NYC Coughs Up $300K To Settle Gay Cop Sex Harassment Case

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday July 15, 2010

A claim of on-the-job sexual harassment has netted two police officers $300,000. The purported harasser: an openly gay male colleague in the New York Police Department.

The alleged harassment took place in 2005. A department trial conduced in 2008 found Lt. Kieran Crowe guilty of sexually harassing Sgt. Dominic Coppola and Sgt. Sean Gallagher, who had filed a complaint alleging that Crowe had made sexually explicit gestures with his hands and his tongue at the male officers. One of the manual gestures the officers complained about was Crowe allegedly rubbing his crotch in front of them.

Crowe testified that if he had rubbed his crotch, it was due to "medical conditions." Testimony from a dermatologist confirmed that Crowe had suffered from jock itch.

However, that defense did not convince John Grappone, who served as the trial commissioner in the case. The trial ended with a guilty verdict for Crowe and an opinion stating that a body rash did not excuse conduct of the sort about which the officers had complained, including "extensive staring at crotches, masturbation gestures, tongue gestures and sighing sounds."

As to other gestures, Crowe said that miming of masturbation may have occurred while he was engaged in a telephone conversation and felt that he was being "jerked around."

Crowe's sentence was a two-month suspension and a year of probation during which any infraction would have resulted in his firing. Crowe retired right after the trial, stating, "I vehemently deny these charges and I'm confident that my name will be cleared."

Gallagher and Coppola pursued a civil suit, and were rewarded with a sum total of $300,000 by the city, according to a July 13 article in the New York Daily News. Gallagher was awarded $125,000, while $175,000 went to Coppola, the article said.

"He paid nothing, he did nothing, he admitted nothing," Rae Koshetz, Crowe's attorney, told The New York Daily News, adding, "If the city wants to pay these people, that's their choice."

Eric Sanders, the lawyer for Gallagher and Coppola, said that the case was "further proof that the once-silent issue of same-sex harassment is on the rise." Indeed, it does appear that more men are coming forward to report instances of sexual harassment by male colleagues; a March 4 Associated Press article related that over a 19-year period, from 1990 through 2009, men filing sexual harassment claims rose from 8% of all such claims to 16%, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said. Some of those claims said that female colleagues were the harassers, but most identified the perpetrators as male.

The article recounted a claim made by six male Arizona employees of chain restaurant The Cheesecake Factory, who said they had been sexually groped and subjected to "simulated rape" by male co-workers. The company shelled out $345,000 to the half-dozen plaintiffs.

In some cases, according to consultant Susan Strauss, the harassment is meant as a form of hazing and targets victims who are not seen as "masculine" enough. "If you don't fit the masculine stereotype or are viewed as effeminate, you get picked on in a sexual way to demean you," Strauss told the AP.

EEOC lawyer Ernest Haffner told the AP that, "It's certainly possible that there's more sexual harassment of men going on, but it could just be that more men are coming forward and complaining about it."

The article noted that claims of male-on-male sexual harassment had risen following a ruling from the Supreme Court in 1998 that men were also protected by federal laws barring such behavior.

For men who gay--or who are perceived to be gay--workplace harassment can take other forms, as well. Officer Sean Lathrop was seen as a "golden boy" while a rookie on the police force of St. Cloud, Minnesota, his attorney said, until Lathrop's superiors realized that the young man was gay. Once Lathrop's sexuality came to the attention of his colleagues, however, Lathrop was systematically discriminated against by his superiors, a federal lawsuit alleged.

Among other things, Lathrop was told that no gay people live in St. Cloud--which is a suburban community outside of the "Twin Cities" of Minneapolis-St. Paul--and denied permission to attend a Pride event either in uniform or as a private citizen. Lathrop's suit also alleges that he was subjected to baseless disciplinary proceedings.

Anti-Gay Cops in San Fran?

Allegations of anti-gay conditions at the police department of a Sacramento suburb were in the news this past April. That case, as in St. Cloud, resulted in a lawsuit, which alleged that the department had allowed an entrenched anti-gay culture to flourish. Other allegations in that suit said that an officer committed an act of sexual harassment against a female civilian and was never suitably punished for it.

