Lawsuit claims sexual harassment by Cal OES official

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A high-ranking California emergency services official has been accused in a lawsuit of impeding wildfire recovery efforts as part of a retaliation campaign against a subordinate who had rejected his sexual advances.

Kendra Bowyer, whose job involved coordinating the removal of wildfire debris for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, made the allegations against Cal OES Deputy Director of Recovery Operations Ryan Buras as part of a broader sexual harassment and workplace discrimination lawsuit filed Tuesday in Sacramento Superior Court.

Buras did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Cal OES said it does not comment on “personnel matters and active litigation.”

The lawsuit accuses Buras, a 2019 appointee of Gov. Gavin Newsom, of harassing Bowyer over the course of two years. The suit describes a night in 2020 when Bowyer slept at Buras’ apartment after a working dinner; she claims he climbed into the bed where she was sleeping and touched her without her consent.

The lawsuit alleges that Buras cut off all communication with Bowyer after she told him his sexual advances were unprofessional and needed to stop, which rendered her job helping local jurisdictions devastated by wildfires impossible to perform.

“Buras’ retaliation prevented Ms. Bowyer from providing essential services to disaster survivors, placing their health and safety at risk,” the complaint says.

The lawsuit details a meeting in May 2021 at which Buras allegedly told Santa Cruz County officials that they were ineligible to receive federal funding for the removal of trees damaged by wildfires because Bowyer failed to submit the appropriate paperwork on their behalf. That claim was false, the complaint alleges, and “all a set up to make [Bowyer] look incompetent.”

Santa Cruz County officials did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Cal OES and the state of California are also named as defendants in Bowyer’s lawsuit, which alleges that agency officials knew Buras harassed women but kept him in the workplace and targeted his accusers for discipline or termination.

The lawsuit cites interviews about the harassment that Bowyer said she gave to a medical provider and an attorney for Cal OES after taking medical leave as a result of stress, anxiety and depression caused by Buras’ actions. It also cites a separate lawsuit, filed in 2020 by former Cal OES statewide manager Steven Larson, which claimed that Larson was illegally terminated as punishment for filing internal whistleblower complaints about Buras for allegedly “creating a hostile work environment for women.”

Larson claimed that several women in the agency had complained to him about Buras and that he was forced out of the agency for bringing those complaints to the attention of agency leaders.

Bowyer and Larson have the same attorneys, and her complaint includes emails in which Cal OES officials discuss her former colleague’s allegations. In one exchange referencing Larson, according to the complaint, Buras wrote to Cal OES Director Nancy Ward, “I’m tired Nancy,” and Ward responded, “Just hang in there! This is all just noise!!!”

“Cal OES’s actions are egregious and demonstrate it does not care to stop a sexual predator and will take action to cover up its illegal activity including terminating employees, making false accusations against those employees, and forcing victims out,” Bowyer’s lawsuit alleges.

Cal OES has denied Larson’s claims in court, saying his separation from the agency had nothing to do with his flagging complaints about Buras. According to Bowyer’s complaint, Cal OES claimed Larson violated an anti-nepotism policy with a Cal OES contractor.

The agency declined to comment Tuesday on Bowyer’s claims but said in a statement that “sexual harassment in the workplace is an affront to our values as an organization” and “will not be tolerated in any form.”

“Nothing is more important than the safety and welfare of staff and the communities they serve. Put more plainly, every single Cal OES employee and contractor must have a safe and respectful work environment,” the agency said.

In an interview with The Times, Bowyer, 36, said she had long worried that Buras would ruin her career in the emergency services field — and upend her life — if she rejected him outright. She said he constantly told her about people who had crossed him and were on a “dead to me,” or “DTM,” list he maintained. She said that because Cal OES paid her salary and covered her expenses for housing, car and food as she moved between disaster areas, she tried to put up with his unwanted advances.

Bowyer said she decided to say something after two incidents in late 2020.

In September of that year, according to her lawsuit, Buras invited Bowyer and another colleague to his apartment in Sacramento so they could share dinner and discuss disaster assignments in the field. Bowyer said Buras insisted she spend the night, even though she had booked a hotel, telling her to sleep in his bed while he slept in another living space with their other male colleague.

At some point that night, she woke up to find Buras beside her in the bed, the complaint said.

“The entire front side of his body wrapped around the backside of [her] body, and his left arm wrapped around and resting on [her] arm,” the complaint said.

Bowyer “was instantly terrified” and “thought this was the moment she would instantly lose her job,” the complaint said. It said he backed off and got out of the bed after she asked him what he was doing.

Two months later, in November 2020, Bowyer’s mother visited her in California. When Buras found out about the visit, according to the lawsuit, he insisted on cooking the women a dinner of traditional dishes from their shared home state of Louisiana. The complaint says Bowyer felt “obligated to deal with” Buras and “too embarrassed and fearful to tell her mother” about her concerns, so she agreed to the dinner.

The complaint alleges that Buras, who was married at the time to a former state official, was unprofessional throughout that day, talking about taking Bowyer on a “surprise Christmas trip” and at one point taking her hand in front of her mother.

In an interview with The Times, Bowyer’s mother, Maureen Bowyer, said she found the visit upsetting. She said Buras was constantly “hovering” around her daughter, clearly making her uncomfortable. At one point before dinner, while her daughter was out of the room, Buras “began to talk to me about the state of his marriage and his wife wanting a divorce and all this other stuff,” she said.

When Maureen Bowyer saw Buras take her daughter’s hand, “I was livid,” she said, “and I did what any self-respecting mother would do: I just walked right up and cut them apart, like, ‘What the heck?’”

Bowyer’s complaint said she texted Buras soon after to tell him that “the relationship was unprofessional and needed to cease.” The court filing includes a picture of text messages Buras allegedly sent in response — in which he said he would “forever be ashamed of myself” and probably looked to her mother “like a no good, unfaithful typical jerk.”

After taking medical leave, Bowyer said she couldn’t return to Cal OES and left for good in December 2021, moving in with her mother. She said she initially wanted just to “get away from” everything that had happened, mourn the career she had lost and move on with her life.

However, Bowyer said, she recently spoke with a former colleague who told her that there were other women at Cal OES who “couldn’t afford to stand up for themselves and leave and do what was best for them because their family relied on that job.”

That made her want to file the lawsuit, to “put a stop” to Buras and to “the administration who knows what he is doing and just sweeps it under the rug,” she said.

Bowyer’s lawsuit seeks compensation for lost wages, medical costs, attorneys fees and other damages, along with a Cal OES investigation into Buras and the firing of officials who allowed his alleged abuse to persist.

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