Breaking silence to break good old boy networks

By JENNIFER MUIR BEUTHIN, Contributing Columnist

If there has been one silver lining to the mud pit this presidential election has become, it’s that the national backlash against what Donald Trump so dismissively called “locker room talk” has given a voice to countless women who have been sexually assaulted or harassed.

Orange County Register reporter Marla Jo Fisher’s columns these past two weeks have provided a glimpse into the national catharsis that is taking place for so many women who have quietly endured inappropriate behavior, questioned themselves and worried that speaking out wouldn’t matter.

Now their stories are part of conversations at home, at work and in schools – sending an unequivocal message that sexual assault is wrong, that harassing women is not something you can do because you’re rich or in charge, and that if we stand up collectively against this type of behavior, others will have our backs.

Unfortunately, this moment came too late for too many women, including those who worked at the county of Orange when former Santa Ana City Councilman Carlos Bustamante was their boss.

Bustamante was a rising star in local Republican Party politics when several women who worked for him came forward and accused him of sexual assault. In the “locker room” culture that pervaded the county offices at the time, he was protected. The allegations were buried and internal investigations botched out of deference to Bustamante’s powerful position.

Ultimately, thanks to the courage and persistence of strong women, the district attorney brought charges of 12 felony sex crimes involving seven women against the former elected official. Bustamante eventually pleaded guilty to felony counts of stalking, attempted sexual battery by restraint and grand theft by false pretense, as well as misdemeanor counts of false imprisonment, assault and attempted sexual battery involving five of the women.

By pleading guilty, Bustamante admitted that he committed those crimes. That is, until earlier this month, when he appeared before the trustees of the Orange County Employees Retirement System to try to convince them that he should be allowed to keep his entire pension despite his felony convictions.

A California law passed in 2013 requires public workers who were convicted of felonies related to their jobs to forfeit retirement benefits accrued during the time they were committing the crimes.

Bustamante’s lawyer spoke first during the hearing, arguing a technicality in timing should exempt his client from the law.

Bustamante could have left it at that. But like so many men who commit these types of crimes, he was determined to have the last word. So Bustamante told the retirement system trustees that he only pleaded guilty because it was “the best he could do at the time” financially and for other reasons, and that his record would be expunged in the future. He told them other public officials had done worse and were permitted to keep their pensions. He downplayed and minimized his crimes, and didn’t even acknowledge the impact his crimes had on his victims.

It was all about him. It was all about what he wanted for himself. But his plan didn’t work. Board members, elected officials and workers spoke out against Bustamante’s request, and the trustees then voted unanimously to uphold the law and reduce his pension.

For the handful of us in the room that day, the hearing and the action by the trustees was deeply personal, an indication that the good old boy network in county government is finally beginning to crack. It provided hope that principled men and women standing together will ensure that those who prey on our community face the consequences of their criminal acts, no matter how powerful or well-connected they may be.

The women who stood up to Donald Trump and Carlos Bustamante are role models for us all. We owe them our gratitude for exposing the perpetrators of the wrongful acts committed against them. We also owe them our commitment to follow their example, and make certain their bravery results in a safer and more just community.

Jennifer Muir Beuthin is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

Publication Date: October 28, 2016