Former ACLU employee sues organization for violating core values of ‘diversity’ it espouses, lawsuit alleges

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A former American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) employee of more than two decades is suing the organization and four of its senior executives for violating the same core values it espouses, claiming they “were not only ignored but violated.”

Monica Espitia, an immigrant from Colombia, sued ACLU-Hawaii this month in a 25-page suit in the Oahu Circuit Court for an alleged “pattern of discriminatory and retaliatory conducted based on race and sex” that ultimately led to her termination. 

“In practice, however, while Plaintiff was asked to publicly hold government officials accountable to one standard regarding implicit bias, inequitable treatment, and free speech, she was required to remain silent and accept the opposite standard regarding these matters at the workplace of the ACLU-HI,” the lawsuit states. 

Espitia has been employed by several ACLU branches since 2005. In 2019, she was hired by ACLU-HI as the smart justice campaign director, which focuses on reducing mass incarceration by 50% “while addressing racial bias throughout the criminal justice system.”

In a series of events between 2019 and 2022, the complaint alleges that one of the defendants, Josh Wisch – a White individual – accused Espitia of discriminating against White men in a hiring decision for a position in 2019 when Espitia ultimately chose a Native Hawaiian woman with extensive organizing experience who was more qualified and was personally affected by incarceration. There was one White candidate among four finalists, while the other three were people of color.

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A former American Civil Liberties Union employee sued the organization and four of its senior executives for violating the same core values it espouses, claiming they “were not only ignored but violated.” (Karen Bleier/Staff)

The lawsuit alleges Wisch attempted to redirect funds from Espitia’s campaign budget of $50,000 in January 2020, originally designated to highlight incarcerated individuals through a grant proposal to the national ACLU. Instead, the lawsuit claims he sought to use it to extend the contract of a Harvard graduate not impacted by incarceration.

In June 2020, Espitia had a meeting with Wisch where he expressed a loss of trust in her after she expressed concerns during a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training about unfair treatment in the office, the lawsuit states. Wisch allegedly suggested that her position at ACLU-Hawaii might be in jeopardy due to her internal advocacy.

Despite her efforts, according to the lawsuit, Wisch continued to ignore her until she sought assistance from the national ACLU in January 2021. Wisch declined to participate in mediation facilitated by national ACLU staff and instead hired his own DEI consultant.

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3-d type illustration with words fairness diversity equity and inclusion

Diversity, equity and inclusion agendas have frequently been enmeshed with concepts from critical race theory in education. (Adobe Stock)

In a mediated conversation in April 2021, Wisch acknowledged that he had a so-called “affinity bias,” which the lawsuit describes as an unconscious inclination to favor people similar to oneself.

In another instance, the lawsuit alleges another defendant – Ryan Leong – instructed Espitia to manually calculate interns’ time sheets, even though this created extra and unnecessary work for her. 

“Defendant Leong raised his voice and cursed at Plaintiff regarding this matter angrily stating his expertise and authority should not be questioned,” the lawsuit states.

Also in February 2022, Tracey Tokuoka, the ACLU-HI operations director, remarked that Espitia’s mannerisms were “spicy,” which the lawsuit states is a stereotype used to describe Latinas.

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The seal of the state of Hawaii

The Hawaii state seal at the state Capitol in O’ahu. (Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images)

That same month, Epitia discovered Leong was plotting to turn other directors against her, the lawsuit states, causing “extreme emotional distress.” This information, unbeknownst to Espitia, was relayed to the board by the consultant, who had been hired by Wisch. 

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An ACLU-Hawaii investigation was initiated, but Wisch resigned in April 2022 before its conclusion. Leong was then appointed interim executive director while allegations against him were ongoing.  In both February and September 2022, Espitia reached out to the national ACLU for assistance, but the lawsuit claims she did not receive a response. 

On Sept. 23, 2022, Espitia filed a complaint with the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission and notified the defendants. She was terminated in November that year based on a “conflicted and retaliatory investigation and report” by Leong.

Fox News Digital has reached out to the ACLU for comment but did not receive a response by time of publication.

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