Second Campaign Staffer Accuses GOP Congressional Candidate Carl DeMaio Of Sexual Harassment
Just days before Tuesday’s election in the tight race for San Diego’s 52nd Congressional District seat, a second former staffer for Republican candidate Carl DeMaio is accusing him of sexual harassment.
Navy veteran Justin Harper, 25, said he began interning with DeMaio’s campaign in February and was hired as a regional political director a month later. His job was to make phone calls and knock on doors to ask voters for their support.
Harper said he quit on July 12, two days after an incident involving DeMaio in a restroom at campaign headquarters.
Harper talked with KPBS a week ago by phone, but he requested that his name not be used in a story about the alleged harassment. KPBS declined to publish or air anonymous allegations.
52nd Congressional District
Geography: Runs north from Coronado to La Jolla, and then east to include Carmel Valley, Scripps Ranch, Poway and Rancho Bernardo.
Party breakdown: 33.6% Republican, 32.1% Democrat, 29.2% independent
Source: California Secretary of State
On Saturday, Harper told KPBS he decided to put his name to the story after getting phone calls on Friday of "encouragement and support from the veterans community in San Diego." He did not want to say who had called him, and said he did not know who had given his name to the veterans who called.
Harper related the following story to KPBS:
On Thursday, July 10, Harper said, he returned to DeMaio’s Miramar campaign office in the afternoon following a day of walking neighborhoods and knocking on doors for the campaign. He said there had been a news conference at the headquarters, so DeMaio and other staffers were still in the office.
According to a campaign press release, DeMaio had a news conference at noon that day to "blast sweeping Medicare cuts."
Harper said he went to the restroom and didn't know anyone was in there.
"I was at the urinal, and (DeMaio) came from the stall that was closest to the urinal and was kind of just standing there hovering," Harper said. "I turned around and realized that it was Carl. He had his pants up, but his fly was undone, and he had his hand over, not over, grasping his genitals."
Harper said DeMaio didn't say anything to him, and he didn't say anything to DeMaio.
"I just walked out. I didn't say anything to him, I just left," Harper said.
When contacted early Sunday by KPBS about the allegations, DeMaio's campaign spokesman Dave McCulloch responded with a statement:
"Reporters with journalistic integrity have dismissed these false smears because they’ve been peddled by the same people fired from the campaign months ago – and the District Attorney dismissed these false allegations weeks ago. KPBS is reckless in reporting this outrageous lie because our office has not even had a urinal to use – a fact confirmed to KPBS by our landlord."
JD Bols, the landlord for the office complex where the DeMaio headquarters is located, told KPBS on Sunday that there is only one urinal in the second floor men’s room, and it has been broken since January and has been covered with plastic wrap.
Harper said the urinal was not broken at the time of the incident. A receptionist for Babies First Ultrasound, another business in the office complex, also said the urinal is not currently broken.
Bols has contributed nearly $4,000 to DeMaio’s congressional campaign.
DeMaio has denied sexual harassment allegations made by another former campaign staffer, Todd Bosnich. Bosnich said that DeMaio grabbed his crotch last December and masturbated in front of him on April 30. The San Diego County District Attorney's Office said it does not have enough evidence to file criminal charges involving those sexual misconduct allegations.
KPBS has communicated with Harper by phone, email and Twitter but has not had a face-to-face meeting with him because he now lives out of state.
Harper said he thought he was the only one with allegations of sexual harassment against DeMaio, but then in mid-October he saw the news reports about Bosnich.
"I honestly thought it happened once to me, and it was a mistake, but since it happened to Todd, I really don't know who else it happened to," Harper said.
Since Bosnich’s sexual harassment allegations were first mentioned publicly by a reporter during a DeMaio news conference on Oct. 8, accusations of sexual misconduct, bribery and attempts at a cover-up have dogged DeMaio’s campaign.
The accusations have dominated social media and became national news when CNN aired them, overshadowing the tight race between DeMaio and first-term Democratic Rep. Scott Peters. DeMaio would be the first openly gay Republican to campaign and win a seat in Congress if he beats Peters.
Both candidates are former San Diego city councilmen, and their contest is considered one of the few pure congressional toss-ups. At least $10 million has poured into the race.
Harper’s allegations almost assure that the issue of workplace sexual harassment will remain in the spotlight through Election Day.
Harper told KPBS he didn't tell anyone right away about what he said had happened in the restroom and has not talked to the police.
