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Social insecurity: Several women allege that a local Social Security employee sexually harassed and victimized them 

As she tells it, the first time Cassandra Rahn was hit on by an employee when she came into the San Luis Obispo office of the Social Security Administration (SSA), she thought it was strange, but she brushed it off.

“He was a vet, I think, and he was in a wheelchair, so I didn’t want to cause problems for him the first time,” Rahn said. “The second and third times he hit on me, though, there was clearly something wrong with him.”

Rahn claims it only got worse from there. All of a sudden, she alleges, the man was passing her explicit notes when she came into the office, calling her cell phone and her home, asking her to meet with him outside the office, and showing up at her home in Paso Robles.

“It’s been a nightmare, and I probably would have been able to have my Social Security benefits by now if it wasn’t for him,” Rahn said.

As it happens, she isn’t the only woman to allege such harassment. Rahn came forward and spoke to New Times, at least one other woman has filed a lawsuit, and sources familiar with the situation said at least five but potentially as many as 11 women have filed formal complaints with the SSA.

The man at the center of this storm is Leroy Howland, a Paso Robles resident and alleged perpetrator of a wide variety of sexual harassment and misconduct.

Particularly troubling for Howland is a lawsuit—filed Sept. 25 in U.S. District Court (Central District of California)—against the SSA and Howland himself, requesting “payment of reasonable compensation to plaintiff for damages within the law, estimate to be in excess of $250,000,” as part of a civil rights complaint.

The suit was filed by Pismo Beach resident Bernadette Giovinco (the plaintiff) and her attorney, Bradley J. Hill. In an attachment to the suit, Hill describes the treatment Giovinco allegedly received when she went into the local SSA office seeking to apply for an extension on her “SSI [supplemental security income] benefits” in October 2013.

“Mr. Howland told claimant that in order to get the extension she had requested, she would have to take his cell phone, which he held up to show her, into the bathroom behind her and take pictures of ‘this’ and ran his hands across his chest,” Hill wrote.

According to the complaint, Giovinco was stunned and refused to do as Howland requested. Hill wrote that Howland then texted Giovinco’s cell phone, while she was still at the counter, asking for pictures again. Giovinco asked him how he had her cell number.

“Mr. Howland stated that he used his computer and it was his job to know everything about the claimant,” Hill wrote. “Mr. Howland then told claimant again to take the pictures he had requested and text them to him … if she wanted her extension to be granted.”

After allegedly receiving more messages demanding pictures—screenshots of several are included in the suit—Giovinco texted back, “[sic] No I don’t want to send a naked pic of me ill just ask someone els to help me. This is stressing me out i feel traped.”

Giovinco eventually complained to a SSA manager, who—according to the complaint—told Giovinco on Oct. 29 “Mr. Howland would not contact claimant any further.”

Even after Giovinco reported the matter to the Pismo Beach Police Department on Oct. 31, 2013—New Times obtained a copy of a “call for service” report for confirmation—Howland allegedly still contacted her later that day.

“I’m so sorry for making you feel uncomfortable,” a screenshot of the reported message reads. “I thought you were into the same thing—again, I apologize. When you come back, I will forget we even talked about this. I can help you and remain professional if I get your number.”

In the complaint, Hill wrote that Howland’s alleged misconduct includes “outrageous sexual advances, requests for favors, unwelcome sexual advances, verbal conduct of a sexual nature, sexual discrimination, sexual comments, and sexual harassment.”

Hill wrote that Howland’s alleged actions violated several SSA policies and alleged that “prior to the above actions, the SSA knew or should have known of Mr. Howland’s propensity for outrageous sexual advances,” making the organization at fault as well, in his eyes.

Sources familiar with the situation told New Times that Howland had recently resigned from his job at the SSA, but added that he was gainfully employed for several months at the office after these allegations came to light and complaints were filed. Howland told New Times that he resigned from his SSA position for “health reasons” on Aug. 1 of this year.

New Times obtained Howland’s contact information via a photocopied document included as evidence in Giovinco’s suit: a mostly blank sheet that appears to be a Social Security envelope with “Roy” and a cell phone number written on it.

Howland expressed surprise when informed of the suit and theorized that—if there are multiple complaints against him—it could be due to a group of disgruntled, homeless SSI recipients getting together and talking about him.

“Beyond that, I don’t have any idea,” Howland said.

Hill confirmed that although the suit was filed a month and a half ago, it was going to be served “imminently” as of Nov. 12 because he’s been “perfecting” it since it was filed. He declined to comment further. A New Times call to the SSA office in SLO was redirected to Patricia Raymond, an organizational spokesperson based in Richmond.

“Due to the privacy act and pending litigation, we cannot discuss the specifics of this case,” Raymond wrote in an email to New Times.

When asked about her experiences with Howland—which also allegedly occurred primarily in October 2013—Rahn said she was certainly offended by his alleged sexual harassment and disturbed by what she characterized as a disturbingly facile abuse of power and information—in addition to the negative effect she claimed his actions had on her benefits.

“He had all my personal information, he came to my house multiple times, and he was my only point of contact in the SSA office,” Rahn alleged. “Every time I went in he would purposefully take my number, and I knew he wasn’t going to help with my benefits.”

Rahn said she was in the process of appealing for benefits—stemming from a back injury she suffered years ago that makes it hard for her to work—and, as she sees it, Howland’s obstructionism was a major factor in missing a crucial deadline for that appeal.

During a conversation with New Times, Rahn also furnished a seven-page memorandum, dated Dec. 3, 2013, that features her handwritten responses to questions from SSA Labor and Employee Relations Specialist Ayanna Harris.

In that document, Rahn details multiple run-ins with Howland. She said her message to him was consistently “no,” especially since she’d read that any outside-the-office contact with an SSA employee would result in an automatic denial of her appeal.

Despite this, Rahn claims Howland was persistent in initiating sexual talk and wanting to meet with her outside of the office. During her interview with New Times, she played a stored voicemail on her phone from a man identifying himself as “Roy from Social Security,” asking her to meet at the Smart and Final in Paso Robles, and providing the same cell phone number contained in Giovinco’s lawsuit.

Howland explained to New Times that while he would sometimes call people to request information as a part of his job, he wouldn’t ever ask anyone to meet him outside the office. He also maintained that he’d only had the cell phone number in question since July of this year, adding that Giovinco and Rahn’s names were “not ringing a bell.”

“I can very confidently say that was not me,” he said when informed of the voicemail.

When New Times played Howland a recording of that voicemail from 2013, however, he confirmed it was his voice and said it triggered his memory of Rahn’s case.

“I was trying to help her by providing information and documents she needed in order to win her appeal,” he said.

He added that he was “completely wrong” in offering to meet with her outside the office, which is against SSA policy. He also admitted that he “saw her getting in her car and stopped to talk with her at her house” because it was close to his own residence in Paso Robles.

“I categorically deny any wrongdoing outside of speaking to someone outside of the office,” Howland concluded.

Ultimately, Rahn said she got ahold of someone else in the SSA office, but it was too late for her appeal. She’s since filed a formal complaint with the SSA, spoken with the Paso Robles Police Department, and is considering pursuing legal action.

“In the bigger picture, I have two hopes, which are that Social Security can do a better job of screening their employees and that other women will come forward, because I’m sure there are more,” Rahn said. “It helps to bring these ugly things out of the dark and into the light.”

 

Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at rheyden@newtimesslo.com. Executive Editor Ryan Miller contributed.

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