DA Pamela Price hit with discrimination, retaliation claims

Patti Lee says Price often made anti-Asian remarks and that the DA's office illegally withheld records about The Scanner's exclusion from a press event.

DA Pamela Price hit with discrimination, retaliation claims
Former spokeswoman Patti Lee (left) with DA Inspector Ramon Middleton at a community event for DA Pamela Price in July 2023. Emilie Raguso/The Berkeley Scanner

A woman who was hired and later fired by DA Pamela Price says the Alameda County DA's Office violated the Public Records Act by deleting, changing and hiding public records, according to a leaked letter obtained by The Berkeley Scanner.

Patti Lee, a former journalist who was Price's spokeswoman for about six months last year, says she was fired for raising concerns about the alleged Public Records Act violations, according to the Feb. 26 letter to the DA's office from Lee's attorney, Los Angeles-based Roxborough, Pomerance, Nye & Adreani, LLP.

Lee also says Price "constantly and openly" made derogatory comments against Asian Americans, at one point saying that "the media and the Asians" were her enemies, according to the letter.

An excerpt from Patti Lee's settlement demand letter, which was recently leaked to The Scanner (yellow highlights added).

The firm wrote that Lee was fired because of anti-Asian discrimination and because she complained about "the Alameda County District Attorney's Office's illegal withholding of records" in violation of the California Public Records Act (CPRA).

Lee, whose claims include retaliation, discrimination, wrongful termination and failure to pay wages, is now seeking a $1.5 million settlement, according to the letter.

"We are open to early private mediation in lieu of potentially costly litigation which will certainly be the topic and headline of news articles given the alarming allegations made against District Attorney Pamela Price," the firm wrote. "This case seriously implicates the integrity of the Alameda County District Attorney's Office and the public's confidence in ensuring that transparency in receiving public records."

A "cartoonish violation of the First Amendment"

The Alameda County DA's office headquarters at 7677 Oakport St. in Oakland. Emilie Raguso/TBS

According to Lee's letter, the records that were withheld last year related to an incident involving Berkeley Scanner founder Emilie Raguso.

In late November, DA Pamela Price refused to allow Raguso to attend one of her press conferences after the office repeatedly removed her from the press list without notice earlier in the year.

The DA's office initially claimed Raguso was turned away because of security issues but later attributed it to an "oversight."

Last fall, First Amendment lawyers said it appeared that Raguso had actually been barred because DA Price was unhappy with her coverage.

An excerpt from Patti Lee's settlement demand letter, which was recently leaked to The Scanner (yellow highlights added).

In the Feb. 26 letter, Lee's law firm described what happened at the press conference as a "content-based restriction of reporting" and a "cartoonish violation of the First Amendment" that prompted an outcry from Bay Area media outlets.

"Ms. Lee was aware of the preexisting animosity and knew that the reasons for refusing Ms. Raguso access to the Alameda County District Attorney's Office's press conference were pretextual," according to the letter.

Read more First Amendment coverage on TBS.

Raguso was refused entry to the Nov. 29 press event "at the specific behest of District Attorney Pamela Price," the firm wrote.

The next day, Raguso made a Public Records Act request for documents related to the DA's office media policies and press list. Requests from other reporters for similar records followed.

On Dec. 2, the firm wrote, DA Price "attempted to mitigate the poor media exposure" stemming from the First Amendment violation by reversing course and announcing that Raguso would be "welcome to attend" her press conferences.

In the days that followed, spokeswoman Patti Lee began working to collect records that would be responsive to the media requests she had received about the incident, according to her letter.

"It became evident that instead of producing responsive records to CPRA requests, the Alameda County District Attorney chose instead to hide, delete, and change the records," according to the letter. "Significantly, Ms. Lee was aware of responsive documents that existed and contradicted the narrative that the office wanted to portray."

According to the letter, Price's communications director, Haaziq Madyun, "was not being forthcoming with the documents that he knew were in the possession of the Alameda County Assistant District Attorney's office."

Lee advised a colleague who handles DA's office public records requests that "Madyun may have deleted or altered records" that should have been turned over, the firm wrote.

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"Misleading and untruthful" responses to records requests

At that point, according to the letter, Lee refused to sign off on any of the responses to the reporters' public records requests "because she believed them to be misleading and untruthful."

She "spoke up" and said that "she did not feel it was ethical to withhold public records and did not want to be personally responsible for doing so," according to the letter.

On Dec. 8, 2023, the firm wrote, she told a colleague that "Madyun was withholding records" that Adam Steinbaugh, of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), had asked for.

