Sex and the Spaghetti Factory
Caltrans worker Gloria Moore took the heat for a risqué retirement party, but a judge said rebuking her was inappropriate
For the last nine months, Gloria Moore’s bosses at the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) have labeled her a liar, disobedient and a sexual harasser.
That’s pretty strong stuff for a mid-level associate accounting analyst who has been working at the state agency for 12 years. But that’s not all. Her superiors also saw to it that for her alleged crimes she would be suspended without pay for 10 working days. The suspension was enforced in early February.
Moore’s crime was helping set up a retirement party for a member of the department last November. It was quite a bash. About 100 Caltrans employees, mostly in the accounting department and many of them managers, jammed the back room of the Old Spaghetti Factory on J Street for a lunch honoring Bob Burnside, who served 40 years in the department. Everything went according to plan until the day’s last guest, “Courtney,” appeared. Once Courtney plopped a compact disc into the stereo, stripped to a G-string and straddled the guest of honor, Moore’s work life would never be the same.
Since then, Moore has battled to clear her name and earn back the money lost when she was suspended. Along the way, she said, she’s lost friends, been transferred to another department within Caltrans in a different building and suffered humiliating alienation in a state agency where she used to toil in a kind of blissful obscurity.
Moore’s odyssey started last November when the department was organizing a retirement party for Burnside. One of Moore’s managers, Laurine Bohamera, turned to her because she had essentially the same job as the outgoing Burnside. Moore would lead a committee that would figure out the entertainment for the party.
“It wasn’t even my job,” she said. “But no one else was really close to Bob, so I felt like I had to do it.”
Moore and the rest of the committee arranged for two forms of entertainment: First, an actor playing a homeless man who would come in and pretend that he was one of Burnside’s long lost friends; and second, a pretty girl who would come in and dance for the retiring worker.
To get the dancer, Moore called a number recommended by a co-worker. It turned out to be the number for a company called “Take It Off.” Obviously, the name implied there’s something slightly sexual about the kind of dancers the company offers. When Gloria called the company, a co-worker, An Sarrels, also got on the line to discuss what kind of entertainment would be good for the party. Both women subsequently said that the person on the other end of the line, a worker named “Dave,” assured them that the entertainment would be appropriate for an office function: the dancer would wear boxer shorts and wouldn’t touch Burnside during the performance.
Moore said that her boss, Bohamera, was well aware that the dancer was on the program for the party. Bohamera noted in Caltrans documents associated with Moore’s suspension that Moore assured her that the entertainment would be suitable for an office party. Bohamera didn’t return repeated calls to comment for this story.
When it came time for the party, however, the entertainment arranged by Moore and the committee was anything but appropriate for an office party. When Courtney took the floor, stripped to a G-string and climbed on top of Burnside, Moore said she was shocked, but saw many of the attendees, including some managers, riveted by the display.
She said Burnside didn’t exactly seem turned off by the stripper either. But after five minutes, a mid-level manager stepped in to stop the act, saying, “That’s enough.” As for Burnside, all he could say, according to Moore, was “Why did they stop it?” Burnside could not be reached for comment.
When the accounting group got back to work, after having been gone for more than two hours, Bohamera launched into action. According to her own notes in the suspension papers, she called Moore into her office and asked for an explanation. Moore told her that she didn’t know the name of the company when she ordered the stripper and was vague about the nature of the entertainment ordered. Then Bohamera called Take It Off and said that Dave told her that Moore ordered a sexy performance.
At this point, Bohamera launched a full-scale investigation of the incident, even though according to her notes, no one complained about what happened. Moore’s attorney, Richard Burton, said that Bohamera simply found a scapegoat because she felt that in the end, she would be blamed if someone complained.
“All of Gloria’s supervisors were at this party,” Burton says. “They got scared that the finger would be pointed at them, so they instead pointed it at Gloria.”
Moore’s supervisors eventually charged her with sexual harassment, a serious charge that possibly could have opened up a civil action against her if she didn’t fight it, said Burton. But instead of just sitting back, Moore fought it, and was ultimately vindicated.
When the case came before Judge Jose Alvarez of the state Personnel Board in April, Moore said the judge was skeptical from the beginning about her culpability. After Caltrans presented its evidence, Burton moved to dismiss the case. Alvarez did so and ultimately awarded her back-pay benefits and interest, calling Moore naïve, but not dishonest.
In his decision, Alvarez noted that many retirement functions can “take a ribald turn,” and questioned which is more offensive, “the risqué dance of a female entertainer or the portrayal of a destitute, homeless person,” the gag that preceded the dancer.
For Burton, the case of Gloria Moore says much about the disciplinary process in California state government.
“This complaint should have gone through Caltrans legal department, who would have just laughed at them based on an understanding of sexual harassment law,” Burton said. “All actions against state employees should go through legal departments because the people who bring them don’t understand the law.”
But for Moore, the case isn’t so esoteric. She feels like something’s been taken from her: her reputation. She still can’t understand why someone whom she considered a friend, Bohamera, turned on her so suddenly.
Moore said she even felt condemned by her co-workers for not protecting Bohamera and taking the fall. But the case was serious, it was sexual harassment, so she fought. And while she still hasn’t received her money—it’s been a month since Caltrans received written documentation of the judge’s order, but she’s not received her back pay yet—the more important a validation will be when people within her department know the truth. When Moore got the written decision from Alvarez, she made 28 copies and put them on her co-workers’ desks, which earned her a rebuke from management.
But Moore doesn’t care about their rebukes anymore. She still can’t tell the story without crying.
“It’s been a kind of hell,” Moore said. “ I’ve just been an emotional mess because I don’t know how it could affect me like this. I want people to know the truth.”