Heat Offensive

In October Trujillo filed a complaint with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which, following a cursory review of her allegations, issued a right-to-sue letter -- a prerequisite to a federal civil rights lawsuit. In November Trujillo filed suit against the Miami Heat in U.S. District Court. Lisa Berg, an attorney for the Miami Heat, denies the allegations, saying, "There is no factual or legal basis to Larissa Trujillo's claim." Berg refused to discuss the case further, and officials of the Miami Heat did not return phone calls seeking their comment.

A spokesman for NBA Commissioner David Stern said he was not aware of the suit against the Heat and would have no further comment on the matter.

The case is scheduled to go before a federal mediator this Friday. If the mediator is unable to reach a settlement between the two sides, a trial before Judge Donald Graham will likely begin on December 8. In the meantime both sides have been proceeding with discovery.

Attorneys for the Miami Heat spent more than six hours on February 12 deposing Trujillo, and have said they will need at least three more hours. During her deposition Trujillo stated that most of the offensive comments were made by her immediate boss, Lorraine Mondich, the director of box-office operations.

When someone with a Spanish accent called the box office, Trujillo claimed, Mondich would at times tell her to pick up the phone, saying, "It's one of your cousins from back home." Trujillo also said that Mondich criticized her when she spoke Spanish at the office. Recalling one incident in which she was speaking to a co-worker in Spanish, Trujillo stated that Mondich came up to them and said, "Don't you Cubans understand that in America we only speak English?"

Trujillo described more than a dozen other examples in which she claims derogatory remarks were made, including an incident in the summer of 1995 when she returned to work after a car accident. In her deposition Trujillo stated that Mondich suggested that even Trujillo's driver's license might not be legal, and asked, "'[D]id you get your license in Hialeah, because all Cubans get it in Hialeah? How much did you pay for it?'" Mondich, who still works for the Heat, did not return calls seeking her comment for this story.

According to Trujillo, Mondich continually referred to her as "an illegal alien" and would often insult members of her family. The taunting grew increasingly worse in February and March 1996, Trujillo recounted, as she was preparing for her naturalization ceremony on March 15. She said that when she returned to the office after the ceremony she was approached by Winick and asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. "I was hesitant, I was scared, I was afraid," Trujillo said, adding later: "Pauline Winick was making fun of the whole situation."

The Heat's attorney asked if Winick wanted her to recite the oath merely as a joke. In their questioning, the Heat's attorneys sought to portray the incident as good-natured fun. "I didn't think it was funny," Trujillo responded. "I was hurt and humiliated by it. I didn't find it a joke."

Several days after the ceremony, Trujillo said, Mondich continued her assaults, asking if her citizenship was truly legal. Trujillo said she responded to Mondich: "Can't you stop? It's not funny any more. It never was." But according to Trujillo, Mondich only laughed and continued the ridicule.

Trujillo stated that in May 1996 she went to Winick to complain about Mondich's ethnic slurs. "[Winick] told me that Lorraine was a miserable person and that I should try to be nice to her, take her out to lunch, be her buddy," Trujillo recalled. She said she was frustrated by Winick's refusal to take the matter more seriously: "I told her my position, how I felt, and that was the answer I got."

In addition to Trujillo's statements, the court file in this case holds other potentially embarrassing elements for the Miami Heat -- especially if members of the Dade County Commission, which still has to approve the arena plan, begin asking questions about the Heat's employment policies. Trujillo's attorney, Andrew Rosenblatt, has attempted to ascertain how many Hispanic employees are in the Heat organization, as well as the positions they hold. (It appears Trujillo may have been the highest-ranking Hispanic in the front office.)

The team has failed to respond to Rosenblatt's questions regarding its minority hiring practices. When New Times asked for the same information, it too was rebuffed.

That's rather surprising given the pious pronouncements Heat officials made last week following the Halberstam debacle. Indeed, their apparent failure to take seriously Trujillo's claims seems odd. After all, as Pat Riley said, anything that is counterproductive and hurts people needs to be addressed.

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