Gender discrimination. Sexual harassment. Retaliation.
Malibu’s former liaison at the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station is alleging she suffered this and more at the hands of Sheriff Alex Villanueva and his staff at sheriff’s headquarters.
The allegations come in the form of a complaint filed by Lt. Jennifer Seetoo, a 22-year veteran of the department, in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Monday, Jan. 27. Seetoo is being represented in her suit against the sheriff’s department by attorneys Reuven L. Cohen and Kathleen M. Erskine of Cohen Williams LLP.
The complaint alleges a slate of abuse from higher-ups in the department, all leading back to Villanueva, who was elected sheriff in December 2018.
“In the year since he was elected, Villanueva has repeatedly promoted his male friends, applied more favorable standards to male employees than females generally and made disparaging comments about women within the LASD and to the media,” the complaint alleges. “He also has directed a vicious and cynical attack on one of the LASD’s finest female lieutenants, blocking her from the opportunity to promote to captain, directing his executives to demote her twice, belittling her, planting spies to watch her work, criticizing her success, and transferring her out of the jurisdiction where she served admirably and provided rare experience in responding to fires during the most critical part of fire season.”
When reached for comment on Tuesday, Feb. 4, the watch commander at the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station said, “Because it’s a lawsuit, we can’t talk about it, but I don’t have a prepared statement—it would have to go through our sheriff’s information bureau.” Sheriff’s information bureau representatives reached on Tuesday were able to provide a week-old statement dated Wednesday, Jan. 29: “We are not able to provide comment at this time and have neither received a lawsuit involving an LASD lieutenant or are aware of its content.” No update to that statement was immediately available.
According to the complaint, Seetoo, who received numerous accolades in her role as lieutenant at the Lost Hills station, including being named Woman of the Year by State Senator Henry Stern in March 2019, was demoted, denied the opportunity for promotions, accused of inappropriate sexual relationships with elected officials, mocked and laughed at by others in the department before her eventual removal as Malibu liaison and subsequent transfer to West Hollywood—an event that shocked the Malibu community.
Her surprise demotion from Malibu liaison after nearly one year in the role inspired an outcry from Malibu officials including then-Public Safety Commissioner Andy Cohen, the complaint claims.
“Seetoo is informed and believes, and based thereon alleges, that on or about Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, Malibu resident and Public Safety Commissioner Andy Cohen drafted a letter to the LASD complaining that Seetoo’s removal was a sexist and political move,” the complaint claims. “Seetoo is informed and believes, and based thereon alleges, that Cohen died approximately two hours after drafting the letter but that before his death, he asked another Malibu resident to forward it to the Sheriff. Seetoo is further informed and believes Cohen’s letter was transmitted to the Sheriff on or around Oct. 20 or 21, 2019, by the resident. Seetoo received a copy of the letter from the Malibu resident who transmitted the letter. It stated, among other things: ‘This demotion of Malibu’s best liaison ever has the entire Malibu community as well as all the city council people really upset because it is apparent that this was a political and sexist move against a successful and strong and completely effective person whose only shortcoming was being born a female and therefore not being a member of the long standing LASD old boys network. A rare and effective woman in a mans [sic] organization.’”
The complaint also alleges that Seetoo was transferred just days before she would have completed a mandatory one-year assignment, which would have opened her up for the possibility of a voluntary transfer or promotion. In other words, the transfer out of Lost Hills was calculated to keep her from the possibility of moving to a department or role of her choice (such as that of a detective) and essentially locking her in to a year in West Hollywood. According to the complaint, male counterparts were routinely excused from this one-year rule.
This is the second lawsuit alleging retaliation from sheriff’s headquarters at the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station, with Seetoo’s predecessor as Malibu liaison Jim Royal accusing the sheriff of assigning him “freeway therapy” following the shooting of Tristan Beaudette at Malibu Creek State Park in 2018.
Royal, who filed a claim against the government in June 2019, alleged he was ousted from his position as Malibu liaison in “retribution” for his repeated requests to bring the information forward, after Beaudette’s family sued the LASD and other state agencies for $90 million, claiming officials put Beaudette in danger by not making their knowledge of the shootings public. He added that, at a widely publicized town hall meeting later that year, he was intentionally intimidated by a representative from Villanueva’s office who wore plain clothes and sat in the audience to “stare down” the lieutenant during the meeting.