About a month ago, he said he told his then-girlfriend, Alison Rentschler, about what he says DeMaio did. She had also worked for the DeMaio campaign but had been fired a few months earlier. Harper said Rentschler told other people, including Bosnich.
Harper’s name has circulated among news outlets ever since Bosnich’s story first aired on CNN on Oct. 10, but he was unwilling to come forward. That’s despite growing pressure from Bosnich over the past few weeks.
On Thursday, Bosnich posted on Twitter that Harper had been "sexually assaulted" by DeMaio. He then forwarded an email chain to several news outlets, including KPBS, that included an email Harper sent on Oct. 11 to the Peters campaign.
“I am a former campaign worker on Carl Demaios [sic] campaign and I wish to talk only to the DCCC or NRCC,” Harper wrote, referring to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee. “Please, I am reaching out because of the incident that happened to me.”
The email chain showed that MaryAnne Pintar, chief of staff for the Peters campaign, forwarded Harper’s email to Bosnich. Pintar told KPBS on Friday that she forwarded the email because she was “concerned about this young man.”
“I thought he needed somebody to talk to,” Pintar said.
She said she had been in contact with Bosnich before forwarding him the email from Harper, but Pintar said she could not specify when because of an ongoing FBI investigation. NBC San Diego reported the FBI is investigating threatening emails sent to Bosnich. An FBI spokesman told KPBS he would not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.
Pintar said she had not been in contact with Harper before the email he sent to the Peters campaign.
Harper said he was "pissed" that Bosnich made his name public before he was ready to come forward on his own. KPBS continued to reach out to Harper after Bosnich released his name, and on Saturday received Harper’s permission to use his name with this story.
Harper said after DeMaio exposed himself to him, he left the campaign office without speaking to anyone and went home to his apartment in Oceanside, which he shared with his girlfriend, Rentschler.
"I shut off for two days," he said. "I didn't really do anything for a couple more days. I just stayed in bed."
Rentschler told KPBS she remembers Harper coming home from work and going straight to bed for two days before he quit.
"He didn't want to hang out, he didn't want to talk, he wasn't social," she said.
After two days, on July 12, Harper sent an email to DeMaio's campaign manager, Tommy Knepper, telling him he was quitting the campaign to go back to school.
"It has been an amazing experience working on the campaign since starting as an intern in February," the email read. "However, I need to begin school again in the fall."
Harper said he didn't tell Knepper what had happened and sent an email that was positive about his experience on the campaign because he wanted a recommendation letter.
"I would love to continue volunteering and participating in events!" he wrote. "It would be great to continue to help out when I can."
Harper provided KPBS with Knepper's response, which was sent the next day, July 13.
"Sorry to lose you, but I understand the need for school," Knepper wrote. "If you want to keep coming around and/or work part time I would love to have you still."
On Aug. 8, the campaign forwarded Harper a recommendation letter signed by DeMaio, which Harper provided to KPBS.
"Justin is an absolute pleasure to have around the office," it read. "I know I speak for my staff when I say that she [sic] will be an asset to any organization."
Harper said he grew up in San Diego and Redding, and joined the Navy in 2007. He said he left after five years, and used the GI bill to enroll at Palomar College in San Marcos. He said he was still in school while interning for the campaign.
Harper said after he quit the DeMaio campaign, he moved to Ohio to get away from everyone who worked there. He said he is no longer in school and now works selling insurance.
The tight race between DeMaio and Peters has held national attention ever since DeMaio announced his candidacy in May 2013. DeMaio has campaigned on his work on the City Council reforming pensions and on his socially moderate Republican views, both of which attracted Harper to his campaign.
"He seemed not to be a crazy tea partier," Harper said. "He's not pro pot, but he has moderate stances toward that, toward abortion, but is still fiscally conservative. Kind of like, to put it simply, a libertarian, which I identified as. He matched, so I thought that was perfect."
Harper said he now hopes someone with DeMaio's views is able to get elected but doesn't think DeMaio should hold political office. He said he's still affected by what he says DeMaio did to him.
"Carl was a hero of mine. I liked pension reform, I thought he could possibly change the Republican Party, and now I don't know if it's just a big political game to him," Harper said. "I really don't know what to think except that I had the same thing that (Bosnich) had."
When KPBS told the Peters campaign on Sunday about Harper’s allegations, spokesman Alex Roth declined to comment.
A 10News/U-T San Diego poll released Sunday shows DeMaio and Peters in a statistical tie — 46 percent for DeMaio, 45 percent for Peters and 11 percent undecided.
This story was edited by Lorie Hearn, executive director and editor of inewsource, a KPBS media partner.