Central Valley

Merced DA Morse ‘more likely than not’ sexually harassed employee, county report says

Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II speaks against Prop 57, the governor’s public safety and rehabilitation act, at the Merced County Courthouse Museum on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. Opponents say the ballot initiative will grant early parole for convicted felons who have committed violent crimes.
Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II speaks against Prop 57, the governor’s public safety and rehabilitation act, at the Merced County Courthouse Museum on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. Opponents say the ballot initiative will grant early parole for convicted felons who have committed violent crimes. BRIANNA CALIX / bcalix@mercedsun

A county-funded investigation into District Attorney Larry Morse II “sustained” allegations the veteran politician sexually harassed a married female employee, the Merced Sun-Star has confirmed.

The report conducted by Kramer Workplace Investigations concluded that, based on a preponderance of the evidence, it was “more likely than not” that Morse sexually harassed former Merced prosecutor Ilia McKinney.

The investigation also found that Morse, in an interview with the Sun-Star in February, inappropriately disclosed the confidential personnel information of Mike McKinney, according to a redacted copy of the report obtained by the Sun-Star.

Mike McKinney also is a former Merced prosecutor and is married to Ilia McKinney.

Morse first was elected district attorney in 2006. He lost his bid for a fourth term in office when he was defeated in June by attorney Kimberly Helms Lewis.

The county’s investigation was triggered by an anonymous letter mailed to county authorities on Feb. 8. The unsigned letter demanded Morse “cease the hugging, the kissing and touching” of female employees and those attending county functions.

The subsequent Kramer report cost Merced County $10,535, according to Mike North, a county spokesperson.

The report’s release comes about six months after the Sun-Star first reported the allegations that Morse made inappropriate sexual comments to Ilia McKinney and kissed her on the lips about five years ago during an after-work gathering of attorneys in a downtown bar.

“Mr. Morse credibly stated during his interview that it was never his intention to harass anyone, but the fact remains that his intention is irrelevant if anyone was offended by the conduct,” the report states. That finding also is in line with Merced County’s official policy on sexual harassment, which states, in part, “It is no defense to a claim of harassment that the alleged harasser did not intend to harass.”

In an email this week, Morse said there was “nothing new that was substantiated” in the county’s Kramer report.

“I’ve acknowledged making some of the comments to Ms. McKinney,” Morse wrote. “They were attempts at humor, taken out of the context in which they were made. If Ms. McKinney had ever advised me, as the law requires, that my humor was offensive in any way I would have immediately apologized.”

Sexual Comments, an Unwanted Kiss

Ilia and Mike McKinney were experienced felony prosecutors who left the Merced District Attorney’s Office late last year. Ilia McKinney cited Morse’s misconduct as at least part of the reason for their departure.

The McKinneys came forward with their allegations in early December after leaving Merced about two months earlier, saying they hoped exposing the issues would force change in Merced County as other stories connected to the #MeToo movement had done.

The McKinneys have said they did not report the misconduct allegations before they left Merced out of fear of retaliation from Morse.

Ilia McKinney, a then-37-year-old prosecutor, told the Sun-Star she felt “totally violated” when Morse kissed her on the lips in front of her husband but also felt powerless to take action. Morse told the Sun-Star he didn’t recall kissing McKinney but said it was possible and “it would’ve been as a greeting of some sort.”

“It is difficult to envision a circumstance in which a department head or elected official kissing a subordinate employee is appropriate,” the Kramer report states. “As the District Attorney, Mr. Morse should have known better than to have engaged in such an intimate act with a subordinate employee.”

Ilia McKinney also said Morse made lewd comments to her about her body and about oral sex while she was pregnant. She said Morse told her oral sex would ensure giving birth to a boy. She also said Morse made an obscene gesture portraying oral sex.

Morse, in an interview with the Kramer investigation, denied making the oral sex comments and denied making the hand gesture. During an interview with the Sun-Star in February, Morse said he had “zero recollection” of making such comments.

The Kramer report also noted that others independently confirmed being told about the conduct, which the report said lends “credibility to her claim that such conduct occurred.”

“With the exception of the comment regarding giving blowjobs, Mr. Morse did not deny the conduct attributed to him, but rather repeatedly stated he did not recall engaging in certain conduct or making specific comments,” the Kramer report states.

Morse in February told the Sun-Star he has made remarks in the past regarding sex acts that supposedly guarantee male babies. The Kramer report described the remark as “to go deeper to get boys.”

Former prosecutor Rita Carlson said she heard Morse make a remark to that effect sometime around 2000 before he was elected. But while Morse acknowledged making the remark — which he described as an “old-guy bluster comment” — he said he didn’t believe he’d ever said it around Carlson because he was “extraordinarily careful” about what he said around her.

