SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KTXL) — New details have emerged in the departure of two California civil rights attorneys who claimed Governor Gavin Newsom’s office interfered in a lawsuit they were prosecuting on behalf of the state.
Through an open records request, Inside California Politics obtained a copy of assistant chief counselor Melanie Proctor’s full resignation letter from the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
Proctor wrote she was resigning because of DFEH’s “now-apparent lack of independence” and in protest of DFEH Chief Counselor Jannette Wipper’s termination. The termination came after Wipper withdrew as lead counsel in two separate DFEH lawsuits against video game company Activision Blizzard, Inc. and electric vehicle manufacturer, Tesla, according to Proctor’s letter. Wipper was first appointed as Chief Counsel of DFEH during Governor Jerry Brown’s administration.
“In the past, DFEH suffered from having its independent enforcement power undermined. Thanks to our legislature taking action to protect DFEH and its independent authority under California law, DFEH has been able to prosecute civil rights cases independently for nearly ten years. However, that has now changed” Proctor wrote in her email dated April 12.
“In the last few weeks, after DFEH won several court decisions in DFEH v. Activision Blizzard et al, the Office of the Governor began to interfere with this active litigation. The Office of the Governor repeatedly demanded advance notice of litigation strategy and of next steps in the litigation. As we continued to win in state court, this interference increased, mimicking the interests of Activision’s counsel. Janette attempted to protect DFEH’s independence, our attorneys and this active litigation and was then abruptly terminated for opposing the Office of the Governor’s efforts,” Proctor wrote.
“The Office of the Governor’s impermissible interference into DFEH’s litigation, including its termination of Janette, has harmed DFEH’s independence and its ability to protect Californians,” she wrote. “This is inconsistent with DFEH’s statutory mandate and the fair administration of law.”
In the open records request to DFEH, Inside California Politics additionally requested all communication between the Governor’s office and DFEH regarding Activision. DFEH officials did not deny the existence of these records, but said they would not disclose them because they are related to pending litigation.
In a statement Wednesday, Governor Newsom’s communications Director Erin Mellon maintained, claims of interference by the Governor’s office in the Activision case are “categorically false.”
“The Newsom administration supports the effective work DFEH has done under Director Kevin Kish to enforce civil rights laws and protect workers, and will continue to support DFEH in their efforts to fight all forms of discrimination and protect Californians,” Mellon said.
DFEH sued Santa Monica-based Activision Blizzard in July, claiming the company has a “frat boy” culture that had become a “breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women.” The company is known for popular video games, including “Call of Duty”. State campaign finance records show former Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg donated $25,000 to Governor Newsom’s 2022 reelection campaign in September of 2021. Although the state records showed his employer and occupation at the time of payment were Activision and CEO, it had been more than three years after he left the company.
“I have never seen anything like the charges these two women have raised,” said Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) who is the Vice Chair of the Assembly Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review. “This cuts fundamentally to whether or not this agency can rightfully, lawfully do its job because of the undue influence by the Governor, the Governor’s office. I’ve never seen anything like it, and these are brave women to come forward, and I just hope we get to the bottom of it.”
“Janette Wipper and Melanie Proctor believe that no one is above the law and California’s civil rights laws should apply to everyone,” said Wipper and Proctor’s Attorney, Alexis Ronickher. “For this reason, my clients are proud of the work they did prosecuting civil rights cases at DFEH, whether it was helping farm laborers or bringing systemic cases that fought inequality in the workplace. This work is what the California Legislature empowered DFEH to do. They are pleased that members of the California Assembly are now paying attention and hopes they continue to look into these matters.”
A new chief counsel has yet to be appointed to DFEH.
Read Proctor’s full email below.