State Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, left, talks with Sen. Ted Gaines, R-El Dorado Hills, during the Senate session on May 30, 2017. Rich Pedroncelli AP
State Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, left, talks with Sen. Ted Gaines, R-El Dorado Hills, during the Senate session on May 30, 2017. Rich Pedroncelli AP

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Capitol Alert

She wanted a job and said California senator invited her home. He fired aides who knew.

By Taryn Luna

tluna@sacbee.com

November 09, 2017 11:59 AM

UPDATED November 10, 2017 04:25 PM

California Sen. Tony Mendoza repeatedly invited home a young woman who wanted a job and employs a district director with a felony record, according to several sources who confirmed reports to the Senate Rules Committee.

Mendoza fired three aides as allegations were reported to the committee. Senate officials late Thursday vehemently denied any connection.

Multiple sources told The Sacramento Bee that Mendoza, D-Artesia, invited the young woman back to his place to review resumes, including hers, on the night of a party at the nightclub Mix Downtown. The woman worked as a fellow in his office through a prestigious Sacramento State program that places graduates in legislative offices for 11 months.

Two of the aides met with Senate Rules Committee staff and detailed allegations that Mendoza engaged in a pattern of inappropriate behavior with the fellow, according to a source and a document reviewed by The Bee. At least two of his aides complained about the way Mendoza’s district director, Ana Perez, treated them. One questioned why she was even working for the Senate given her felony record for lying to a grand jury to cover up campaign finance fraud in Commerce, sources said.

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In written responses to questions about his behavior with the fellow, Mendoza, 46, initially said, “Generally speaking, I would offer assistance to any of our employees seeking higher-ranking positions in ours or other offices.” He said he has an “absolute zero-tolerance policy on workplace harassment.”

When The Bee asked questions about other incidents, Mendoza replied, “I would never knowingly abuse my authority nor intentionally put an employee into an awkward or uncomfortable position. If I’ve communicated or miscommunicated anything that has ever made a female employee feel uncomfortable, then I am deeply embarrassed and I will immediately apologize.”

Mendoza did not answer whether he invited the fellow to his home.

Mendoza also defended the hiring of Perez, saying he believed in “second chances.”

In a statement, Perez called her illegal acts a “huge mistake” and said she has “paid her dues to society.” She expressed gratitude to Mendoza and the Senate for hiring her.

“No words can describe how remorseful I’ve been since – or how committed I am to serving the community that invested so much in me,” she wrote.

California’s Capitol has been steeped in controversy since hundreds of women in October signed a letter decrying sexual harassment in state politics. The accusations come from women lobbyists, lawmakers and staff members who say they’ve experienced harassment and even sexual assault on the job.

Many The Bee contacted declined to name their harasser or detail their experiences publicly fearing doing so would hurt their careers. Others have alleged they were retaliated against after filing formal complaints with the Legislature.

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In the Mendoza case, a source said Rules was notified of the senator’s inappropriate behavior with the fellow prior to the firings. But in a written statement, Secretary of the Senate Daniel Alvarez said, “One complaint by a terminated employee triggered an immediate investigation which has been ongoing since September 22nd. Prior to that date, no allegation was ever made to anyone at Senate Rules regarding misconduct on behalf of the Senator.”

Mendoza said he was not aware of any complaints against him at the time of the firings. He said as of Tuesday, the committee had not called him in for questioning.

The senator said he decided to replace the staff members in an office reorganization based “entirely on work performance.” Yet in late September, a Mendoza spokesman told The Bee the fired staffers were “excellent” employees.

The three aides – chief of staff Eusevio Padilla, legislative director Adriana Ruelas and scheduler Stacey Brown – were fired Sept. 22 and sources said signed confidentiality agreements. Along with the fellow, they declined to comment for this story. The Bee is not naming the fellow because she has not gone public about her experience.

The Bee confirmed details through copies of written communications and sources with knowledge of the situation, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their careers.

If I’ve communicated or miscommunicated anything that has ever made a female employee feel uncomfortable, then I am deeply embarrassed and I will immediately apologize.”

Sen. Tony Mendoza

Co-workers at the Capitol describe the fellow, 23, as smart, ambitious and eager to land a position in the Legislature. Throughout the fellowship, which began in October 2016, sources said she sought a formal meeting with Mendoza to discuss job opportunities in his office.

She did obtain one meeting, but confided in a colleague later that Mendoza said he had not yet had time to review resumes and invited her to his house to help, according to one source.

On Aug. 31, the fellow was attending an event with Mendoza and other staff, the California Latino Capital Association Foundation’s Annual Third House Mixer.

At the event, Mendoza invited her to a second party that night, but she declined, according to a colleague she spoke with that evening.

Later, Mendoza texted a picture of himself and other male legislators from the second event to the fellow, multiple sources said.

Along with that picture, they said he repeated his invitation to join him that night at his house in Natomas, which he shares with Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, to go over resumes. A spokesman for de León on Wednesday said the leader had no knowledge of the allegations against Mendoza.

A week before the invitation, sources said, Mendoza had suggested the fellow could spend the night in his hotel room before an early golf tournament fundraiser at Cache Creek the next day. The fellow sought advice from colleagues, and traveled the next morning instead.

Mendoza denied that he made such an invitation. “Absolutely not,” he wrote.

Multiple sources told The Bee that Mendoza invited the young woman back to his place to review resumes, including hers, on the night of a party at the nightclub Mix Downtown.