Morse told the county investigator the comment was “just one of those ‘stupid guy things that guys say,’” the report states.

The Kramer report described the remark as “an inappropriate comment to make to a subordinate employee.”

Ilia McKinney also said that, during a pregnancy, Morse repeatedly reminder her to perform Kegel exercises, an exercise designed to strengthen the pelvis.

Morse told the Sun-Star he didn’t remember making that comment but said it was possible.

“I might have. Sometimes I think I’m funny and I’m not,” Morse said in February. “I don’t have any recollection of that. I couldn’t tell you that I never said that.”

Morse also acknowledged to the county investigator that he may have made comments about Kegel exercises.

Morse Blasts Allegations

During an interview with the Sun-Star on Feb. 6, Morse accused the McKinneys of fabricating sexual harassment allegations and claimed the veteran attorneys were seeking revenge because Mike McKinney had been verbally reprimanded about his casework.

Morse told the county investigator the “allegations were designed to inflict maximum political damage on him, which they did, because he lost his bid for re-election,” the report states.

Ilia McKinney noted that she came forward in December last year, months before Helms Lewis challenged Morse for the office.

“We came forward with zero indication he’d be opposed,” Ilia McKinney said.

Morse also defended his conduct by saying he didn’t believe Ilia McKinney was offended by sex-related remarks because he’d heard her use profanity on numerous occasions.

Ilia McKinney, in a recent interview, said Morse’s explanations still bother her.

“Who is he to tell me how to feel,” McKinney said. “How is it OK for him to say that ‘because she uses language that I deserve to say whatever I want about her vagina?’”

Her sentiment also was echoed in the Kramer report, saying the fact that an employee “used profanity, even if she did so frequently, does not mean that she wanted her superior to speak to her about performing blowjobs or doing Kegal exercises, or that she wanted him to kiss her on the lips or to comment about her body.”

Morse said he still believes the McKinneys took his comments out of context in an effort to damage his reputation.

The Kramer report said such speculation “could be true with respect to the timing” of when they came forward, but also noted “the fact remains” Ilia McKinney had told multiple people about the incidents shortly after they happened.

The county report said those earlier conversations with multiple people make it “unlikely she would have fabricated these incidents taking place several years ago.”

The Kramer report also described other instances of Morse “touching, hugging or kissing” other “subordinate female employees” who said they were not offended by the conduct. The report said the conduct still was inappropriate for a supervisor.

“Mr. Morse failed to recognize that those who are present (i.e. third-party witnesses) when such conduct occurred might be uncomfortable or offended,” the report said. “Mr. Morse’s conduct furthered the perception in the District Attorney’s Office that those who play ‘Larry’s game’ get ahead.”

Morse Questions McKinney’s Motives

Morse also referenced a March 5 Letter to the Editor published by the Sun-Star signed by 28 female employees that questioned the McKinney’s motives for coming forward.

“I am certain that over the years I have said things that might have been unintentionally offensive and which I regret,” Morse wrote in an email to the Sun-Star. “But I dispute any allegation that I ever harassed anyone and am grateful to our employees who supported me by setting the record straight.”

Ilia McKinney said she was aware of the letter and noted that it was not signed by every female employee of the District Attorney’s Office. She also said she’s heard from some who told her they felt pressured to sign the letter.

“It was kind of interesting that they questioned my motives but not that it happened,” Ilia McKinney said of the letter. “I know it doesn’t reflect the opinions of all the women in the office.”

Morse, in his statement Friday to the Sun-Star, also criticized the county’s investigation.

“This report was initiated following an anonymous letter to the county during a political campaign and not from a formal complaint by the McKinneys or anyone else,” Morse said. “No credible newspaper, including the Sun-Star, would ever print a letter to the editor from an anonymous source, yet this entire investigation was conducted using anonymous sources.”

Morse Violated Personnel Privacy Rights, report says

The county investigation concluded Morse’s comments regarding Mike McKinney violated the former employee’s confidential personnel rights, saying it was “undisputed” that Morse made the remarks as reported by the Sun-Star.

Mike McKinney said that finding was expected.

“There’s no question that it happened,” he told the Sun-Star.

Morse, in his statement to the Sun-Star, doubled down on his claim that the McKinneys sought some type of revenge.

“We continue to believe that the allegations made to a reporter four months after the McKinneys left our office were motivated by hostility against those, including myself, who rightly tried to hold him accountable for his work,” Morse said.

Ilia McKinney said she came forward because “ultimately you have to the right thing.”

“It’s painful to be out there like that,” she said. “I definitely lost friends. But if I hadn’t done it, I would always have regretted it.”

She said she was pleased that the county launched its own investigation.

“It’s what should have been done and they did the right thing,” she said.