Sexual Harassment Takes Spotlight In California's Capital
It's been five weeks since nearly 150 women — lobbyists, lawmakers, Republicans, Democrats — signed a letter calling out a pervasive culture of sexual harassment in California's capital.
One lawmaker has ended his re-election campaign, and a second is the target of multiple allegations. The Senate and the Assembly have pledged action to root out problems, but critics say cultural change requires far more.
Here's a look at where things stand:
Two sitting lawmakers face public accusations of harassment: Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra and Sen. Tony Mendoza, both Los Angeles-area Democrats.
Bocanegra was disciplined for groping in 2009, when he was an Assembly chief of staff. He apologized, but the Los Angeles Times has since revealed six other women are accusing him of various unwanted advances, including one alleged incident when he was in office.
He plans to resign on Sept. 1, 2018, just three months before his term ends. Speaker Anthony Rendon has threatened to expel him earlier.
Mendoza, meanwhile, is accused of inappropriate behavior toward three young women in his office, including inviting one home and offering another alcohol when she was underage. Formal complaints were filed twice, but only just became public. Mendoza has since lost his committee chairmanship and the Senate plans to conduct an outside investigation into the allegations. He's denied acting inappropriately.
Public records show the Senate has investigated 15 sexual harassment complaints since 2006, while the Assembly looked into 16 in that time frame.
But both chambers have refused to reveal the subjects of those investigations or how many of them resulted in discipline, despite requests from The Associated Press and other media outlets. The accusations against Mendoza and Bocanegra are only known because women involved chose to make them public.
Critics argue existing Senate and Assembly policies for investigating sexual harassment claims are insufficient, confusing, and designed to protect lawmakers.
Both chambers have their own anti-harassment policies, which typically include in-house investigations by human resources employees and rules committees made up of lawmakers. The Assembly has hired outside investigators to handle some complaints, but it's unclear if that happens in all cases or how the outside firms are chosen. An outside firm is currently investigating accusations against Bocanegra and Rendon will move to expel him from the chamber if it confirms the accusations against him.
The Assembly is also launching a series of public hearings on Tuesday aimed at gathering feedback on how the body can improve its processes.
Senate leader Kevin de Leon said the Rules Committee would stop handling sexual harassment investigations after news about accusations against Mendoza became public. Senate Secretary Daniel Alvarez said Mendoza had been under an internal investigation for weeks, but both Mendoza and de Leon said they didn't know about it. The lawyer for a former Mendoza staffer alleged the employee was fired for reporting Mendoza's behavior toward a young woman in the office. The Senate denies that.
A seven-member Senate panel will meet Tuesday to start interviewing outside law firms to handle all future investigations.
De Leon had hired a different firm in October to investigate claims of harassment made in the open letter. That firm invited any former Senate staff members who signed the letter for an interview in mid-November, but it's unclear if any women went. De Leon also hired a consulting firm to recommend changes in the Senate's anti-harassment policies.
Critics, including members of the Legislative Women's Caucus, aren't satisfied with the current action.
Adama Iwu, a Visa lobbyist who started the open letter, said the Legislature needs to establish a confidential hotline for reports of abuse and harassment. Women are still worried they'll face retaliation if they come forward with public complaints.
The Senate and Assembly should also be working together on a new process, rather than going their separate ways, she said.
Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, a Democrat and chair of the Legislative Women's Caucus, said Bocanegra needs to resign immediately.