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Lesbian officers accuse D.C. police of discrimination

Mendelson urges city to settle lawsuit charging harassment, retaliation

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Phil Mendelson

‘I would hope that the department has gotten better since the time of these allegations,’ said acting D.C. City Council Chair Phil Mendelson about a bias lawsuit filed by two lesbian police officers. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Acting D.C. City Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large) said he would like to see the city’s attorney general consider settling a little noticed discrimination lawsuit filed against the District in January 2011 by two lesbian members of the Metropolitan Police Department.

Det. Kennis M. Weeks and Officer Tonia L. Jones charge in a 38-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that they’ve been subjected to discrimination, harassment and retaliation based on their sexual orientation and sex since September 2006, when they disclosed they were in a same-sex relationship.

“One would hope the alleged conduct is no longer continuing,” said Mendelson, who chairs the Council committee that oversees the police department. “And I would hope that the department has gotten better since the time of these allegations.”

The lawsuit charges that at least seven sergeants, two lieutenants, and three officers from the Seventh District – along with Seventh District Commander Joel Maupin – played some role in carrying out the alleged discrimination.

Police officials “created and tolerated an environment in which employees could harass plaintiffs on the basis of their sex and sexual orientation without any investigation or repercussions,” the lawsuit says.

It says Weeks and Jones filed complaints of discrimination based on sexual orientation and sexual harassment in October 2007 with the police department’s Equal Employment Opportunity Compliance Division.

“On Nov. 19, 2007, MDP’s Assistant Chief, Peter Newsham, made a decision not to investigate plaintiff’s internal EEO complaints,” the lawsuit says.

Cathy Harris, the attorney representing the two women, said Newsham instead told them they should file their complaint with the city’s Office of Human Rights.

“They were shocked that the department wouldn’t address this internally,” Harris said.

When asked about the case following an Aug. 9 news conference on an unrelated issue, Newsham told the Blade he couldn’t discuss details of a pending case.

“With regards to any lawsuits, you know that people draw up whatever type of complaint they want, and just because someone raises those issues doesn’t mean they’re true,” he said. “Things have to be verified and investigated. So I think it’s premature to draw any conclusion from a civil complaint that’s filed somewhere,” he said.

D.C. police spokesperson Gwendolyn Crump said police are referring all inquires about the case to the D.C. Attorney General’s office, which is defending the city against the lawsuit in court.

Ted Gest, a spokesperson for D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan, said his office also had no comment on the case. Gest said that at the present time, the office’s response to the case – Tonia L. Jones and Kennis M. Weeks vs. the District of Columbia – is reflected in their court filings.

The court filings on behalf of the city contest some of the claims made by Weeks and Jones on procedural and technical grounds, saying their attorneys missed filing deadlines requiring that the claims be dismissed. A March 23, 2011 brief filed by Nathan and three other attorneys from the Attorney General’s office disputes several of Weeks and Jones’ discrimination allegations on the merits, saying Seventh District supervisors based their actions on standard personnel practices rather than discrimination.

On July 25, U.S. District Court Judge Rosemary M. Collyer approved a motion by the city calling for dismissal of several of the claims in the case, including those alleging that the police action violated Weeks and Jones’ First Amendment constitutional right of freedom of speech by allegedly retaliating against them when they filed an internal police grievance about the alleged discrimination.

Collyer also dismissed the plaintiff’s claim that police and the city violated their Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection under the law.

But the judge left in place most of Weeks and Jones’ other claims of sexual orientation discrimination under the D.C. Human Rights Act and sex discrimination under Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In her ruling, Collyer noted that the D.C. Office of Human Rights found probable cause in several of the lawsuit’s allegations that police officials committed sexual orientation and sex discrimination against Weeks and Jones in violation of the D.C. Human Rights Act. Attorneys for Weeks and Jones have since transferred the case from the Human Rights Office to the court’s jurisdiction.

In its brief contesting the lawsuit, the D.C. Attorney General’s office argued that the Office of Human Rights also found no probable cause that “plaintiffs were subjected to disparate treatment on the bases of sexual orientation and sex” regarding their specific allegation that they were not allowed to ride together in a police cruiser on patrol duty.

The attorney general’s brief also says no probable cause was found for an allegation in the lawsuit that a decision to give police cases that Jones was working on to male detectives was based on discrimination.

A court scheduling conference is set for Aug. 28, where court observers say a trial date might be scheduled.

Mendelson said he was unaware of the lawsuit until the Blade informed him about it last week and provided him with an online link to the complaint.

“Of course we don’t know what the facts are because this is still pending in court,” Mendelson said. “It’s discouraging to read this kind of alleged conduct. And of course the judicial process is one where the facts will be determined,” he said.

“I would hope that the police department is addressing this and the attorney general is looking at whether it would be better for the District to just settle the case and ensure that this kind of conduct no longer occurs,” Mendelson said.

Although filed in January 2011, the case received no known news media coverage until Aug. 3, when Courthouse News Service published an online story reporting that Judge Collyer dismissed some of the claims in the case while upholding others. Three days later, Huffington Post published a similar story with the link to the Courthouse News Service story.

News of the case is likely to raise concern among LGBT activists, who have been assured by D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier that anti-LGBT bias within the ranks of the department was mostly a thing of the past and that the department doesn’t tolerate such bias.

The lawsuit says the alleged discrimination and harassment began in September 2006 after Weeks and Jones told one of their supervisors at the Seventh District, Sgt. Jon Podorski, that they were a couple. The two had been squad car partners since early 2006 and began a relationship in July of that year, the lawsuit says.

“Almost immediately thereafter, the sergeants began harassing them and subjecting them to a hostile working environment on a frequent and continuing basis,” the suit says.

“Plaintiffs complained about the discrimination to MPD in January 2007,” it says. “However, this had the effect of continuing and increasing the harassment and hostile work environment.”

According to the lawsuit, several of the sergeants named in the suit continuously made derogatory comments about Weeks and Jones in the presence of fellow officers and supervisors. Among other things, the suit says the sergeants – who served as Weeks and Jones’ supervisors – urged them to have sex with men, with one sergeant referring to Jones as the “butch one” and Weeks as the “femme one.”

During a May 2007 party in which many Seventh District officers were in attendance, one sergeant shouted in a loud voice to both Jones and Weeks, “Do you wanna fuck?” the lawsuit says.

“Plaintiffs were mortified, embarrassed and threatened by this verbal assault, which was within earshot of many of their colleagues,” the suit says.

In September 2007 an officer told Weeks and Jones he wanted to watch them have sex and that he would “pay them $5,000 for the opportunity to do so,” the lawsuit says.

“On February 17, 2009, someone put an open tampon and parts of the tampon wrapper on plaintiff Weeks’ desk,” it says. “Plaintiff Weeks reported the incident to defendant and requested an official investigation. Defendant never initiated an investigation,” according to the lawsuit.

Attorney Harris said the two women were shocked and horrified over an October 2006 incident that occurred shortly after they informed Podorski of their relationship.

“Plaintiffs and Sgt. Podorski responded to a call on Stanton Road regarding an alleged assault with a deadly weapon,” the lawsuit says. “The matter concerned a mother, a relative and a child. The mother and relative had responded violently after the child had informed them that she was gay.”

The lawsuit continues: “Plaintiffs intended to arrest the mother and the relative for the violent offenses. But Sgt. Podorski instructed the plaintiffs to instead take the child to the Psychiatric Institute of Washington and have her committed because she was gay,” the lawsuit says.

“He also stated that no arrest should be made because it was ‘only’ a domestic disturbance. Plaintiffs objected to this order,” the lawsuit says. “Sgt. Podorski was later investigated by the MPD for this incident and, upon information and belief, he was suspended. Nevertheless, despite the complaints made by plaintiffs about Podorski’s harassment and his discriminatory conduct, he has never been disciplined for his harassment of plaintiffs,” the lawsuit alleges.

Harris said her clients separated as a couple over a year ago, in part, due to the stress they encountered from the harassment and discrimination charged in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, among other things, calls for compensatory damages and back pay for what Jones claims is the loss of a promotion due to bias on the part of police officials.

“I really want to make it clear about my clients,” Harris said. “They’re not doing it because of the money. They’re doing it because what happened to them was wrong and they want to make sure that this doesn’t happen to any other officer or detective or employee of the MPD, no matter what their sexual orientation or gender is.”

Harris said she never informed the media about the case because Weeks and Jones were hopeful that the case could be resolved quietly.

“They were not seeking publicity – just relief and justice,” she said.

Now that the case is beginning to receive public attention, Harris added, “Anything the gay community can do to help D.C. understand that this is totally unacceptable and should be resolved – we’re happy to get that support.”

“Even though this case is still under investigation, the allegations show a deeper homophobia present in MPD than leadership, including Chief Lanier, publicly acknowledges,” A.J. Singletary, chair of Gays and Lesbians Opposing Violence (GLOV) told the Blade, Wednesday. “Rather than fight the charges on procedural and technical grounds, GLOV urges MPD to investigate the actual allegations and fix not only the specific issue with the two women involved but also the broader problem of homophobia within MPD.”

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2023 Best of LGBTQ DC Readers’ Choice Award Finalist Voting

Vote for your favorite finalists through October 2nd!

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It is time to celebrate the best of LGBTQ+ DC! You nominated and now we have our finalists. Vote for your favorites in our 2023 Best of LGBTQ DC categories through October 2nd. Our 2023 Best of LGBTQ DC will be announced at the Best of LGBTQ DC Awards Party on October 19th and our special issue will come out on Friday, October 20th.

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District of Columbia

Whitman-Walker celebrates opening of new Max Robinson Center

Mayor, city officials call facility major benefit for Southeast D.C.

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D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser cut a ceremonial ribbon on Monday to mark the official opening of Whitman-Walker’s new Max Robinson Center. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, joined by city officials and leaders of Whitman-Walker Health, cut a ceremonial ribbon on Monday to mark the official opening of Whitman-Walker’s new Max Robinson Center at the city’s St. Elizabeth’s East campus in Southeast D.C.

The six-story healthcare and research facility will enable Whitman-Walker to expand its wide range of services to the community, with a focus on Ward 7 and Ward 8 residents, officials said. Those services, which began when the facility opened its doors on Aug. 14, include primary, dental, and HIV care, behavioral health services, substance use counseling, and a pharmacy, according to a Whitman-Walker statement.

“Today, we’re opening a bigger Max Robinson Center, and in two years we’ll be opening a new hospital on this same campus – and together, these two facilities are going to change the way we deliver healthcare in D.C.,” Bowser told the crowd of about 200 that turned out for the event held in a courtyard next to the newly opened building.

“We’re incredibly grateful that Whitman-Walker is part of the legacy that we’re building on the St. Elizabeths East campus,” the mayor said. “This campus represents our commitment to Ward 8 and our community to a stronger, healthier, and equitable D.C.”

Whitman-Walker and city officials noted that the new building replaces the longtime LGBTQ supportive health care organization’s original Max Robinson Center that opened in 1993 on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Anacostia about a mile away from the new facility. The center was named in honor of award-winning TV news journalist Max Robinson who became the first African American to serve as co-anchor of a network news program at ABC News in 1978. Robinson died of complications associated with HIV/AIDS in 1988.

Bowser and others who spoke at the event praised Whitman-Walker for providing high quality healthcare through its Max Robinson center for underserved communities in city neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

The opening of the new Max Robinson Center comes on Whitman-Walker’s 50th year since its founding in 1973 as an LGBTQ community health clinic in a church basement in Georgetown, Whitman-Walker CEO Naseema Shafi noted at the ribbon cutting event.

“We are thrilled to unveil this once-in-a-lifetime healthcare and research expansion during our 50th anniversary year,” Shafi said. “Our new healthcare home will significantly improve access to excellent healthcare for all residents,” she said.

Among other things, the new facility will allow Whitman-Walker to serve an additional 10,000 patients per year more than it was able to serve at the original Max Robinson Center, a statement released by Whitman-Walker says. An important part of its services will include mental health and behavioral services, officials said.

There are more than 40 exam rooms, eight dental suites, six group therapy rooms and a psychotherapy suite in the new facility, the officials said in the statement.

The statement says the new building will also serve as headquarters for the Whitman-Walker Institute, an arm of the healthcare organization that for many years has conducted HIV related research. It says the new facility will allow Whitman-Walker to expand its research “from 19 to over 60 clinical trials, including innovations in cancer research and continued progress toward finding a cure for HIV.”

Others who attended or spoke at the event included D.C. Council members Christina Henderson (I-At-Large), Trayon White (D-Ward 8), and Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7); Japer Bowles, director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs; Latrena Owens, executive director of St. Elizabeths East Development; and Debrah Wells, a Whitman-Walker patient who said the substance use treatment and counseling she received at the Max Robinson Center “saved my life.”

Also speaking were Louis Dubin, managing partner of Redbrick development company, which led the development of the building project; and Jim Davis, president of Davis Construction, the company that built the new facility. Both pointed out that they worked with banks and other lenders along with financial support from the city that made the financing of the new Max Robinson Center possible.

Whitman-Walker CEO Shafi told the Washington Blade after the ribbon cutting event that while Whitman-Walker has expanded its services to include the wider community in the years since its founding as an LGBTQ clinic, its commitment to serving the healthcare needs of the LGBTQ community continues in all its facilities, including the new Max Robinson Center.

“What’s interesting about Whitman-Walker of today — when we started in 1973, we were started by community for community, and we were responding to the needs at that time particularly of the LGBTQ community,” she said. “So, now we’ve continued to take care of people, we will continue to do so,” she added.

“And this new site in Congress Heights gives us the opportunity to take care of even more community members, parts of the LGBTQ community and the greater Washington region,” she said, noting that Whitman-Walker currently has about 2,500 transgender or gender expansive people in care, and 3,500 people with HIV in care.

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District of Columbia

Man charged in 2019 D.C. gay murder sentenced to 16 years

Distraught family members urged judge to hand down longer prison term

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Vongell Lugo was stabbed to death on Jan. 6, 2019. (Courtesy photo)

Former U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman Collin J. Potter, 31, who earlier this year pleaded guilty to second-degree murder while armed for the Jan. 6, 2019, stabbing death of gay D.C. resident Vongell Lugo, was sentenced Sept. 15 by a D.C. Superior Court judge to 16 years in prison and five years of supervised probation upon his release.  

The sentencing took place at a hearing in which Assistant United States Attorney Peter V. Roman, the lead prosecutor in the case, described in gruesome detail how Potter stabbed Lugo 42 times inside Lugo’s Northwest D.C. apartment shortly after the two met at a D.C. bar and Potter accepted Lugo’s invitation to come to the apartment.

Superior Court Judge Marisa Demeo handed down her sentence after listening to testimony by Lugo’s mother, brother, and sister, and seven of Lugo’s friends, who presented highly emotional victim impact statements describing Lugo as a beloved figure whose brutal murder had a devastating impact on their lives.

Nearly all of the 10 who spoke – eight in the courtroom and two through a live video hookup – urged the judge to hand down a far greater prison term than the 14 to 16-year sentence that prosecutors with the Office of the U.S. Attorney for D.C. offered and Potter accepted in exchange for pleading guilty as part of a plea bargain deal. The plea arrangement made it clear that the judge would make the final decision on what the sentence should be.

Under D.C. criminal law, judges have the discretion to hand down a sentence of up to life in prison for a second-degree murder conviction.

Many of the family members and friends wept as they described Lugo, 36, as a loving, caring person who enriched their lives and who was taken from them by Potter in an unimaginable act of violence.

The sentencing took place a little over seven months after Potter, who was 26 at the time of the murder, pleaded guilty to the charge of second-degree murder while armed and prosecutors dropped their original charge of first-degree murder while armed and other related charges as part of the plea bargain deal.

Court records show that at the request of prosecutors, a D.C. Superior Court grand jury on Aug. 20, 2019, indicted Potter on five counts related to the murder, including two counts of first-degree felony murder while armed, felony murder while armed with aggravating circumstance, and kidnapping.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has declined to disclose why prosecutors offered the plea deal that included dropping those charges and allowing Potter to plead guilty to second-degree murder rather than bringing Potter to trial on the first-degree murder and other charges.  

Attorneys familiar with this type of case have said prosecutors usually offer a plea deal when they are uncertain whether they can convince a jury to find someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt at a trial.

At the Sept. 15 sentencing hearing, Potter’s defense attorney, Matthew Davies of the D.C. Public Defender Service, told the judge one reason why the plea offer made sense was it avoided a trial in which Potter would likely have used the defense of insanity or severe mental health problems, that Davies said his client is currently grappling with.

Davies pointed to information submitted by the defense that Potter has a history of trauma brought about by being sexually abused as a child. He said Potter also has an alcohol abuse problem and related mental health issues, and those factors led to the stabbing incident that took the life of Lugo.

He asked the judge to hand down a sentence of 14 years of incarceration, saying that would adequately serve the cause of justice for this case.

The subject of Potter’s mental health also surfaced in a 10-page sentencing memorandum that Roman filed in court two days before the sentencing, and which Roman summarized at the hearing, including the recommendation of a sentence of 16 years of incarceration.

The sentencing memo begins by describing Lugo as an “openly gay man who was born and raised in Trinidad & Tobago before emigrating to the United States with his family several years ago.” One of Lugo’s friends told the Washington Blade that Lugo had been working as an associate manager for a company that provides language translation services.

The sentencing memo says police arrived at Lugo’s apartment about 4 a.m. on Jan 6, 2019, when two neighbors called 911 after hearing Lugo screaming for help through the walls of their adjoining apartments.

It says police arrived shortly after Potter, who was fully nude and covered in Lugo’s blood, had dragged Lugo’s nude body outside the apartment door into the apartment building hallway.

“After the police arrived, the defendant made several statements,” the sentencing memo says. “He repeatedly referred to Mr. Lugo as his girlfriend and as a female and stated that Mr. Lugo’s injuries were self-inflicted,” the memo continues. “The defendant then banged his own head against the wall and started screaming obscenities and that he did not want to live,” it says.

Several of the close to 20 friends and family members of Lugo who were sitting in the courtroom as prosecutor Roman presented these details were crying.

Defense attorney Davies told the judge that he informed Potter that he had a strong defense based on mental health issues if the case went to trial. But Davies said Potter expressed strong opposition to going to trial and subjecting Lugo’s family to additional trauma.

Court documents show Potter was arrested at the scene and has been held in jail since that time as the case dragged on for more than four years since the January 2019 murder.  

Court records also show that Lugo and Potter met at the Black Whiskey, a bar on 14th Street, N.W.  where Lugo was a regular customer. Although some of Lugo’s family members and friends who spoke at the sentencing hearing said they considered the murder a hate crime, court records show police and prosecutors did not list the case as a hate crime.

“He was a beautiful gay man, and everyone loved him,” Hannah Donnelly, one of Lugo’s friends and co-workers said in presenting her victim’s impact presentation in the courtroom.

Another friend said in her impact statement that Lugo invited her to join him to watch D.C.’s Capital Pride parade. She and nearly all the others who presented their impact statements at the hearing were not gay or lesbian themselves but said Lugo was beloved because he always did all he could to help them and support them in their everyday lives.

“He was like a brother to me,” said Gregory Porter, one of Lugo’s friends who, along with his wife, presented their victim impact statements in the courtroom. “There was never a thought that he would no longer be a part of our life,” Porter told the judge. “We ask for equal justice. We ask the court to invoke the maximum possible sentence,” he said.

Victoria Lugo, Lugo’s mother, was the first of the family members and friends to deliver her victim’s impact statement. Looking directly at Potter, she told him there was nothing her son could have done to him to justify what Potter did.

“You have taken my child from me, Mr. Potter,” she said while crying. “My heart hurts,” she continued. “No mother should have to go through this.”

Potter, who was dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, accepted Judge Demeo’s invitation to speak before she handed down her sentence.

“I’d like to say I am truly very sorry,” Potter told the judge. “I accept the consequences of my action,” he said. “I feel I will spend the rest of my life having a positive impact on other people’s lives to make up for what I have done,” he said.

After listening to Potter, the presentations by Lugo’s family members and friends and hearing remarks from prosecutor Roman and defense attorney Davies, Judge Demeo said she would accept the plea agreement. She said the circumstances surrounding the case, including what she called the “brutal nature of the crime,” warranted that she issue a sentence representing the upper end of the plea agreement of 16 years’ incarceration and five years of supervised release.

She said she would order that the facility where Potter is incarcerated will provide him with mental health treatment.  

“There is no doubt that this was a horrific crime,” she said. “Vongell Lugo was shown by witnesses to be a wonderful soul,” she added.

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