A Whistle Blowers Revenge Perry Crouch
was fired after publicly criticizing the megabucks Alameda Corridor project.
But he didnt take it lying down.
New Times Los Angeles
June 8, 2000
Perry Crouch exercised his right of free speech and
paid dearly for it. The veteran South Central L.A. activist spoke out at a
public hearing on the Alameda Corridor project and the next thing he knew his
life was a train wreck. He lost his job and when he tried to find a new one,
prospective employers wanted nothing to do with him.
At first, Crouchs firing seemed like a
frightening lesson about criticizing people more powerful than yourself --
especially when they can influence how millions of dollars in public funds are
spent. But nearly two years and two lawsuits later, the meek and the powerful
seem to have switched places. A jury awarded Crouch more than $650,000 for his
It was a long, convoluted, and ultimately costly saga
that started at a 1998 state Senate hearing on the $2.4 billion Alameda
Corridor project held at South Gate City Hall. At that meeting, Crouch
complained about potential conflicts of interest among contractors and a law
firm doing business with the corridor, a 20-mile-long rail expressway that will
speed cargo to and from the ports of L.A. and Long Beach.
It was powerful testimony made in front of government
heavyweights such as state Senator Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) and former state
Senator Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco), who then chaired the Senate
Transportation Committee. But Gill Hicks, general manager of the Alameda
Corridor Transportation Authority, wasnt pleased.
An angry Hicks followed Crouch out of the hearing
room and began yelling so loudly that he drew a crowd. He berated Crouch,
calling him a fucking liar, according to court records, and
threatened to sue the nonprofit agency where Crouch worked, which hoped to win
up to $2 million in contracts from the corridor. Hicks then spoke with
Crouchs boss and suggested that he would sue the social service agency
for slander unless something was done about Crouch.
Two months later, Crouch was out of a job.
His firing from the South Central group -- SHIELDS
for Families -- set off a downward spiral for the 50-year-old father of three
that seemed to have no end. SHIELDS is a small South Central agency that
provides mental-health counseling, job training, and other services to families
affected by substance abuse.
Crouch, who had been making $42,000 a year as a
community resource specialist with SHIELDS, amassed $60,000 in debt and his car
was repossessed. It was a big fall for the man who had won the 1995 C. Everett
Koop Award for effective community service and whose work had been honored by
U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and the Los Angeles City Council.
He had worked six and a half years at SHIELDS and had been promoted several
times. But after one public hearing, Crouch was unceremoniously shoved out the
But Crouch didnt go quietly. He sued his
ex-employer and a Compton jury saw things his way. The jurors awarded him
$650,000 in his wrongful termination suit against SHIELDS. And its not
over yet. The jury is set to come back with punitive damages against SHIELDS on
Crouch also filed a legal claim against Gill Hicks
for alleged civil rights violations. That claim was settled out of court, but
how much Crouch received is being kept secret -- illegally, according to Terry
Francke, general counsel to the California First Amendment Coalition. In an
interview with New Times, the corridor authoritys attorney, Joe Burton,
refused to disclose how much Crouch was paid. The agreement bars Crouch and his
attorney from divulging the amount.
The corridor authority, it appears, hasnt
learned much from its embarrassing saga with Crouch. Under the California
Public Records Act, all legal settlements with public agencies are subject to
disclosure. Nonetheless, Francke says, public agencies often try to weasel out
of disclosure, knowing that few news organizations will take them to court.
This is a disgracefully common practice to hide
how much is being paid out in settlements -- both because it might offend the
taxpayers and because it might tend to underscore what an awkward position the
public agency was in in the first place, Francke says.
Hayden, who is still a member of the Senate
Transportation Committee, was so outraged when he learned of the stonewalling
that he faxed off an angry letter to members of the Alameda Corridor board.
The public has a right to know what it is
paying for the retaliatory and arrogant behavior of [the corridors]
executive director towards Mr. Crouch, Hayden wrote. It is
unacceptable for a public agency to hide the costs of its misbehavior from the
SHIIELDS, meanwhile, didnt settle with Crouch
and instead went to court. During the trial, the agencys explanation of
why it fired him became shakier with each new witness. By the end,
Crouchs termination began to look like a move to placate the pissed-off
Hicks, who had decision-making power over contracts that SHIELDS was hoping to
win from the public works project.
SHIELDS officials insisted that the Alameda Corridor
hearing had nothing to do with Crouch being axed. According to court records
and deposition testimony by SHIELDS Executive Director Kathryn Icenhower,
Crouch was terminated because he threatened to murder a colleague. Icenhower
also spread word that Crouch was a violent man to prospective employers.
But Crouchs attorney David Spivak, says the
alleged death threat was simply made up by SHIELDS officials as way to try and
justify firing Crouch. Spivak says the purported threat arose several weeks
after the hearing when Crouch became angry with his colleague Mark Moreno, then
SHIELDS human resources chief.
Moreno had failed to back Crouch in a disability
claim stemming from an accident unrelated to his job. Crouch told another
colleague, Dino Robinson, he was furious with Moreno. Robinson turned around
and gossiped with another coworker and explained that Crouch was really mad at
Moreno -- so angry he could just kill him. That employee passed the news on to
Icenhower then grilled Robinson about the alleged
threat. According to Robinsons testimony, he repeatedly told her that
Crouch had made no real threat and was just venting his anger. But sensing an
opportunity to fire Crouch, Icenhower turned around and made Robinson sign a
document saying Crouch was serious about killing Moreno, according to
Crouchs suit. Robinson testified that he signed the statement out of fear
of losing his job. In fact, he said under oath, Perry Crouch never
threatened to do any harm to Mark Moreno and never said to me, Ill
kill him. I never told any SHIELDS employee, or anyone else, that Perry
Crouch had threatened to kill Mark Moreno or anyone else. Robinson
testified that Icenhower directed him to write the June 1998 memo about his
conversation with Crouch against my will.
But Icenhower insisted the threat was real and was
grounds for termination.
By the end of the trial, there were SUV-sized holes
in SHIELDS story about Crouchs supposed murder threat. In addition
to Robinsons testimony, it was discovered that no one at SHIELDS reported
the alleged threat to the police. Furthermore, SHIELDS officials waited two
weeks after the purported threat was made to fire Crouch. And before canning
him, they allowed him to work in close proximity to Moreno, the man they were
supposedly worried he was going to kill.
The evidence clearly revealed that Perry Crouch
had no problems at all until Gill Hicks, the head of the Alameda Corridor,
spoke with the executive director of SHIELDS, says Spivak.
After Hicks threatened to hold up grant money for
SHIELDS because of Crouchs testimony, The next step was to figure
out a way to get rid of this guy, says Spivak. And they found their
answer in making a slanderous murder threat up. The truly odious aspect of this
was that, after he was terminated, they went to Crouchs prospective
employers, the community, and to the press with this allegation in an effort to
make sure no one would ever take Perry Crouch seriously again.
Hicks and Icenhower did not return New Times
Crouch didnt want to take the matter to court.
He tried to resolve his problems with his employer through a grievance hearing
and by utilizing contacts in state legislators offices, who, on his
behalf, contacted SHIELDS hoping to work out some kind of agreement. SHIELDS
This lie caught up with them...They looked like
a pack of liars and nobody bought it, Crouch says. I beat them with
About his settlement with the Alameda Corridor
authority, Crouch says: It was unethical what Gill Hicks did...When you
speak at a public hearing, you have the U.S. Constitution backing you up. If
people go to public hearings to speak their minds and are retaliated against,
they will be afraid to speak out.
Rocky Rushing, Haydens chief of staff, says
Crouchs settlement with the corridor authority and jury verdict against
SHIELDS are important victories.
There was never any question in my mind that
Perry Crouch was being persecuted for speaking out at a public hearing,
says Rushing, who witnessed Hicks outburst. If people who testify
at such hearings are subject to persecution, public hearings will be a parade
of yes-men and glad-handers. Perry was trying to tell it like it is.
As for Hicks, Rushing adds: Hes a public
official and its a public kitchen. I think the saying If you
cant stand the heat, get out of the kitchen is applicable