SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A lawyer for California’s civil rights agency has resigned over what she alleged were undue attempts by Gov. Gavin Newsom and his office to interfere in a state lawsuit against video game giant Activision Blizzard.
Bloomberg reported that Melanie Proctor, assistant chief counsel with California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, told staff in a Tuesday email she was resigning in protest over the firing of Janette Wipper, the department’s chief counsel who worked on the Activision lawsuit. Proctor also said Newsom’s office asked for “advance notice” on elements of the litigation.
“As we continued to win in state court, this interference increased, mimicking the interests of Activision’s counsel,” said the email, a copy of which was shown to Bloomberg.
Newsom’s spokeswoman Erin Mellon said claims of interference by the governor’s office “are categorically false.”
No other details about Newsom’s alleged interference have been made public. Activision spokesman Rich George did not immediately respond to an email Thursday.
Activision is a Santa Monica-based company that makes popular games like Call of Duty, Candy Crush and World of Warcraft.
The state Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued the company in July, alleging a “frat boy” culture that had become a “breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women.” The state alleged the company has also failed to pay women fairly and promoted them at slower rates than men. Black women and other women of color were “particularly impacted” by the company’s discriminatory practices, the state department said in a news release at the time.
The case is pending in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Newsom, a Democrat, is facing re-election in November. He is not facing any major opponents after handily defeating a recall attempt against him last fall. An Activision board member, Casey Wasserman, donated $100,000 to Newsom’s anti-recall campaign, state campaign finance records show. Wasserman could not immediately be reached for comment.
In January, Xbox-maker Microsoft announced a nearly $69 billion all-cash deal to buy the company. If approved by U.S. and overseas regulators, it could be one of the biggest tech acquisitions in history. In announcing the agreement, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella noted the allegations about Activision and said it will be “critical” for the company to drive forward on longtime CEO Bobby Kotick’s commitments to improve its workplace culture.
Both Wipper and Proctor, the former state employees, have retained Alexis Ronickher, a Washington, D.C.- based lawyer who represents whistleblowers. Ronickher said Wipper was in “the midst of her success” in pursuing the Activision case when she was first contacted by Newsom’s office on March 29.
The statement does not detail the stated reasons for her firing. Newsom spokeswoman Mellon said the office couldn’t comment on personnel matters.
Wipper is “evaluating all avenues of legal recourse including a claim under the California Whistleblower Protection Act,” the statement said.
Wipper and Proctor urged “appropriate oversight authorities” to investigate their allegations.
“For there to be justice, those with political influence must be forced to play by the same set of laws and rules,” Ronickher said in the statement.
The Department of Fair Employment and Housing did not immediately provide The Associated Press with a copy of Proctor’s email, saying it needed to be treated as a public records request, a process that can take weeks. Ronickher told the AP Proctor won’t provide a copy of “any resignation letter she may have sent.”
Activision has come under fire from the government and even some shareholders over allegations that management ignored sexual harassment and discrimination against female employees.
A shareholder lawsuit filed last year alleges that the company’s negligent response resulted in a loss of share value.
The company also agreed last year to pay $18 million to settle a complaint by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After a nearly three-year investigation, the agency concluded that Activision failed to take effective action after employees complained about sexual harassment, discrimination against pregnant employees and retaliated against employees who spoke out, including by firing them.
A federal judge approved the settlement on March 29, the same day that Wipper was notified of her firing. The judge rejected a request by Wipper’s agency to delay the settlement as it pursued its own case.