In this Aug. 20, 2014 file photo, Democratic Assemblyman Steve Fox, left, of Palmdale talks to fellow member Chris Holden, a Democrat from Pasadena during a floor session at the Capitol. Randy Pench The Sacramento Bee
In this Aug. 20, 2014 file photo, Democratic Assemblyman Steve Fox, left, of Palmdale talks to fellow member Chris Holden, a Democrat from Pasadena during a floor session at the Capitol. Randy Pench The Sacramento Bee

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Capitol Alert

Harassment claim against California legislator cost taxpayers $100,000

By Alexei Koseff

akoseff@sacbee.com

October 18, 2017 01:31 PM

UPDATED October 23, 2017 12:54 PM

The California Assembly has agreed to pay $100,000 to a former legislative staff member to settle a claim of harassment, discrimination and retaliation against former Assemblyman Steve Fox.

The settlement, which was reached in April, according to a copy obtained by The Sacramento Bee this week, is the second six-figure payout the Assembly has made to someone who worked for Fox. The Palmdale Democrat was elected in 2012 and served one term.

Nancy Kathleen Finnigan, who worked as Fox’s legislative director for about five months, alleged in a 2014 lawsuit that she was fired after complaining to the Assembly about inappropriate behavior by Fox, including that he exposed himself to her at his apartment. She said in an interview Wednesday that her experience demonstrates how the Capitol covers up misconduct and discourages women from coming forward about sexual harassment and abuse.

“My story is a cautionary tale,” Finnigan said. “I basically lost my career at the Capitol, and I lost most of my friends there.”

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An unfolding sexual abuse scandal involving Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has thrust into a national spotlight the problem of the sexist behavior women face in their professional lives. More than 140 women released an open letter yesterday decrying sexual harassment at the Capitol and in California politics.

Finnigan alleged in her lawsuit that Fox improperly required his legislative staff to perform “personal tasks” for him during and after business hours, and that he and his chief of staff, Ann Turtle, fostered an office environment where Finnigan feared “for her safety and that of her co-workers.”

She claimed that she was forced to give Fox “lessons on manners and etiquette.” Once when Fox overslept for an Assembly floor session, she alleged, she went to pick him up at his apartment and found him “with a shirt on, carrying his shoes and tie, but his pants were not zipped or buttoned.” He was “not wearing underwear and exposed himself to” her. Finnigan also reported that “a legislative director from another legislative office” told her Fox was “making unwanted sexual advances toward her and she was very uncomfortable.”

In the settlement, which also allowed Finnigan to purge the termination from her personnel file, the Assembly and Fox “denied and continue to deny” the claims. Fox could not immediately be reached for comment.

Finnigan said “everybody laughed” when she told them about the incident at Fox’s apartment.

“Because of his behavior was never really addressed, and he was getting away with it, his behavior never changed,” she said. “There was no attempt to address this scenario at all.”

She said a lack of whistleblower protections for Capitol staff makes it nearly impossible for women to do anything about sexual misconduct in the workplace. After her initial complaint to the Assembly in April 2013, Finnigan said, she was intimidated and dragged through an extensive legal battle that ultimately lasted four years. She feels as though the Assembly was trying to “silence” her.

“When a woman comes forward, they do listen, and then they become extremely hostile and make it impossible for you to work there,” she said. “Then you’re the bad guy.”

“The most disappointing part of this to me was the women who could have done something about it and didn’t,” Finnigan added, pointing to Turtle, Fox’s female chief of staff, and then-Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, who was chair of the Assembly Rules Committee, where Finnigan made her complaint.

Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat who now serves in the Senate, was one of a half dozen lawmakers to sign the letter about sexual harassment in California politics. She said Finnigan filed her initial complaint against Fox’s chief of staff, not Fox, and it was not a sexual harassment claim.

​The Legislature has a long history of harassment complaints, which generally ended with taxpayer-funded settlements for the accusers. Over the past two decades, at least five have resulted in payouts totaling more than $850,000.

In 2010, the Senate approved a $120,000 settlement involving allegations of sexual harassment against then-Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood, by a former member of his staff. In 2005, the Assembly paid $118,000 to a former staffer who claimed that then-Assemblywoman Rebecca Cohn, D-Saratoga, created a sexually charged and hostile work environment.

In 2002, the Assembly settled for $140,000 with a staff member who charged that then-Assemblyman Lou Papan, D-Millbrae, followed her around at a charity golf tournament and pressured her to remove her sweater in front of other lawmakers. In 1998, the Senate approved a $117,000 payment to an employee who alleged that she was retaliated against for rejecting sexual advances from then-Sen. Richard Polanco, D-Los Angeles. In 1994, the Assembly awarded $360,000 to a former staff member of then-Assemblyman Mickey Conroy, R-Orange, who claimed that he required her to kiss him and rub his back.

See some of the more than half a million #MeToo posts that have taken over Twitter

Women and men alike have taken to social media recently to post "#MeToo" to raise awareness for the number of victims of sexual harassment and assault. People were encouraged to tweet the hashtag if they had been victims of these themselves.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff