The Los Angeles schools’ real estate executive who claims retired Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Ramon Cortines sexually harassed him, and that the school district defamed him by failing to protect his privacy, told the Daily News that even the deepest secrets have to come out.
Scot Graham told the Daily News that before moving to Los Angeles he kept his sexuality a secret and he did not want to be part of public controversy. But a district employee he confided in about unwanted advances Cortines allegedly made at a Tulare County ranch was bound by policy to report sexual harassment, the newspaper reported based on a recent interview with Graham at his West Hollywood condo.
Graham has filed a $10 million claim against the district, alleging officials of defaming and failing to protect him.
Cortines and Graham were introduced by a mutual friend in San Francisco in the late 1980s, during the height of the AIDS epidemic. 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," Graham, now 56, told the Daily News. "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."
In 1986, Cortines was hired as superintendent of San Francisco's school system. Though he was well-known within the gay community, Graham said, Cortines 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," he told the newspaper.
Graham eventually took a job with a Japanese development company that moved him to Los Angeles in 1992. He said he went on "a 10-year binge of living life the way I thought you were supposed to live it in Los Angeles" after keeping his sexuality a secret in San Francisco.
In March 2000, Cortines, then interim LAUSD superintendent, called him with a job offer. Documents obtained by the Daily News via the Public Records Act show that Graham began working as the district's director of real estate on July 2, 2000. He started at $150,000 per year. Graham told the paper he never had to interview for the position or submit a resume.
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 told the Daily News. "It was just so, so humiliating, and I didn't know who to tell or what to tell."
In May, the district released a statement from Cortines in which he denied he sexually harassed Graham. Last week, Cortines' attorney said his client stood by that statement.
Graham said he kept the incident at Cortines' ranch secret for years, but he eventually confided in a friend.
Cortines returned to LAUSC as deputy superintendent in May 2008 was promoted to the top spot in 2009. In the following 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 his partner, Mark Bryant, fostered a friendship with Cortines.
In the summer of 2009, Graham and Bryant accepted an invitation to Cortines' ranch in Tulare County. 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.
Graham's partner had other plans, and Graham couldn't find anyone else to go with him. But he feared declining the invitation because he though Cortines might retaliate.
According to Graham's lawsuit, Cortines made unwanted sexual advances during a walk they took after dinner that Friday.
Later, according to the lawsuit 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.
The same thing happened the next night and on Sunday morning, according to the lawsuit.
On the four-hour drive back to L.A., Graham said, "I didn't say a word."
Cortines, who retired in April 2011, sold the ranch in June.
Graham told John Creer, a consultant who was his supervisor on a number of projects, about what happened at Cortines' ranch. Creer 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 told the Daily News that Graham reported his allegations in August, and said Scot "asked me very, very clearly to keep it as a private conversation."
According to Graham's lawsuit, 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 said he 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?"
Later, Graham said, Holmquist told him "I promise you, your secret's safe with me."'
The district has a different view of the events.
At a news conference in May, officials released a "chronology of events" that 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.
Attorney Linda Savitt, the attorney hired to represent the district and 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 two sides entered into arbitration and eventually reached a tentative settlement. Graham would get $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 approved the settlement in a 4-3 vote behind closed doors on May 22.
The next day, without alerting Graham or his attorneys, Savitt and district officials held a news conference where they announced terms of the deal.
At the news conference, district 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."
In the statement, Cortines said: "I regret allowing myself to engage in such spontaneous, consensual behavior. However, Mr. Graham had never indicated to me that our interaction was unwelcome."
Graham said he was outraged by the statement.
"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 conceded Cortines' statement was "a victory of sorts," because it was the first time Cortines ever publicly acknowledged being gay.
Although the district presented the agreement as finalized, Graham had yet to sign off on 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. Contines has not been served with the complaint, so has not filed a response, Savitt said.
Savitt's legal fees are being paid by taxpayers. The district refused a Public Records Act request for her contract, citing attorney-client privilege.