In this Sept. 5, 2017 file photo, State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, right, flanked by Secretary of State Alex Padilla, answers questions at a news conference in Sacramento. Rich Pedroncelli AP
In this Sept. 5, 2017 file photo, State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, right, flanked by Secretary of State Alex Padilla, answers questions at a news conference in Sacramento. Rich Pedroncelli AP

Capitol Alert

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Capitol Alert

California Senate hires two firms to investigate sexual harassment complaints

By Taryn Luna

tluna@sacbee.com

October 23, 2017 12:32 PM

UPDATED October 24, 2017 10:40 AM

The California Senate has hired two firms to investigate allegations of a “pervasive culture of sexual harassment in the Capitol community” following the release of a letter signed by hundreds of women last week.

“There’s always more employers can do to protect their employees,” Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León said in a statement. “Everyone deserves a workplace free of fear, harassment and sexual misbehavior and I applaud the courage of women working in and around the Capitol who are coming forward and making their voices heard.”

Adama Iwu, a lobbyist whose own uncomfortable experience ignited a call to end an abuse of power by men in and around the Capitol, said the Senate’s response lacks transparency and doesn’t go far enough. Iwu questioned how the investigator was chosen, the parameters for the probe and how the results will be reported.

“To find the truth and rebuild trust, we need a truly independent investigation, not a secretly hand-picked self-investigation,” said Iwu, who leads the western U.S. government relations program for Visa. “I know for myself I probably would not feel comfortable speaking to an investigator that was hired by the body that employs these people and has previously protected some of the people who do these acts.”

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The Senate’s response follows nearly a week after Iwu and others crafted a letter drawing attention to harassment and assault in political circles. Over 300 women have joined the “We Said Enough” campaign since last Tuesday and told stories of sexual assault and harassment at the hands of lawmakers, lobbyists and other men, while being careful not to directly name anyone.

Iwu said the campaign’s organizers were not consulted about the Senate’s decision before it was announced Monday.

The letter generated criticism of the Legislature’s procedures for handling complaints and, particularly, the lack of a neutral third party to investigate all sexual assault and harassment complaints. Many of the women who have spoken out said they are or were afraid of making formal complaints in fear of professional retribution.

The Senate said it hired the Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer to conduct an external investigation into the recent allegations of sexual harassment and assault, according to the pro tem’s office. CPS HR Consulting, a Sacramento consulting firm, will review the Senate’s harassment, discrimination and retaliation policies and practices.

The Assembly Speaker’s Office has said “serious” complaints lodged in the house are already given to an outside investigator. Senate complaints are handled by the deputy secretary for human resources or a designee. The pro tem’s office said the Senate also has an in-house ombudsman, a lawyer for the ethics committee, who is available to work in the interest of whoever brings forward a complaint.

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.

Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna