Congress

Capitol Police sexual discrimination trial in the hands of jury

Department admits it ‘messed up’ procedure, but defends firing former officer

Former Chief Matthew Verderosa said at trial last week that the department had a systemic failure when it came to completing quarterly reports for new officers. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Summing up his client’s argument she was fired by the Capitol Police when a superior officer found out she talked to internal investigators about alleged sexual harassment, attorney R. Scott Oswald left the jury with a question Thursday.

Why would her assistant chief tell Chrisavgi Sourgoutsis to put disciplinary matters in the past, and that she could get back vacation time that had been frozen if she did, when the department was planning to fire her?

Oswald said the department changed its story when Sourgoutsis testified about alleged sexual harassment by one of her superiors.

“Once she’s forced to be in that investigation, she tells the truth and boy does she pay for it,” Oswald said.

Sourgoutsis is suing, arguing she was the target of retaliation for testifying, and of discrimination because she’s a woman.

Kelly Scindian, the attorney for Capitol Police, said the department’s decision to fire Sourgoutsis had nothing to do with her gender or the investigation into her supervisor, Sgt. Tyrone Vias. Instead, it was based on nine documented infractions over the course of Sourgoutsis’ probationary period as an officer.

“She flagrantly violated Capitol Police rules,” Scindian said.

Seven of the violations — which included uniform infractions, chewing gum in class, using profanity and using Skype in a prohibited location — occurred in the training academy. Oswald said that undermined the argument against his client.

“The Capitol Police’s story is so weak that they have to go back to her training,” Oswald said.

After graduation from the academy, Sourgoutsis went to work at the Capitol Division of the department and received two command disciplinary infractions during her probationary period. One was for a uniform infraction and another was for sitting on a retaining wall while guarding a door at the Capitol Visitor Center. Her superiors alleged that she was distracted from guarding the door.

On July 28, 2015, Assistant Chief Matthew Verderosa told Sourgoutsis at a grievance meeting regarding the two command disciplinary violations that she should put the matters in the past and that she could still have a long and successful career with the department, Sourgoutsis testified earlier this week.

Verderosa docked her eight hours of vacation and put another eight hours in abeyance that she could possibly get back if she had no further violations.

Inspector Eric Waldow learned Sourgoutsis was being interviewed by the Office of Professional Responsibility, the division that investigates allegations of misconduct, on Aug. 18, 2015. Nine days later, Waldow issued Vias a performance note telling him to address subordinates in an “appropriate manner.”

Less than a month later, Waldow sent a recommendation to Deputy Chief Chad Thomas saying Sourgoutsis should be fired. Oswald noted to the jury that Vias received no discipline “for calling his female subordinates ‘chica’ and ‘senorita.’”

Scindian countered: “This case is not about sexual harassment.”

She said while Waldow knew Sourgoutsis was at the Office of Professional Responsibility, that does not prove he knew she was there testifying about sexual harassment and that he then fired her for that reason. Her appearance at OPR would have been protected under the Congressional Accountability Act.

Oswald said the way Waldow fired Sourgoutsis broke Capitol Police rules. None of Sourgoutsis’ quarterly reports had been completed when it came time to fill out the fourth and final assessment of her job performance. Verderosa, who later became chief and left the department earlier this year, testified at the trial last week that reports were routinely not filed, a situation he called a “systemic failure.”

Capitol Police rules state, “Prior quarterly ratings must be considered when making the final determination regarding the retention of the probationary employee.” A department directive also says that recommendations regarding potential termination during the probationary period “should begin with the employee’s first-line supervisor.”

Waldow, who testified he did not follow the rules, was several ranks above Sourgoutsis when he recommended she be fired. None of her first-line supervisors made that recommendation. 

“We messed up,” Scindian conceded, but she said it did not have anything to do with gender.

Sourgoutsis’ three first-line supervisors all testified she met job expectations, with two saying she was a “good officer.”

Oswald said that male officers who were disciplined while on probation, for violations that included sleeping on duty, were not fired. Scindian said those cases were not comparable to Sourgoutsis’.

The eight-person jury, which is comprised of five females and three males, began deliberations Thursday afternoon.

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