Moreover, one officer, Darin DeFreece, was perceived by a colleague to be gay. The colleague then allegedly counseled DeFreece not to serve as a liaison to the local Boy Scout troop, because to do so would bring him into contact with male youths.

One plaintiff in the suit, Ken Marler, was allegedly the subject of anti-gay sentiment from the start, when a Roseville officer, Kelby Newton, announced that the department was about to "get... a faggot," meaning Marler, who was transferring into the department. The suit says that Marler was the target of harassment by other Roseville officers.

A pair of twin brothers took their male employers to court in California, alleging that their bosses made sexually suggestive comments to them, including comparing portions of their physiques to debate which one was "hotter." The brothers were each awarded a mere $1,000, but their lawyer said that the suit was not about money.

The Halls of Power

Perhaps the most widely publicized example of alleged sexual harassment at the workplace that targeted male victims were allegations that former Democratic Congressman Eric Massa had engaged in sexual harassment of his male staffers.

The Washington Post reported in an April 13 article that, based on numerous interviews and examination of internal documents, complaints about Massa began as early as three months after he took office, with the earliest known claims of harassment by young male staffers starting in March of last year. The article said that the harassment ranged from improper touch to admissions of sexual interest.

Word of Massa's conduct reportedly didn't reach the ears of senior members of Congress until a year later; at that time, an ethics probe was launched, the story broke in the media, and Massa resigned from office, citing a health scare late last year.

A law passed in 1995 was intended to prevent members of Congress from exercising their status to harass members of their staffs, but junior staffers are still afraid, in many cases, of damaging their careers by speaking up. Said layer Debra Katz, who represents one alleged victim, the scandal "speaks to the significant power differential that exists between members of Congress and the personnel they employ." Katz added that, "staffers by and large are fearful of retaliation and career suicide if they file complaints or go outside of their offices to report sexual harassment."

Early reports of Massa's behavior seem to have stayed within the ranks of Massa's staff, with junior staff taking their concerns to Massa's chief of staff, Joe Racalto. But Racalto himself was allegedly also a target for the Congressman's purportedly predatory conduct, though Racalto would not confirm this for the Post article. Racalto did, however, indicate that there were multiple instances when he sought to intervene and shield junior staffers from Massa. Racalto's lawyer, Camilla C. McKinney, issued a statement in which she declared, "When Mr. Racalto did witness something or hear a complaint concerning inappropriate conduct, Mr. Racalto made every effort to curtail the Congressman's behavior by directly addressing each issue with the congressman."

In one memo sent to staffers, Racalto wrote, "It has been brought to my attention that casual conversations of a sexual nature are ongoing. This is highly inappropriate, offensive, and against the law." The memo continued, "I want to invite all staff to immediately contact me if you are aware of any inappropriate conversations that are taking place." The article said that though junior staffers were assured that Massa's conduct would be reigned in, the harassment only continued to worsen. Racalto went so far as to prevent Massa from taking male interns with him on overnight trips.

Finally, after Massa's conduct spilled over to the outside world--with Massa reportedly having invited a male bartender out to dinner, leading to a blog posting that accused Massa of sexual impropriety--Racalto and his then-deputy chief of staff, Ron Hikel, went to Congressional Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat, who insisted on a prompt report to the ethics committee.

Massa responded by painting himself as the victim of a Democratic plot to target him because of his opposition to the Obama administration's health care reform bill. Conservative pundits responded by embracing him--though briefly; FoxNews host Glenn Beck had Massa on his program. But Tom Reed, the Republican politician who had intended to run against Massa for his Congressional seat, before Massa resigned, raised questions about Massa. "I think there are a lot of legitimate questions as to what [Massa] is saying," Reed told the media. "We're seeing a transformation of his positions and his explanations of his resignation. I think there is some serious questions that need to be raised. I would say there are some serious inconsistencies in his statements, and I am troubled by what he is saying."

Details soon emerged about Massa tickling another man at a birthday party. During an appearance on Larry King Live, Massa was asked by King whether he was, in fact, gay. Massa refused to answer, snapping back, "I'm not gonna answer that." Added Massa, "Ask my wife. Ask my friends, Ask the ten thousand men I served with in the Navy."

Naval veterans with whom Massa had served did come forward--to say that Massa had harassed them.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.