A Whistle Blower’s Revenge “Perry Crouch was fired after publicly criticizing the megabucks Alameda Corridor project. But he didn’t take it lying down.”

New Times Los Angeles
June 8, 2000
Susan Goldsmith

Perry Crouch

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, Crouch’s 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 ordeal.

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, wasn’t 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 Crouch’s 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 door.

But Crouch didn’t 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 it’s not over yet. The jury is set to come back with punitive damages against SHIELDS on June 8.

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 authority’s 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, hasn’t 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 corridor’s] executive director towards Mr. Crouch,” Hayden wrote. “It is unacceptable for a public agency to hide the costs of its misbehavior from the taxpayer.”

SHIIELDS, meanwhile, didn’t settle with Crouch and instead went to court. During the trial, the agency’s explanation of why it fired him became shakier with each new witness. By the end, Crouch’s 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 Crouch’s 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.

Icenhower then grilled Robinson about the alleged threat. According to Robinson’s 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 Crouch’s 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, ‘I’ll 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 Crouch’s supposed murder threat. In addition to Robinson’s 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 Crouch’s 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 Crouch’s 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’ phone calls.

Crouch didn’t 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 wasn’t interested.

“This lie caught up with them...They looked like a pack of liars and nobody bought it,” Crouch says. “I beat them with the truth.”

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, Hayden’s chief of staff, says Crouch’s 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: “He’s a public official and it’s a public kitchen. I think the saying ‘If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’ is applicable here.”

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