An attorney who investigates workplace misconduct at USC has filed suit against the institution, alleging administrators destroyed or hid records in cases against the college's top officials, maintained "shadow files" on employees, and used their accountability office as a "hit team" to retaliate against professors that spoke out against university leadership.
In the lawsuit filed July 8 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, the anonymous attorney alleges USC’s Office of Conduct, Accountability and Professionalism systematically destroyed or wrote over investigative records all while university officials looked the other way. This includes deleting a “preservation file” related to George Tyndall, a former health center gynecologist facing dozens of charges alleging he sexually assaulted 16 students from 2009 to 2016.
The attorney’s lawsuit was filed just days after USC named a new leader for equity, equal opportunity and Title IX, replacing Gretchen Gaspari, who is accused in the court document of retaliating against the attorney for reporting that her own husband, John Gaspari, was convicted of misusing graphic photographs involving another woman, costing him his job as executive director of the USC Center for Work and Family Life. In the complaint, Gretchen Gaspari is referred to as Dahlinger-Means.
Benjamin Blady, the whistleblower’s lawyer, declined to discuss the lawsuit, saying the allegations in the complaint spoke for themselves.
“We are proud to represent Doe as Doe seeks to fight on for USC, it’s constituents and its employees for accountability, justice and transparency,” Blady said.
In a statement, USC denied the allegations.
“The allegations in the lawsuit are baseless,” the statement said. “We plan to vigorously defend ourselves.”
According to the lawsuit, the attorney learned shortly after being hired to work in the accountability office in 2018 that politics played an important role at USC, including as a senior investigator responsible for interviewing witnesses, collecting and reviewing evidence and making findings in workplace misconduct cases.
The lawsuit alleges the attorney was removed from cases before completing them because USC had a “desire to protect employees that had engaged in severe or pervasive misconduct” and “to hide unlawful and unethical behavior.” The attorney alleges he or she was placed on administrative leave in retaliation for investigating two high-ranking employees accused of bullying and making a report to Dahlinger-Means.
“The investigation was reassigned, the complaining party was terminated, and the respondents were promoted,” the lawsuit alleges.
The attorney also charges that USC:
- Engaged in a “systemic program of spoliation regarding employment files and workplace investigation files, as well as electronic employee records.” This included a policy of creating a single report and requiring investigators to “constantly write over their prior work” so that drafts would not be available should the case go to court;
- Destroyed records even after being served with notices to preserve evidence;
- Intentionally concealed documents it was required by law to produce;
- Maintained “shadow” personnel records and used “corrupt practices in workplace investigations, including misclassifying reports to protect the accused and creating “one-sided ‘dirt files’” to be used against faculty, including a particular art history professor for “vocalizing unpopular opinions.” Dirt files were to contain information that could cost victims promotions that would be checked through the accountability office;
- Created a culture of promoting predetermined outcomes of workplace investigations. In one case, Dahlinger-Means declared that a complaint against a worker would be upheld “over her dead body.”
In one incident, the lawsuit alleges, Dahlinger-Means tried to end a complaint about violence on campus because it had occurred on a weekend. The lawsuit said Dahlinger-Means contended the university had to be careful on how it handled matters that occurred during employees’ own time.
The case occurred about the time her boyfriend and eventual husband, John Gaspari, was investigated on sexual charges in Manhattan Beach outside of work hours. “Similarly,” the lawsuit alleges, “the Office of Civil Rights later found that Gretchen Dahlinger-Means had improperly unilaterally dismissed complaints made against George Tyndall without investigating.”
Tyndall’s case, which remains in process in the Los Angeles Superior Court system, resulted in the ouster of former USC President Max Nikias. Hundreds of students dating to the 1990s allege Tyndall sexually assaulted them at the campus health center while their complaints were ignored.
In Gaspari’s case, he pleaded no contest in March 2018 to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge for secretly photographing or recording graphic pictures of a woman without her knowledge. He was sentenced to three years on probation and 130 hours of community service.
The lawsuit claims Dahlinger-Means was livid when she learned the attorney under her supervision had reported the case to another manager. The attorney, the lawsuit said, feared Dahlinger-Means would do nothing against her own boyfriend.
In May 2018, Nikias named John Gaspari to his new President’s Campus Culture Commission, which was established in the wake of the Tyndall scandal for “creating and sustaining an environment of trust and fairness” on campus. It’s not clear whether Nikias knew of Gaspari’s conviction.
In December 2019, the California Board of Behavioral Sciences with the Department of Consumer Affairs revoked John Gaspari’s license to practice as a social worker but stayed the decision and placed him on three years of probation. He was ordered to seek therapy.
By that time, John Gaspari was terminated from the university, the lawsuit said. Gretchen Gaspari’s last day of employment at USC was June 30, the university said.
Civil rights attorney Catherine Spear will take over in the fall as vice president for equity, equal opportunity and Title IX, a newly created position.
Attempts to reach Gretchen and John Gaspari were unsuccessful.
Karen Foshay assisted with the reporting of this story.
Top Image: The Trojan Shrine | Helki Frantzen for SoCal Connected, 2019