LA County Democratic Party Allegedly Gave Soft Landing to Former Director Accused of Sexual Misconduct
Two accusers filed complaints against then Executive Director Drexel Heard, and were told that the party wanted to keep him on for the Democratic primary.
“After months of acting as a professional mentor, Drexel kissed me without my consent. He asked to sleep with me, and when I said no, he reminded me he was, in his words, ‘the executive director of the party you work in,’” says an accuser, who will be called Clark, as he spoke under condition of anonymity.
Drexel Heard II was then executive director of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party (LACDP), a powerful political club which makes valuable endorsements in LA County elections.
Clark filed an official complaint with LACDP in August 2021, which was provided to Knock LA. It was addressed to Rusty Hicks, chair of the California Democratic Party (CADEM), and Mark Gonzalez, chair of LACDP and of its anti-harassment and incivility committee.
In the complaint, Clark details an incident in February 2021 where he invited Heard over to his apartment for a nightcap after an evening of drinking. Clark was in his early 20s at the time, and worked under Heard, then 35, at another political club. When Clark asked Heard to leave, Heard looked at him in the doorway, said, “I’m someone who gets what I want, so what are we doing here?” and motioned back to the bed.
When Clark rebuffed Heard’s advances, he says that Heard said, “I know I’m the executive director of the party that you work in, but you don’t have to make that a thing.”
Clark interpreted this as Heard using his power in the party to try to force a sexual encounter, and describes being “terrified, shocked, and betrayed.” He also says that he had previously disclosed to Heard that he was a survivor of sexual assault.
Another accuser who spoke under the condition of anonymity, who will be called Thomas, also filed a complaint with LACDP, which was also sent to Mark Gonzalez and Rusty Hicks. Thomas says he worked under Heard on a committee and viewed him as a mentor.
Heard vehemently denies any allegations of unwanted touching or retaliation made against either accuser. Heard also says that the LACDP’s investigation concluded that there was no merit to the accusations, and that the events in question were not connected to his role as executive director of LACDP. He is adamant that the events described in the complaints are more about a “falling out between friends” than about his role in the party. Knock LA has not been able to review the investigation records.
According to documents provided to Knock LA, LACDP agreed to a resolution whereby Heard would resign by June 13 after the primaries, and that Heard “will be able to participate in a transition-out process that will not disrupt the LACDP’s June 2022 election plans.” An agreement was sent by Laurence Zakson, who sits on LACDP’s anti-harassment and incivility committee, where the accusers would withdraw their complaints in exchange for Heard’s termination.
After both accusers pushed back on this arrangement, LACDP apparently renegotiated Heard’s resignation date to March 30. Heard resigned in March and was hired at Strategies 360, a consulting firm where he is now listed as vice president. Part of Strategies 360’s portfolio includes government relations and work on California elections.
Clark shared texts with friends from February 2021, outlining the incident with Heard and expressing concerns that he would face retaliation.
One friend told Knock LA that they had dinner with Clark the night after an incident with Heard, and that Clark was “scared to death” about the future of his career. Clark had told the friend in February that Heard forcibly tried to kiss him on another occasion. Heard denies this.
One of Clark’s former roommates — whose name will be withheld to avoid identifying the accuser — says that they and a friend FaceTimed with Clark and Heard one night. The roommate says that Clark was very drunk and was uncomfortable with how close to him Heard was sitting.
“They were sitting on a couch together, and Clark seemed really drunk and actually fell asleep at one point,” the roommate recalls. They say that Heard leaned back on the couch and put his arm around Clark and pulled him closer, which made Clark uncomfortable. The roommate also says that they thought Heard was a “very touchy” person with Clark at social gatherings.
Clark recalls falling asleep during the FaceTime call and Heard wrapping his arms around him to kiss him. He says he was too drunk to consent. Heard confirms that there was a quick FaceTime call, but denies that Clark was falling asleep, and says he was not being touchy.
Clark later shared with his roommate that after the FaceTime call, he told Heard to leave his apartment, and Heard made comments about wanting to see Clark’s bedroom. After Heard left, he texted Clark, “I wish I would have kissed you.” This text was reviewed by Knock LA.
“Clark was very worried about getting a job, and Drexel had made comments like, ‘Stay close to me and I’ll get you on the board of [Democratic organizations]’ … Clark was worried that his career was being jeopardized,” says the roommate.
The roommate says that they advised Clark to only socialize with Heard in public settings, and that Clark later said he felt “iced out” from Heard’s life after declining his advances. According to Clark, Heard froze him out of invitations with other party operatives, elected officials, and political staffers, which Clark says was retaliatory.
Clark says in the complaint that he informed LACDP’s ombudsperson, Pat Shiu, in May about being sexually harassed. Clark was told that the incident was sexual harassment, but did not fall under the party’s jurisdiction as it did not happen at an LACDP event. Shiu declined to speak to Knock LA, saying she is not at liberty to discuss the matter.
The second accuser, Thomas, is also in his early 20s. He filed his complaint to LACDP in September 2021.
According to the complaint, in March 2021, Thomas went on a trip to Palm Springs for Heard’s birthday weekend. While they were drinking in the pool of the rented Airbnb, Heard assured Thomas that he would be able to get him “any job that [Thomas] wanted.” Heard then kissed him without his consent, and Thomas told Heard to stop. He had previously told Heard that he was a victim of sexual assault.
Heard denies that there was any kiss. Heard’s husband, who was also on the Palm Springs trip, tells Knock LA that he initially believed Heard had kissed Thomas.
According to Thomas, Heard’s husband told Heard to get out of the pool, and then slapped him. Thomas states in his complaint that the two men went into a room, and he overheard what was described as a physical altercation inside. Heard’s husband says that he now knows he was mistaken and there was no kiss between Heard and Thomas.
Heard’s husband confirms he slapped Heard, but says it was in a private room and not in view of anyone else.
The first time Knock LA spoke to Heard about the Palm Springs weekend, Heard said, “I was in a mood on my birthday and nobody could understand why, so we got into an argument. It didn’t escalate to domestic violence.”
But during a second interview, Heard told Knock LA that his husband got “physical” with him and initiated the domestic dispute.
Heard says he was trying to keep his husband from driving home inebriated, and his husband called the police because Heard wouldn’t let him leave. Heard’s husband agrees with this, and says he just expected the police to separate the two of them, not make an arrest.
Palm Springs Police Department arrived thereafter and took Heard to jail. “I got the shit end of the stick,” says Heard.
Knock LA viewed a record of arrest on the morning of March 13. The charge is for 273.5 (a), which is for “any person who willfully inflicts corporal injury resulting in a traumatic condition.” Bail was set for $50,000, which Heard says he paid himself. Heard says the charges were never filed. The arrest record is no longer available.
Thomas wrote in the complaint that when he came home from the Palm Springs trip to retrieve his car, which was parked outside of Heard’s home, there was a note written by Heard’s husband on his car windshield. The note was shared with Knock LA. It reads:
“I saw everything in the pool Friday night and I’m aware of the advances Drexel [Heard] made towards you. You share the same amount of culpability for this situation as Drexel does.
You made a decision to not only put yourself in a situation but to keep yourself in a situation that has consequences and because of that jeopardized not only my friendship with you but also your professional relationship with Drexel and of course my personal relationship with Drexel. Because of that decision we are no longer friends. You are still a child and you have a lot to learn. I hope you’ve learned something from this experience and that you grow from it. If there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that the political world is very small and loyalty goes a long way. If you can’t even be loyal to your friends how could you possibly expect to exceed in anything that you do? Please don’t fall into the gay stereotype of sleeping with or getting involved with other peoples [sic] significant others.”
Heard’s husband confirms he wrote the note. He says he considered Thomas a friend, but felt betrayed by his belief that Thomas had kissed Heard in the pool. He adds that the note was written to advise Thomas, but was not a direct threat on his or Heard’s behalf. He says he has no political power.
Heard says he never personally saw the note, but learned about it later on. He insists that the note is about a falling out between friends, and that his husband was expressing anger without being aware of “how the political world works.”
Thomas says that the letter made him feel “like shit and gaslighted. It made me feel like a home wrecker when I wasn’t. It’s not my fault that [Heard] got really drunk and took advantage of the situation.”
Thomas says that he felt scared for his future after seeing the letter, and that his political connections were mostly people who knew Heard. Heard’s husband later texted Thomas an apology in July, though Thomas did not respond.
Thomas wrote in his complaint that, after the Palm Springs incident, he stopped hearing back from the committee he was on with Heard, and that he later resigned from the position of a different party because he was aware he would be working in close proximity to Heard.
Clark and Thomas started dating in March, right before the Palm Springs trip, and later shared stories about their experiences with Heard. After they found they’d had similar experiences, they decided to make their complaints to the party.
“It took the party months to do anything about the complaint,” Clark tells Knock LA, though the investigation was eventually referred to a private investigator, and Clark says it was a thorough investigation.
Heard says that because the two accusers are dating, they were able to come up with similar stories. “That’s too coincidental,” he says.
“The events, as they happen, are not how I remember them. They’re not how I remember them. They’re not how they went down. If somebody had a different version of events — it’s that person’s word against mine,” Heard says. “There was an investigation because of a process that we designed to do exactly that. And we had nothing to hide.”
Following the March 2021 Palm Springs incident, anonymously written emails were sent out to LA Democratic clubs, detailing versions of the incident. Knock LA has seen these emails, and even received one ourselves, but we have not been able to find their source.
Heard says the anonymous emails prove that there is a coordinated campaign by his political opponents to damage his career. He says that both the emails and complaints are part of an effort to discredit him, and should not be trusted.