The fellow informed David Pacheco, director of the Senate Fellows program, about the senator’s behavior, according to communications obtained by The Bee. The fellow told others Pacheco advised her not to take immediate action to leave the office and said he would speak with Jeannie Oropeza, the head of human resources under the Senate Rules Committee.

Pacheco told her that Mendoza may need staff and she could be an option, she told others, advising her to wait and see what happened.

When reached by phone this week, Pacheco declined to comment and referred questions to the Senate Rules Committee.

Oropeza declined to comment. “All I can say is all personnel matters are confidential,” she said.

Pacheco and the fellows work for Sacramento State, not the Legislature. An associate director of the school’s Center for California Studies, Pacheco has directed the fellows program for more than a decade and previously worked in the Assembly.

Pacheco reports to Steve Boilard, the executive director of the center. Boilard said Pacheco did not report any incidents to him, although university policy requires employees to report any allegation or act of harassment they become aware of.

Boilard said he meets every Monday with the directors of the Capital fellows program and would expect to be informed of an incident within a week after someone came forward.

Kathy Dresslar, former chief of staff to then Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, said supervisors in legislative offices also have a duty to report allegations of sexual harassment to the Rules Committee.

“It’s not just the powerless young person who has a duty here to report, it’s the supervisor that witnessed or heard about it even from secondary sources,” Dresslar said. “You have to follow up on that – as a supervisor that’s your job.”

The fellow spoke with Oropeza on Sept. 25, although how much detail she provided is unclear, according to someone with knowledge of the situation and communications reviewed by The Bee.

The communications showed the fellow said all Oropeza wanted to know was if the fellow was OK, and said they could move her to another office if she didn’t want to work for Mendoza anymore. The fellow indicated that she was OK, and said she just needed to find another job quickly.

At least two of the aides also complained to the Senate Rules Committee about difficulties working with Perez. In the written communications reviewed by The Bee, employees speculated about whether Mendoza would get rid of Perez, who pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy in 2012 related to an illegal campaign finance scheme involving former Commerce City Councilman Robert Fierro and subsequent efforts to cover it up. Perez is Fierro’s sister-in-law and served as his campaign treasurer.

Court records say Perez contributed money to Fierro’s Commerce City Council campaign in 2005 and then accepted cash reimbursements as part of a larger scheme involving others. She later lied in an FBI interview about her involvement, tried to persuade others to lie to a grand jury and falsely testified to the grand jury, all of which Perez admitted as part of a plea agreement. She received three years of probation and six months of home detention as punishment.

Senate payroll records show that Perez earned a monthly salary of $6,578 in October. In her statement to The Bee, she denied knowing “anything even resembling” an allegation that she bullied staff. “If I had, I would have responded to it, reported it to the Senator and sought assistance to resolve any issues.”

In his statement, Mendoza described Perez as a nonviolent first-time offender.

“To her credit, the employee’s prior offense was fully disclosed, she convinced us that she had learned from the mistake made early in her professional life and her work and service on behalf of state taxpayers has been exemplary,” he said. “This is a success story, not something to be criticized.”

Alvarez, in his statement, said that her hiring did not violate employment policy.

“It is highly unusual but, in certain circumstances where a prospective employee is committed to public service and clearly qualified for a position, employers have that discretion,” he said.

The Bee first learned of the departure of Mendoza’s aides in late September and asked his office why they were fired. A spokesman in Los Angeles said the senator received significant new responsibilities this year when the pro tem named him the head of the Insurance, Banking and Financial Institutions Committee in May and assigned him to a budget subcommittee overseeing energy, transportation and the environment.

“What the senator was looking for was having a staff that can help him do the kind of work the pro tem and the caucus wants on these types of assignments,” said Saeed Ali, a senior policy analyst for Mendoza, at the time. “His existing staff is excellent, but he wanted to make a change.”

Of the fired staff, Padilla and Ruelas combined have more than 30 years of experience at the Capitol. Brown has served as a Capitol scheduler for more than a decade. Two of the three aides have since been hired for similar positions at the Capitol.

The Senate Rules Committee gave the workers no reason for ending their employment and cited its legal right to terminate at-will employees at any time, without explanation or prior notice, according to a document reviewed by The Bee. Unlike state employees, legislative workers have no civil service protection. A bill to provide them with whistleblower protection against retaliation has died in the Legislature four years in a row.

After The Bee story appeared online Thursday, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens and chairwoman of the California Legislative Women’s Caucus, said she would no longer work with Mendoza. “It saddens to me to think this young woman depended on multiple people to do the right thing yet she was told to keep her mouth shut,” she said. “This brings further shame to this body.”

Mendoza won a seat representing the 56th district in the state Assembly in 2006 and served six years in the lower house. He was elected to the Senate to represent the newly established 32nd District in 2014. He and his wife, Leticia, have four children.

According to his Senate biography, Mendoza was the first Latino and youngest member of the Artesia City Council at age 25. He became mayor of Artesia, a small southeast Los Angeles city with a population of about 17,000, the next year. He served three terms on the City Council and taught elementary school in East Los Angeles for a decade.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 8 p.m. Nov. 9, 2017 to reflect late-arriving comments from Senate officials.

A look at the #MeToo movement inside California's Capitol

Women who have experienced or seen sexual harassment in the Capitol are speaking out, but many fear the consequences of telling their stories.

Emily Zentner The Sacramento Bee

Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna