Lawsuit: Assemblyman forced staffers to work for his law firm

Lawsuit: Assemblyman forced staffers to work for his law firm

A former employee of Assemblyman Steve Fox alleges that the Democrat lawmaker forced employees in his taxpayer-funded state office to work for his private law practice.

The allegations are contained in a lengthy complaint filed last Friday in Los Angeles Superior Court by Kristina Zahn, who worked as a paralegal at Fox’s law firm and later as a scheduler in his taxpayer-funded district office.

The lawsuit also claims the Palmdale legislator committed “serial violations of California wage and hour laws,” failed to pay his employees minimum wage, and required employees at his law firm to “perform between 15 and 25 hours per week of free labor on behalf of his campaigns.”

‘Propelled into elected office thanks to unpaid work’

“Rather than hire campaign workers or solicit volunteers from the community, Fox was propelled into elected office thanks to the unpaid work performed by Ms. Zahn and other law office employees,” the lawsuit alleges.

Fox denies the allegations and says he looks forward to clearing his name in court.

“They’re meritless claims by a disgruntled ex-employee,” Fox, a first-term Democrat, said in a Thursday interview. “Nothing will ever be offered for settlement because I expect to litigate it out and win.”

According to Zahn’s lawsuit, Fox frequently prevented his employees from taking a full lunch break and that “a break that involved anything other than using the restroom was a luxury.” If the phones went unanswered, the plaintiff claims in her lawsuit, “Steve Fox would become angry and belligerent if a potential client called while everyone was at lunch and no one picked up the phone.”

In addition to no lunch breaks, Zahn claims that she was forced to work an average of 50 hours per week but was never paid overtime as required by state law. “Instead he paid her a weekly ‘salary’ of $461.54,” the lawsuit claims, alleging Fox treated her “as though she were exempt” from overtime regulations.  In some instances, the former employee claims she worked more than 60 hours, dropping her salary below minimum wage.

“But Ms. Zahn was not just underpaid,” the lawsuit claims. “She was also denied other basic rights afforded California employees.”

Fox allegedly used staffers for his own benefit

Perhaps the most damaging of the allegations contained in the lawsuit are claims that Fox used government employees both when he was on the board of Antelope Valley College and while he was in the Assembly to perform unpaid work on his behalf. When Fox moved from the college board to the Assembly, “Ms. Zahn hoped things would improve,” according to the complaint. “However, she soon discovered that, in addition to her numerous new duties that she had to perform as a State employee, Fox continued to expect her to perform law office work — this time for free.”

In her lawsuit, Zahn claims that she fielded client phone calls, prepared legal briefs and filed documents on behalf of law clients at the courthouse. In one instance, at Fox’s bequest, the district director of Fox’s government office instructed a state employee to complete a trial brief while on the government clock.

When an employee complained about the inappropriate nature of mixing Fox’s business with government work, according to the lawsuit, “Steve Fox said words to the effect of ‘Don’t worry about it. No one will ever find out.'”

“They are untrue,” Fox said, when asked specifically about those allegations. “There was no request to use public employees for my private law practice.”

Fox’s chief of staff discharged

According to the lawsuit, Fox’s first chief of staff tried to stop the inappropriate actions of mixing personal business with government employees.

“The Chief of Staff expressed concern about the law practice not being separate, and made comments to the effect that Steve Fox should ‘get out of the law office’ and ‘he shouldn’t be practicing law while he’s with the Assembly,'” the lawsuit claims. Shortly thereafter, the chief of staff was discharged.

Fox refused to speak about the circumstances surrounding the departure of his first chief of staff because “that’s a personnel matter.” He said that employees in his district office are not under his control.

“They were not my employees,” he said. “You would have to talk to the Rules Committee.”

The state Legislature is notorious for maintaining a “cloak of secrecy around misconduct claims” involving elected officials. “Lawmakers have repeatedly kept workplace misconduct claims secret, releasing only the settlement papers — and only when requests are made citing state records law,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 2009. “The agreements are not adopted at public meetings or included in public files, as other legislative business is.”

The allegations in the lawsuit could have proven damaging in Fox’s re-election campaign. In 2012, Fox was elected to the 36th Assembly District by a razor-thin margin of 145 votes. Republicans hold a slight advantage in voter registration and have made picking up the seat one of its top priorities.

Here is a link to the lawsuit filed against Fox.

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