By Barbara Jones, Staff Writer LA Daily News | http://bit.ly/Ns9S2C
Former LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines, seen above in a file photo, was accused of sexual harassment by LAUSD employee Scot Graham. (Dean Musgrove/Staff Photographer)
26 Aug 2012 :: Sometimes, Scot Graham says, even the deepest secrets have to come out.
That's the reason the Los Angeles Unified leasing chief is suing retired Superintendent Ramon Cortines, alleging incidents of sexual misconduct going back more than a decade.
It's the rationale for the $10 million claim he's filed against the school district, accusing officials of defaming and failing to protect him.
Scot Graham, photographed at his West Hollywood home, is the LAUSD employee who has filed a sexual-harassment lawsuit against retired Superintendent Ramon Cortines. (John McCoy/Staff Photographer) >>
And it's why Graham is speaking out for the first time since he was thrust into the public eye by LAUSD officials as they rebutted Graham's allegations against Cortines and the district and tried to prevent the accusations from erupting into a scandal.
During a candid interview this month at his West Hollywood condominium, Graham provided a context for understanding his friendship with Cortines, and his rationale for challenging the power structure of the nation's second-largest school district.
The two were introduced by a mutual friend in San Francisco in the late 1980s -- a time when the AIDS epidemic was exploding and most gay men kept their sexual orientation secret and socialized only among themselves.
Graham, the great-grandson of the founder of the Sears department store chain, was in his late 20s and a successful commercial developer.
"I was leading a secret life," said Graham, now 56. "It was awful, horrible. Gays didn't socialize with the straights, so people stayed in the closet. People were afraid to touch or be around gay people."
Cortines had been hired in 1986 as superintendent of San Francisco's school system. He was well-known within the gay community, Graham said, but carefully concealed his sexual orientation from the public.
Alienated from his own family because of his sexual orientation, Graham turned to "Ray" as a friend and confidant. Cortines, he said, wanted a different sort of relationship.
"He really pursued me, but I never showed any interest," Graham said.
"He was an older, gay man and I was really struggling. I did talk to him a lot about the fact that this AIDS crisis was devastating to go through ... It was emotional hell."
At one point, he told Cortines about his desire to find a more purposeful profession than building and leasing skyscrapers. Graham's family was very involved in education in his hometown of Phoenix, and he hoped for a similar mission.
"What I'd tell Ray was, 'I'm making all this money and I have this kind of glamorous job, but I couldn't care less. I am so hollow inside. I have no center. I'm so unhappy.'
"And so I did tell him that if he ever thought of anything that was meaningful, to let me know."
Graham eventually went to work for a Japanese development company that transferred him to Los Angeles in 1992. He desperately hoped that things would be different.
"After those horrible, dark, depressing years in San Francisco, I was going to live life happier," he said. "I went on a 10-year binge of living life the way I thought you were supposed to live it in Los Angeles."
That meant luxury homes in the Hollywood Hills, extravagant trips, and parties with rich and famous friends -- enviable experiences that still left him unfulfilled.
"I had made money but had not made a difference," Graham said.
Offered spiritual sustenance
In March 2000, he heard from Cortines, who was midway through a six-month stint as interim chief of LAUSD. Graham, who graduated with honors from Stanford and has an MBA from UCLA, said the superintendent called to offer him a job.
"'I've got the perfect thing, that takes advantage of your skills, and you'll find spiritual sustenance,"' Graham recalled Cortines saying. "And I said, 'Where? When?' And I thought it was God's answer."
Documents obtained under a Public Records Act request show that Graham began working as LAUSD's director of real estate on July 2, 2000.
Although district officials maintain that Graham received no preferential treatment, he said he never had to interview or even submit a resume before he was hired to the $150,000-a-year job.
Graham did have to take a significant pay cut but felt there would be an emotional payoff in working for the district. That changed, he said, within the first few days of Cortines offering him the job.
According to the lawsuit Graham filed last month, Cortines took him to dinner at the Water Grill and the two returned afterward to LAUSD headquarters. There, the suit said, Cortines groped him and asked him to have sex in the superintendent's office.
When Graham refused, Cortines told him "it was the least he could do" for getting him the job, according to the lawsuit. Graham rebuffed Cortines' advances, but feared that Cortines would retaliate.
"I was so ashamed," Graham said in the interview. "It was just so, so humiliating, and I didn't know who to tell or what to tell."
The district released a statement from Cortines in May, in which he denied that he had sexually harassed Graham at any time. His attorney said last week that Cortines stood by that statement.
Graham said he kept the incident with Cortines secret for years but eventually confided in a friend -- a conversation the woman confirmed recently to the Daily News.
"In an instant, your world changes," Graham said. "I used to be so self-confident and I believed I could do anything. And (then) I started to stutter. I couldn't sleep ... And also the fear that I couldn't tell anybody because it was such a good ol' boy system."
Job, love life turn around
By 2003, Graham said, he wanted to correct the situation Cortines had created. His job as real estate director entailed condemning properties for the district's multibillion-dollar school construction program, and Graham didn't feel qualified.
"I kept on saying to them, 'You hired the wrong guy. I don't know a thing about eminent domain ... My colleagues said, 'How did you get this job?' I said, 'Ray."'
At the time, there was another Real Estate Branch official whose title was director of real estate and asset management. According to Graham, officials spun off the job of leasing and asset management director, which he secured after following protocol in applying, testing and interviewing for the post.
"I love my job, I love being of service," he said. "There are very, very few people who understand that the survival of the school district depends on how well it's managed."
Graham's personal life also improved. In August 2004, he met Mark Bryant at a week-long yoga retreat in Hawaii. They wed a year later in Canada, and their marriage was among those validated later by a court ruling on Proposition 8.
Cortines returned to Los Angeles Unified as deputy superintendent in mid-May 2008, and he was promoted to the top spot in 2009. Over the next three years, he slashed $1.5 billion from the budget and laid off 2,700 teachers and 4,900 other employees as he dealt with a deepening financial crisis.
Terrified that Scot could lose his job, Graham and Bryant fostered a friendship with Cortines.
They had lunch with him at a restaurant near Cortines' Pasadena home. And in the the summer of 2009, Graham and Bryant accepted Cortines' invitation to "the ranch," a second home he owned in Tulare County.
Graham and Bryant said it was a pleasant weekend, that Cortines was a cordial host and everyone seemed to settle into their natural roles.
"I felt like I'd set the boundaries, that he knew we were together," said Bryant, who works as a therapist at a drug- and alcohol-rehabilitation center in Malibu. "I never had any strong feelings from him that he would usurp that. I never felt uncomfortable with Scot being there by himself ever ...
"I respected Ray," Bryant said, "but knew the power he had with Scot's job."
Weekend at the ranch
Cortines asked the couple to the ranch again on July 23, 2010, two days after he announced plans to retire and the day after his 78th birthday.
Bryant had a scheduling conflict. Graham couldn't find anyone else to go with him but feared retaliation if he refused Cortines' invitation.
According to Graham's lawsuit, Cortines made unwanted sexual advances during a walk they took after dinner that Friday.
Later, the suit said, Cortines came nude to Graham's bedroom -- which didn't have a lock -- and tried repeatedly to engage Scot in sex. Cortines then masturbated beside Graham, who lay "frozen from fear and shock," the suit said.
Cortines repeated the same activity on Saturday night, and made additional advances on Sunday morning, according to the suit. Graham fended Cortines off, but felt trapped, helpless and fearful for his safety, the suit said.
Graham said he tried to call Bryant, but couldn't get cellphone service and Cortines wouldn't let him near the only land-line phone. They'd driven up in the superintendent's car, and Cortines refused to take him home until Sunday.
On the four-hour drive back to L.A., Graham said, "I didn't say a word."
Property records show that Cortines sold the ranch in June.
Graham left 'distraught'
Once home, Graham told Bryant it had been "a terrible weekend" but didn't elaborate. Graham said he was worried about disrupting Bryant's studies, or that Bryant would act out against Cortines and jeopardize his job with the district.
He began seeing a therapist, but his health and work suffered, Graham said. In August 2010, he took his allegations to John Creer, an outside consultant who was his supervisor on a number of projects.
In a phone interview this month, Creer confirmed that Graham had spoken to him about the weekend and that he was "distraught."
Because Creer was an outside contractor, he suggested that Graham talk to James Sohn, who was then head of the Facilities Division.
Sohn no longer works for the district. However, in a phone interview last week, he confirmed that Graham reported his allegations in August, and said Scot "asked me very, very clearly to keep it as a private conversation."
According to the suit, Graham said Sohn was bound by district policy to report the allegations.
"Despite his duty to report and investigate employee complaints of sexual harassment, Sohn did not report the incident to the LAUSD or any other governmental entity," Graham alleges in his lawsuit.
Graham complained again to Sohn in September 2010, after Cortines called Graham at home and "made sexually suggestive remarks," the suit said.
According to Sohn, "I felt the allegations were worthy of elevating to a level above me ... He didn't really ask me to and I didn't tell him I was going to, but I felt I had the responsibility to report it."
At that point, Sohn went to General Counsel David Holmquist, who summoned Graham to his office on Oct. 13, 2010. Holmquist is the district's lead attorney and reports directly to the superintendent and the school board.
According to the lawsuit, Graham described his weekend in graphic detail, then asked Holmquist about the potential fallout of seeking an investigation into Cortines. He also expressed concern about retaliation if his allegations became public.
In his lawsuit, Graham said Holmquist suggested that he simply forget about the weekend, saying, "What is the point of ruining a man's career ... What are you going to accomplish by complaining?"
During the recent interview, which was conducted without his attorneys present, Graham recalled being "white and scared" when he went to see Holmquist. He said the lawyer asked whether he was OK and whether he was seeing a therapist.
"And he said, 'Well, you seem to be under good care.' And he said, 'Ray's retiring, and so the problem will fix itself.' I said, 'I guess.'
"And he said, 'I promise you, your secret's safe with me."'
The district has presented a different version of events.
During a news conference in May, officials released a "Chronology of Events," which says that Graham asked both Sohn and Holmquist not to take action against Cortines because it would be "much too embarrassing." Officials also said Graham expressed reluctance to tarnish Cortines' reputation since he was so close to retirement.
Linda Savitt, the outside attorney who is representing both the district and the 80-year-old Cortines, said she doesn't believe Graham's sexual-harassment allegations were treated differently because they involved the former superintendent.
"It's a function of what is reported, how it's reported, what the person wants done and what the situation is," she said. "The specifics have to be individually analyzed and addressed."
The district previously said Cortines had never before been accused of sexual harassment. Records requests filed with school districts where Cortines had previously worked -- Pasadena, San Jose, San Francisco and New York City -- also turned up no complaints.
Breaking his silence
Graham said his health problems worsened after Cortines retired in April 2011. He broke out in a rash and continues to suffer from other problems that doctors say are stress-related.
Although Cortines was no longer part of the district, Graham said he continued to fear his influence over those still in power.
Bryant said he thought it was important to keep Graham in Cortines' good graces so he continued to foster their friendship. The couple went to brunch with Cortines in December 2011 and invited him to their West Hollywood home in January.
Then in February, the sex-abuse scandal broke at Miramonte Elementary School, along with revelations that district officials had kept parents in the dark about the alleged incidents. About the same time, Graham was ordered to terminate a contractor accused of sexually harassing several female employees.
Graham said the two events convinced him there was a double standard and that it was time to break his silence. Graham told Bryant, who encouraged him to confront Cortines and the district.
"The naivete," Graham said. "It seemed like it wouldn't be that big of a deal. 'This is the truth,' 'This isn't the truth' ... It'll be a good healing experience and it will be over and done with in a matter of days because the facts are so obvious."
Graham hired attorney Arnold Peter, who sent a draft complaint to the district in March, outlining the allegations against Cortines and indicating they planned to file a claim.
The next day, Graham said, he returned to his office from lunch and was told that Superintendent John Deasy, Cortines' successor, had been looking for him. Unsure of what Deasy wanted, Graham went up to the superintendent's 24th floor office.
"He shuts the door, gives me a hug and sits me down and says, "I am so, so sorry,"' Graham recalled. "`I don't know know what to say. My heart goes out to you."'
Deasy would neither confirm nor deny the conversation.
Reaching a settlement
The two sides entered into arbitration and eventually reached a tentative settlement. Graham would receive $200,000 -- enough to pay his attorneys -- and lifetime health benefits, in exchange for him resigning on May 31.
"At that point I was physically sick and I didn't want to be there and I knew I couldn't get medical benefits," Graham said. "I remember feeling like, how could I have fallen so far, when I was making so much money and now all I want is health benefits?"
The school board argued about the agreement during three very tense closed-door meetings, before approving it by a 4-3 vote on May 22.
The next day, without alerting Graham or his attorneys, Savitt and district officials held a press conference at the nearby Chamber of Commerce office where they announced terms of the deal.
It was during that news conference that officials released the statement from Cortines in which he denied sexually harassing Graham, and said the two had engaged in a single incident of "consensual spontaneous adult behavior."
"As the district's former top staff member, I regret allowing myself to engage in such spontaneous, consensual behavior," the statement said. "However, Mr. Graham had never indicated to me that our interaction was unwelcome."
Graham said he was outraged by Cortines' statement, which was released on LAUSD letterhead and widely reported in the media.
"As a deeply committed, married man, who believes deeply in my vows, to have written in the paper that a public institution had divined that I had committed adultery, and not do anything about it, is a sin in itself," Graham said.
Graham did say that the statement was "a victory of sorts," since it's the first time Cortines had ever acknowledged that he is gay.
Over the years, Cortines has steadfastly deflected questions about his sexual orientation, and a district spokesman said the retired schools chief had no comment.
The deal is derailed
Although the district presented the agreement as finalized, Graham hadn't yet signed the deal. Its premature release derailed the settlement and created confusion over his employment status. He went on unpaid leave in June, before quietly returning to the job in July.
During that time, Graham filed the suit against Cortines. The former superintendent has not yet been served with the complaint, so has not filed a response, Savitt said.
Graham also filed a $10 million claim against Los Angeles Unified, saying he was defamed and his privacy was invaded by the release of the proposed settlement. The district denied the claim, and Graham's attorney said he is preparing to file suit against LAUSD.
Savitt's legal fees are being paid by taxpayers. The district refused a Public Records Act request for her contract, citing attorney-client privilege.
Since his return, Graham said, he has received numerous calls and emails of support from colleagues throughout the district. He draws strength from them, from Bryant and from his strong Catholic faith.
Out of his fight with the district, Graham said he hopes to be given the opportunity to advocate for marriage equality and to help raise awareness of the difficult path facing youngsters who are exploring their sexual identities and the support they need from their families -- something he didn't have in his own sheltered childhood.
"We wondered why is it that we lived through the AIDS holocaust?" he said. "In this loving universe, I believe that God has a higher purpose for us, that we saw how precious life is and we're here to tell a story."