misconduct on the part of defendant's employees," on November 9, 2017.
The next August, Cody Hooven "became Interim deputy director of the sustainability department and plaintiff's new supervisor," the document says.
"On or about August 29, 2018, plaintiff met with Hooven for an impromptu meeting in plaintiff's office." Cosio-Azar "complained to Hooven regarding inequitable salary and her multiple requests for a raise. Hooven acknowledged that defendant had a problem with inequitable salaries, as she was forced to request an increase herself."
"Hooven disclosed that before the reorganization, she discovered that Aaron Lu, a male program coordinator, was making significantly more than her, despite the fact that Hooven was a program manager," says the complaint.
"Hooven told plaintiff that she requested an increase from [then-deputy chief operating officer Erik] Caldwell, and he granted it. Hooven assured plaintiff that she would discuss her salary concerns with Caldwell and get back to her."
But two months later, on November 2, 2018, Cosio-Azar "was forced to transfer management of the entire Smart City project to Arwa Sayed, who now reported directly to [Cody] Hooven, the interim deputy director" of the new department of sustainability. The operation had been split from Mario Sierra's environmental services department in June 2018.
"Defendant's conduct in removing the Smart City project from plaintiff and removing her subordinates was retaliatory," Cosio-Azar alleges.
"Plaintiff's opposition to defendant's failure to pay her the same as her male counterparts and participation in the fact-finding investigation were motivating reasons for defendant's decision to engage in such conduct."
The situation then went from bad to worse, per the narrative.
"On January 8, 2019, Plaintiff met with Hooven to discuss certain projects. After the meeting, Hooven sent plaintiff an email accusing her, generally, of an 'unwillingness to do the work [Hooven] was assigning [her].' Plaintiff replied to Hooven's email, refuting the unfounded allegations Hooven made against her."
In the meantime, the city's equal employment investigations office was slow to respond to Cosio-Azar's multiple allegations, the document asserts. "Plaintiff still has not received a finding or follow up regarding her complaint from Barclay or his staff."
"As of April 2019, defendant still paid plaintiff only $103,000 per year, yet lower classified program coordinators made $113,630 per year," per the filing. "By consciously allowing a female employee to earn less than her male counterparts in the face of so many complaints, the city has sent a clear message that it condones and ratifies underpaying its female employees."
Cosio-Azar was fired "without warning" April 6, according to the suit.
"Undoubtedly, plaintiff's reporting of, and opposition to defendant's retaliation and failure to provide equal pay, which she reasonably believed were unlawful, were substantial motivating factors behind defendant's decision to terminate her employment."
Further details regarding the administration of the city’s costly intelligent gathering program put on the record as the lawsuit progresses could raise new perils for the political future of the termed-out Faulconer, already hit by the streetlight intelligence revelations and this spring's gender and racial bias audit.
As for Sierra, in February 2012, a San Diego superior court jury deadlocked while deliberating a child molestation case against the environmental services head, then-director of transportation and storm water. The charges were subsequently dropped by district attorney Bonnie Dumanis, per news reports.
Two months later, Sierra was moved from his high-profile role as the city's so-called streets czar and made assistant director of environmental services in April 2012. In February 2014, he was named interim director of Information Technology before becoming environmental services director in June 2014, three months into Faulconer's first term as mayor, where he has since remained.