In his request, Steinbaugh had asked the DA's office for a number of documents, including "all records reflecting the inclusion or removal of Emilie Raguso and/or the Berkeley Scanner from any media distribution list."

Reached Sunday night shortly after publication, Steinbaugh said the allegations were alarming.

"The District Attorney’s office told me point-blank that it had no other responsive documents," he said. "This allegation raises serious concerns about the office’s compliance with the California Public Records Act."

Lee continued to voice her concerns to colleagues as time went on, according to her letter.

On Dec. 12, after a 9 a.m. meeting about CPRA responses, two other colleagues met her in her office and told her she had "8 minutes to clear out your office," the firm wrote.

"This was likely because District Attorney Pamela Price was going to be arriving to the office soon and wanted Ms. Lee to be removed before she arrived," according to the letter. Meanwhile, one of those colleagues "appeared to be crying and stated that she had, 'no idea that this would happen.'"

Lee's law firm called her termination a "textbook case of retaliation."

"Price fostered and encouraged a racist environment"

In the letter, the law firm said Lee — who is Asian American — also "experienced a clear anti-Asian sentiment during her employment" at the DA's office.

She "would frequently hear derogatory comments about her race made by supervisory employees, including by District Attorney Pamela Price herself," the firm wrote. "It was well-known within the Alameda County District Attorney's Office that Ms. Price had a racial animus toward people of East Asian Descent."

Once, after hearing DA Price describe "the media and the Asians" as her enemies, according to the letter, Lee texted another witness to those comments to "discuss her concern that Ms. Price would vocalize these racist statements so openly."

The other witness replied that "these racist comments were commonplace and were made frequently," according to Lee's letter.

Lee also heard DA Price make numerous remarks under her breath alleging that Lee was leaking information to the press as well as to the campaign seeking to recall her, according to the letter.

"Ms. Price fostered and encouraged a racist environment within the Alameda County District Attorney's Office," the firm wrote.

The letter also said that Price's alleged "discriminatory animus" toward Asian Americans had been "well-documented in the media."

Last May, one veteran Asian American prosecutor resigned from the Alameda County DA's office saying that Price had been "condescending and disrespectful to the AAPI community."

In her resignation letter, that prosecutor, Rebecca Warren, also cited racist comments toward Pacific Islanders that had been made by Price's chief assistant, Otis Bruce Jr., as well as community concerns about the handling of the Jasper Wu case.

In an early meeting with Jasper's family, for example, Price brought an interpreter who spoke the wrong Chinese dialect, which made for a trying situation amid an already fraught time, said one person who attended the meeting.

Many community members also voiced concerns last year about how the charges in the Jasper Wu case changed after Price's election.

Claims include whistleblower retaliation, discrimination

An excerpt from Patti Lee's settlement demand letter, which was recently leaked to The Scanner (yellow highlights added).

According to her letter, Lee's termination notice provided no reason for her separation other than to note that she had been an at-will employee.

Lee also alleged that she was never paid for her first three weeks of work, which were remote, the firm wrote.

The firm described Lee's job performance as "exemplary," noting that she had worked nights and weekends to prepare for press events, generated extensive "positive press" for Price, and taken the lead "in crisis response for the office from day one."

"The real reason for Ms. Lee's termination will be plainly evident and intuitive to any jury," the firm wrote, "who we are confident will find that Ms. Lee was terminated as a result of racial discrimination against her protected status as an Asian American and whistleblower retaliation."

In the letter, the firm said it could support all of its claims with "documentary evidence."

"Should this matter proceed to litigation, we will immediately be setting the deposition of District Attorney Pamela Price and her involved staff, and begin our investigation by contacting all of the various news reporters who made the CPRA requests that Ms. Lee was tasked with responding to," attorney Nicholas Roxborough wrote.

The firm asked for a response from the DA's office by March 11 at 5 p.m.

"If we do not receive a response by then, we will immediately proceed to litigation promptly and without hesitation," Roxborough wrote.

Former Price spokeswoman Patti Lee did not respond to email requests for comment over the weekend.

Reached by email Sunday, Roxborough said he would not be available to talk until later in the week.

The Alameda County DA's office and attorneys for Alameda County's County Counsel Department did not reply to a request for comment Sunday evening.

Source protection is of the utmost importance to The Scanner. If you have insights about the Alameda County DA's office, we want to hear from you. Contact The Scanner through our tips form or on Signal: 510-459-8325.
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