“If the accusation was about an abuse of power, there was not a single person, there’s not a single moment where somebody could pinpoint a situation,” says Heard. “I’ve never done that. I’d never pick up the phone for anybody. The most I’ve ever done for anybody is job recommendations.”
Heard also says that Clark approached him at a June 2021 event to socialize, which demonstrates that Clark wasn’t afraid of him. Clark says that he didn’t want to make it seem like anything was wrong, because he feared retaliation.
Clark says that though his complaint was filed in early August 2021, he didn’t hear back from the party about finding a solution until some time between December and January. He and Thomas demanded that Heard resign or be fired. Both Clark and Thomas say that the party argued they needed Heard to stay with the club for the midterm elections.
“They seemed to latch onto needing Drexel for the primary. I feel like Mark Gonzalez was selfish and didn’t care about me or the other victim,” says Thomas.
Heard says that the party’s plans regarding his resignation date were not discussed with him, and that the complaints had nothing to do with his decision to resign in March 2022. He says that the proposed resignation date was part of the party’s “reconciliation process,” where they tried to come up with an amenable settlement with the accusers after the investigation.
Heard says that the investigation and follow-up are evidence that the LACDP’s grievance process designed under Heard and Gonzalez’s leadership worked, as it shows they adjudicate every complaint.
Through a spokesperson, CADEM says that Heard voluntarily resigned from its rules committee in July 2021, and was not asked to do so. When we followed up to ask if the complaint sent to CADEM had anything to do with the resignation, the spokesperson stopped responding to our inquiries.
Clark expressed concern that that the intent was for Strategies 360 to hire LACDP as a client so that Heard can have a similar job in close proximity to the party, which he says he finds “pretty reprehensible.”
Heard denies this, saying he interviewed for the job with Strategies 360 months before resigning, and that he was hired for his political connections and for his talent as a strategist. When asked if Strategies 360 works with the party, Heard said that “everybody works with everybody.”
Heard further says that LACDP Chair Mark Gonzalez was unaware that he was taking the job. Heard says that he wanted to make sure that he would leave the party in a good position going into the June primaries, and that it is a “lie” to say that Mark Gonzalez helped him get the job.
Strategies 360 did not respond to Knock LA’s inquiries about whether Mark Gonzalez was involved in the hiring of Heard, or if they were aware of the complaints.
The California Democratic Party — which describes itself as the nation’s largest statewide party — has been roiled by accusations against previous leaders, which resulted in settlements for accusers. The former chair of CADEM, Eric Bauman, resigned in 2018 after the LA Times reported numerous allegations of unwanted touching and sexual misconduct toward others in the organization.
“Some of the California Democratic Party’s most sacred values are fairness, respect, and dignity for all,” Rusty Hicks said to the LA Times when discussing CADEM’s settlements with accusers in the Eric Bauman scandal.
Knock LA sent LACDP Chair Mark Gonzalez a request for comment on the party’s response to Clark’s complaint. In response, the club’s attorney, Stephen Kaufman, sent back the following comment:
“LACDP cannot comment directly on personnel matters. Having said that, LACDP takes claims of sexual harassment and workplace violence very seriously, and has a comprehensive process in place that is designed to protect both complainants and those who are accused of misconduct. Under Mark Gonzalez’s leadership, LACDP adopted an anti-harassment policy and code of conduct — both of which are posted on LACDP’s website — that the organization has vigorously followed since Mr. Gonzalez became Chair in 2017. LACDP and Mr. Gonzalez have proactively initiated investigations of alleged violations of the anti-harassment policy and code of conduct when such matters have been brought to their attention. LACDP and its leadership remain firmly committed to providing a harassment-free environment for members, employees, volunteers or anyone else associated with LACDP, and will continue to be vigilant about enforcing these policies in response to claims of harassment against any LACDP employee, member or affiliate.”
When Knock LA tried reaching out to the members of the anti-harassment and incivility committee individually, they all declined to talk. One member, Shanna Ingalsbee, referred us to LACDP’s attorneys, then tried pressing Knock LA on how we obtained the complaints.
When we declined to name our sources, Ingalsbee said, “But the complaint is confidential. Which means you had to have gotten it from one of the complainants.”
Knock LA soon after received a request from LACDP to stop contacting members of the committee: “It has come to our attention that you’ve been contacting members of the LA County Democratic Party’s Anti-Harassment, Workplace Violence and Incivility Committee seeking information about the Committee’s work. These members have requested that you cease any further contact with them immediately. In order for an internal investigatory process to be effective, it must be trusted to be confidential and impartial.”
LACDP held its 2022 John F. Kennedy Awards on May 14, honoring a slew of influential Democrats. Congressmember Maxine Waters and Mayor Eric Garcetti spoke at the event, and Heard was also present. It seems the party has moved on from the investigation. However, the accusers do not feel their complaints were heard.
“Drexel crossed the line by putting me in a very uncomfortable position and I worry that he’ll do it to other young gay men in my community,” Thomas wrote in his complaint to LACDP.