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L.A. worker claims racial turf war exists in city department

November 5, 2012 |  2:58 pm

A manager in a Los Angeles city department that promotes business growth in depressed areas is alleging that he has become the target of constant harassment and criticism after refusing to take part in a racially based turf war.

Ninoos Benjamin, 55, hired in 2008 as a director in the Community Development Department, alleges in a lawsuit filed against the city last week that a racial divide pitting African American against Latino employees has developed throughout the department.

Promotions, hiring and perks are doled out to African Americans and Latinos, with “both pulling to favor their own group," Benjamin alleges. Employees of other ethnicities are forced to choose between one side or the other, or face on-the-job retribution, he contends.

A spokeswoman for the Community Development Department said General Manager Richard Benbow declined to comment on the case.

Benjamin, an Assyrian who came to the United States from Iran, claims that an African American assistant general manager, Rhonda Gaston, pressured him late last year to participate in a smear campaign against a Latino manager.

When he refused, Gaston said, “you are either with us or against us," according to the lawsuit’s allegations. After that Gaston frequently criticized his work or attacked him verbally, creating a hostile work environment, Benjamin alleges.

Gaston then orchestrated the filing of an internal complaint against Benjamin, alleging that he has a violent temper and was subject to outbursts. Benjamin’s attorney, Wilfredo Trivino-Perez, said his client admits that he lost his temper on one occasion but alleges Gaston blew the incident out of proportion to punish him.

He became so stressed that he was forced to seek psychological help and to take prescription medication, Benjamin says in the lawsuit. He seeks unspecified damages in the suit.

The 300-employee department oversees $300 million in annual federal grants that pay for job training, after-school activities, family counseling and business loans in depressed neighborhoods.

William Carter, chief deputy for City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, said his office had not yet reviewed the complaint and had no comment.

Trivino-Perez said his client, hired out of the financial community, has seen his reputation damaged as a result of the alleged misdeeds at his job.

“Apparently someone approached my client and said, ‘Hey, we heard you’re a loose cannon,'"Trivino-Perez said. “That’s how he pieced it all together.”


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-- Catherine Saillant at Los Angeles City Hall