California disaster recovery official sued over sexual harassment and retaliation allegations

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A senior official at the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services has been accused in a lawsuit of sexual harassment and retaliation against a senior employee.

Kendra Bowyer, a former Cal OES employee who helped to manage the state’s relief efforts from wildfires and other disasters, alleged in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Sacramento County Superior Court that Deputy Director Ryan Buras, a Gov. Gavin Newsom appointee, sexually harassed her for a period that lasted about a year beginning in 2020.

His actions took place even though four other women previously made similar allegations that were raised to agency management in 2019, the suit says. The suit says the agency failed to adequately respond.

“Our goal is to hold the government accountable for allowing this to take place for so long,” said Tanya Gomerman, a lawyer representing Bowyer.

Gomerman said the agency should conduct a robust investigation of allegations against Buras. The lawsuit seeks compensation from Buras and Cal OES for allegations that include sexual harassment, retaliation and a hostile work environment.

Buras did not respond to emails seeking comment on the allegations.

Agency spokesman Brian Ferguson said in a statement that Cal OES does not comment on personnel matters or active litigation but said “nothing is more important" than the safety and well-being of staff and the broader public.

“Sexual harassment in the workplace is an affront to our values as an organization," he wrote. "It has no place in Cal OES and it will not be tolerated in any form.”

The allegations against Buras range from making inappropriate comments about how Bowyer should dress “more like a woman,” to trying to get her alone in hotel rooms to grabbing her hand in public. During another incident, Buras invited Bowyer and a co-worker over to his apartment for dinner and drinks, asked them to stay overnight, and crawled into the bed Bowyer was sleeping in, the lawsuit alleges. She awoke to Buras' “body wrapped around the backside” of her body, it says.

Newsom appointed Buras as deputy director of recovery operations in 2019 after Buras spent more than a decade of work in various roles at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In Buras' role at Cal OES, he directs the state's recovery from disasters.

Bowyer said she repeatedly told Buras to stop his behavior, Gomerman said. Eventually, after rebuffing his advances, Bowyer faced retaliation from Buras that included restricting her access to resources needed to do her job, the suit says.

Buras' actions kept Bowyer from providing essential services to disaster survivors and caused her so much stress, anxiety and depression that in 2021 a doctor determined she was “totally disabled,” the lawsuit alleges.

“When I finally stood up to him and said this has to stop, he cut me off from all the resources that I needed to do my job,” Bowyer said.

Cal OES conducted an investigation after receiving a medical evaluation as part of Bowyer's leave. She received a letter later that year stating that Buras had not acted inappropriately, the lawsuit said.

Bowyer decided to pursue legal action after finding out about similar allegations against Buras from a colleague she confided in. ___ Austin is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Austin on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter: @sophieadanna