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
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

Capitol Alert

The go-to source for news on California policy and politics

Capitol Alert

Senate leader Kevin de León announces new complaint policy, moves out of his house

By Taryn Luna

tluna@sacbee.com

November 12, 2017 08:04 PM

UPDATED November 12, 2017 08:41 PM

The California Senate, its process for addressing complaints against lawmakers under fire, announced Sunday that an outside legal firm will handle all investigations of sexual harassment in the house going forward, shifting some control away from a committee of senators who previously controlled the process.

The Senate Rules Committee said the changes were announced in light of allegations against Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, by two former female employees, which were first reported by The Sacramento Bee. One of the incidents, involving a 23-year-old Sacramento State fellow working in his Capitol office this year, raised questions about the way the Senate Rules Committee responded to allegations about Mendoza’s behavior.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, under mounting pressure to take action, moved out of the house he shares with Mendoza in Natomas on Saturday, according to his press secretary Jonathan Underland. The Bee reported that the fellow told others Mendoza invited her to come to the home in August to go over resumes as she sought a permanent job in his office.

A spokesman for de León, who is challenging U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s 2018 re-election bid, said he was unaware of any allegations involving Mendoza until The Bee approached the pro tem’s office for comment a week ago.

Never miss a local story.

Sign up today for a free 30 day free trial of unlimited digital access.

His denial raised questions. Senate Secretary Daniel Alvarez told The Bee that the committee, which de León chairs, had been investigating Mendoza since Sept. 22.

"This State Senate is a sacred place of public service and it must also be a safe place for everyone who works here,” de León said in a statement with the announcement of the policy changes. “The people who work here and the public we serve must have complete confidence that no public official is above the law or our strict zero-tolerance harassment policies. Those who violate these policies will be held to account - swiftly and justly.”

The Senate will ask anyone coming forward to direct all sexual abuse, assault or harassment allegations and complaints to an outside law firm, according to the pro tem’s office. The outside firm “will investigate any and all allegations and make findings and recommendations to resolve and, where appropriate, discipline,” essentially replacing the prior role of the Senate Rules Committee in the investigation process.

“This process will be designed to protect the privacy of victims and whistleblowers, transparency for the public, and adequate due process for all parties involved,” said the Senate Rules Committee in a statement. “While - at the discretion of victims and whistleblowers - names and details might be redacted, the general findings will be made public.”

The Rules Committee will ultimately act on the recommendations for the final response, according to the pro tem’s office.

The Senate’s Rules Committee and Senate Democratic Women’s Caucus will work together to select legal counsel and investigators, the committee said.

The Capitol has been under intense scrutiny since hundreds of women lobbyists, publicists, lawmakers and legislative employees signed a “We Said Enough” letter calling out a Sacramento political culture they said allows rampant sexual harassment and leaves many women afraid to speak up about their experiences. In response to a public records request by The Bee, the Senate said it investigated 14 complaints of sexual harassment in the last decade.

The women offered suggestions to both houses of the Legislature to reform its harassment policies to ensure that women feel comfortable coming forward with complaints. The recommendations included a confidential hotline to report incidents, independent investigators to review and make determinations on claims, public disclosure of tax money spent on court fees and settlements and laws that protect Capitol workers from retaliation.

Unlike state employees, legislative workers have no civil service protection, and efforts to grant them more workplace rights repeatedly falter.

A bill to provide legislative employees with whistleblower protections for reporting misconduct has died in the Senate the last four years in a row. Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, has refused to discuss its repeated demise in his committee, and de León left an event at the Vatican last weekend without addressing questions about the measure.

Last month de León responded to the “We Said Enough” letter by hiring the Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer, which specialize in investigations into workplace harassment, to launch a probe into incidents that emerged in the press in recent weeks. At the same time, the Senate said it also hired CPS HR Consulting to review its harassment, discrimination and retaliation polices and practices.

A coalition of women behind the letter criticized the Senate’s approach for not going far enough and lacking transparency regarding how the findings would be publicly reported, among other concerns.

Sources allege that Mendoza invited a fellow over to his house on at least two occasions to go over her resume and suggested she stay in his hotel room before an early morning fundraiser this year. The Senate fired three employees who knew about the situation, and sources said at least two had reported that Mendoza engaged in inappropriate behavior. The Senate denied any connection between the firings and the complaints.

Another woman, Jennifer Kwart, said Mendoza’s office invited her to attend the California Democratic Party convention in San Jose in 2008. She was 19 and interning in the then-assemblyman’s Norwalk office.

Kwart assumed other employees were attending, but arrived to Mendoza picking her up alone from the airport and driving her back to a hotel suite. He suggested they drink from the mini-bar in the suite and asked her personal questions about her dating habits, she said. Feeling uncomfortable, she said, she pretended her grandfather suffered a stroke and left the convention early.

At least two of the 118 other lawmakers currently serving in the California Legislature have spoken out against Mendoza.

Kwart, now 28, works for Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco. Chiu posted a statement on Facebook Saturday night standing up for Kwart and calling her a “professional of utmost integrity.”

“Coupled with recent allegations and continued denials, I have serious doubts about whether the Senator should continue to serve in public office,” Chiu wrote.

Chiu follows Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who on Thursday said she would no longer work with Mendoza.

"The culture of harassment and the code of silence surrounding it have plagued this Capitol for too long - and it's time for us to acknowledge that a system can't protect victims and witnesses if victims and witnesses can't trust the system,” the Senate Women’s Caucus said in a statement.

Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna