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Sexual Innuendo Commonplace at Fire Training Center

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Four women who worked at safety training center in Orchards were repeatedly bombarded by crude sexual comments from their supervisor, a Portland attorney said during opening statements heard Wednesday in Clark County Superior Court.

Thomas Boothe, representing the four women in a civil lawsuit, compared the words of Marty James, Fire District 5 administrator, to a wrecking ball demolishing a building.

James’ verbal battery persisted “until that final shot, no different from the hundred that came before it, breaks through” and left the women unable to work, he said.

The women previously worked at the fire district’s Northwest Regional Training Center. Each is seeking about $1.5 million in damages for emotional distress and other harm they say they suffered as a result of James’ conduct. Named as defendants are James, the city of Vancouver and Fire District 5.

But Richard Matson, a Vancouver attorney representing District 5, offered a much different version of events.

Sue Collins, one of the four plaintiffs, frequently instigated sexual banter within the workplace with her comments, actions and inappropriate e-mails, Matson said.

When Collins mistakenly believed she was about to be fired, she planned and initiated a sexual harassment complaint against James and recruited the others to join her, he said.

Matson briefly showed the jury a smattering of e-mails sent by Collins, including one with the subject line, “Now these are BIG!,” that contained a photograph of a woman with large breasts.

Matson said the defense also will call a number of witnesses, including Kristen Murray, the American Heart Association coordinator at the training center.

“She will tell you that Sue Collins produced a constant barrage of sexual banter,” Matson said. “She used the term ‘porn-like’ in her (pretrial) deposition.”

Collins was a city of Vancouver employee working at the training center as safety coordinator. The other three plaintiffs, Helen Hayden, Valerie Larwick and Kristy Mason, were District 5 employees.

Matson said Larwick was fired from the training center, effective Oct. 31, 2002, after the training center filled her position with someone who had a bachelor’s degree.

The other three women were terminated at different times in late 2003 or during the first half of 2004 after they had exhausted their sick leave and did not return to work, he said.

The fire district investigated allegations of sexual harassment in late 2003. As result of that investigation, District 5 commissioners suspended James for one week without pay.

Matson conceded to the jury that James “is not without a certain amount of wrongdoing and misconduct in this case,” but he argued that his conduct and actions do not rise to the level of sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

Plaintiff’s attorney Boothe said James, who previously worked for the Vancouver Fire Department, has a long history of misconduct toward women.

“Mr. James’ attitude toward women has been on display for decades,” he said.

Boothe said his clients complained about James’ crude sexual comments, but it did no good.

When Lawrick went to Bob Torrens, a District 5 commissioner, she was told, “That is just Marty,” Boothe said.

“You will also hear from people who will tell you that going to the HR (human resources) department of the city of Vancouver isn’t a very wise thing to do,” he said. “The city HR department circles the wagons to protect the city.”

Boothe said that Penny Harrington, who was Portland’s police chief for 18 months in the mid-1980s, will testify as an expert witness via videotape. Harrington has reviewed depositions from the case and concluded the four women were treated differently because of their sex, he said.

Boothe, reading from a summary of Harrington’s opinions as an expert witness and consultant, said the former police chief concluded that “the environment at the training center was one of the most toxic environments I have encountered.”

Matson, however, said Harrington resigned as Portland police chief at the request of the mayor. She promptly sued her former employer and lost, he said.

Harrington, he said, has never worked for a fire department and has never been called as an expert witness in a lawsuit involving a fire department, he said.

The jury trial is expected to last five weeks.

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