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California governor Gavin Newsom accused of interfering in Activision Blizzard lawsuit

Update: A spokesperson for Gavin Newsom has denied allegations that he interfered with the California DFEH lawsuit into Activision Blizzard.

A former lawyer for the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing is resigning in protest, saying that governor Gavin Newsom is interfering in its ongoing lawsuit against Activision Blizzard.

The story comes via Bloomberg News, which obtained a copy of an e-mail sent on Tuesday night by DFEH assistant chief counsel Melanie Proctor. In her e-mail, Proctor told staff that she was resigning to protest the firing of chief counsel Janette Wipper, who had been directly fired by governor Newsom. 

Both Wipper and Proctor had stepped down from the Activision Blizzard lawsuit earlier this month.

Proctor's e-mail apparently detailed a long pattern of interference by Newsom's office that led up to Wipper's firing. "The Office of the Governor repeatedly demanded advance notice of litigation strategy and of next steps in the litigation," she told her colleagues. "As we continued to win in state court, this interference increased, mimicking the interests of Activision's counsel."

She claimed that Wipper was fired for attempting to protect the agency's independence. Wipper's spokesperson told Bloomberg News that she is evaluating "all legal avenues of legal recourse," which might include a claim under the California Whistleblower Protection Act.

It's unclear why Newsom's office was paying such close attention to the Activision Blizzard case. The DFEH had successfully negotiated a $100 million settlement out of Riot Games for its alleged culture of sexual discrimination and harassment. But high-level interference like this suggests some desire for the case to wrap up.

It is worth noting that the DFEH has been exceptionally aggressive in its prosecution, going so far as to try and throw a wrench in Activision Blizzard's $18 million settlement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But when the case being prosecuted includes one alleged wrongful death, and multiple allegations of physical assault being covered up, it's difficult to see why so many institutions are so interested in letting the company avoid consequences.

If Newsom's office is mimicking the interests of Activision's counsel, then the only consequences faced for years of alleged sexual harassment, abuse, and booze-fueled cube crawls will be a pittance of a settlement fund and a depressed stock value for the pending Microsoft acquisition. 

Update 4/13: Gavin Newsom's communications director Erin Mellon provided the following statement in response to our inquiries about these allegations:

"Claims of interference by our office are categorically false. The Newsom administration supports the effective work DFEH has done under Director Kevin Kish to enforce civil rights laws and protect workers, and will continue to support DFEH in their efforts to fight all forms of discrimination and protect Californians."

Update 4/13: The Department of Fair Employment and Housing has also sent us a statement about Proctor's claims from director Kevin Kish:

"In recent years, under this administration and my leadership, DFEH has litigated groundbreaking cases that are a model of effective government enforcement of civil rights. We continue to do so with the full support of the administration. Our cases will move forward based on the facts, the law, and our commitment to our mission to protect the civil rights of all Californians."

Neither Kish nor Mellon disputed that Newsom fired Wipper. 

Correction: The final line in this update previously stated that Newsom had fired Proctor, not Wipper. The mistake has been corrected. 

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