El Paso city Rep. Joe Molinar last fall repeatedly asked a female city employee to dance and told her that he would direct the city manager to make her dance with him after she turned him down, according to a report released by the city on Wednesday.
The conduct was inappropriate and violated the city’s sexual harassment prevention policy, the Feb. 28 report by outside investigator Clara B. Burns concludes.
That day, the City Council voted to issue Molinar a letter of admonition without giving details on the nature of the complaint. That’s also the day the council voted to fire City Manager Tommy Gonzalez – an effort led by Molinar and city Rep. Brian Kennedy.
The report redacts the employee’s name, but details the Nov. 17, 2022, incident during a city Thanksgiving celebration that made the employee feel “uncomfortable, intimidated and offended by the conduct.”
Molinar on Wednesday said he had no comment, but in the report disputed some of the allegations. The report states Molinar said he asked the employee to dance after he observed her “moving to the music in her chair.”
“He said he may have asked her one more time, but he did not ask her 15 times to dance,” the report states.
Molinar denied approaching and speaking to the employee after the luncheon and “denied saying anything to the effect of saying he was going to have the city manager direct her to dance with him.”
The report, first obtained by El Paso Inc., states that based on the “preponderance of the evidence,” Molinar violated the city’s sexual harassment policy.
Molinar will have to undergo harassment, discrimination and code of conduct training as part of his admonition. The letter of admonition stipulates that any further violation could lead to Molinar being removed from committee assignments and leadership roles on council, including his position as alternate mayor pro tempore.
The admonition was issued “because while the conduct may have been unintentional, you should have known that your conduct made the employee feel uncomfortable,” states the letter signed by Mayor Oscar Leeser dated March 2.
The complaint against Molinar was on the City Council agenda on Feb. 28, the same day that Gonzalez was given 120 days notice of termination following a 5 to 4 vote. Leeser broke a tie vote among the council members.
The city manager’s employment contract was placed on the agenda by Molinar and Kennedy, who took office on Jan. 3. Kennedy was forced into a District 1 runoff during the Nov. 8 general election, but easily won his seat in the Dec. 17 runoff election.
A retired El Paso police officer elected to District 4 in December 2020, Molinar is serving his first term in office. The term runs through January 2025.
Report details: ‘Ok, babe’
The report into the sexual harassment allegations against Molinar details the findings by Burns, an employment and labor attorney in El Paso hired by the city to conduct the investigation. Burns interviewed six unnamed witnesses in addition to the city employee who filed the complaint. She also interviewed Molinar.
The complaint – made verbally on Nov. 21 and in writing a day later – centers on an incident on Nov. 17 during and following the city’s Thanksgiving luncheon.
The employee alleged that Molinar repeatedly asked her to dance at the event, and she responded “no.” Molinar allegedly asked several other female co-workers of the complainant to dance until one agreed to dance with him. Molinar later told the complainant that she “owed him a dance,” the report states.
She again responded no, and Molinar whispered to her that “he was going to direct the city manager to make her dance with him,” according to the report.
“She said that she did not know whether that would affect her job or affect the city manager’s job or relationship with Representative Molinar,” the report states. “She expressed that she was very concerned with what could happen, feared retaliation, and did not understand why Representative Molinar seemed so focused on her.”
“There is no evidence that complainant invited or welcomed the conduct,” the report states.
The employee reported she was first made uncomfortable by Molinar in spring 2021 when the city representative ended a conversation with her with “ok, babe.”
Molinar in the report denied ever calling the employee “babe.”
The city’s sexual harassment prevention policy, which applies to elected officials, prohibits unwelcome sexual advances, requests or sexual favors or “other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” It also defines a “hostile work environment” as one where sexual harassment “unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment even if it leads to no tangible or economic job consequence.”
Letter of admonition
The City Council on Feb. 28 voted 6 to 1 to issue Molinar a letter of admonition. City Rep. Isabel Salcido voted against the motion.
Some city representatives wanted to issue Molinar a letter of reprimand – a more severe sanction than an admonition – including Cassandra Hernandez, Henry Rivera and Salcido. However, in a flurry of fast-moving motions that seemed to confuse some representatives, the council voted in favor of the admonition first.
“I definitely thought it should have been a reprimand,” Salcido said. “I do not minimize abuse of power, so when I can make an educated guess that somebody is well trained, understands and should know this – I will not ever minimize abuse of power.”
Hernandez said the council has to be careful of what they say and how they behave.
“Any statements could position the city in a very unfavorable way because ultimately it would be the taxpayers who would be burdened with any concerns from the public,” Hernandez said.
Rivera, a former police officer, said law enforcement, whether active or retired, should be held to a higher standard.
“As a police officer you are trained on sexual harassment every year – it’s mandated,” Rivera said. “(The complaint) coming from a female that’s very serious to me and that’s why I wanted a letter of reprimand because he can’t say that he didn’t know (better).”