California Senate leader Kevin de León wants to strip Sen. Tony Mendoza of his leadership positions as an outside firm investigates misconduct allegations against the Artesia Democrat.
De León will ask the five-member Senate Rules Committee he heads to strip Mendoza’s chairmanship of the powerful Insurance, Banking and Financial Institutions Committee and his membership on other boards and commissions at an emergency session later this month.
“Like many in our Caucus, I’m deeply troubled by the quantity and specificity of accusations against Senator Mendoza – and have therefore determined that Senator Mendoza should be suspended from Chairmanships, boards and commissions until the independent investigation into his conduct is complete,” de León said in a statement.
Mendoza issued a statement Friday night, saying “I understand the decision to temporarily suspend me from certain Senate appointments until the investigation is complete serves to eliminate any perception of favoritism or bias. I remain optimistic that the process will be fair, independent and transparent, and upon the conclusion of the investigation, I expect to be vindicated from these unsubstantiated accusations.”
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The Senate leader announced his intentions the day after The Sacramento Bee reported about a third woman alleging that Mendoza behaved inappropriately toward her when she worked as a legislative aide in his Assembly office in 2010. Mendoza is facing similar allegations involving two other women, one of whom served as a Senate fellow in his office this year. The third was a 19-year-old intern in his Assembly office in 2008.
The allegations involving the fellow raised questions about how the Senate investigates complaints and prompted de León to make policy changes over the weekend. Last week, de León also moved out of the Sacramento home he shared with Mendoza. Sacramento State officials on Wednesday said they had put David Pacheco, who oversees the fellows program for the university, on indefinite leave.
The Rules Committee announced Sunday that its internal staff would no longer handle sexual harassment, abuse or assault complaints in response to the Mendoza allegations. All sexual harassment, assault and abuse allegations will be reviewed and investigated by an outside law firm that will publicly report its findings, although names and details may be redacted. The firm will make recommendations to resolve and discipline those involved, the committee said. The committee will ultimately determine the appropriate course of action.
At the time, the committee pledged to work with women legislators in the house to “jointly and expeditiously to retain a highly qualified team of counsel and investigators to fulfill this obligation.”
On Friday de León said the panel that will interview and select the law firm to investigate sexual harassment and misconduct complaints will include Democratic Sens. Connie Leyva, Bill Monning and Toni Atkins, and Diane Boyer Vine, the Legislature’s chief lawyer, Secretary of the Senate Daniel Alvarez and Christy Bouma, president of the Institute of Governmental Advocates – an association of Capitol lobbyists
He said the Senate’s internal investigation into the allegations against Mendoza will be transferred once the outside firm is chosen. Until then, he said harassment complaints should be be directed to Amy Oppenheimer, an employment law attorney the Senate previously hired.
The California Legislative Women’s Caucus, which includes all 26 women serving in the state Legislature, had requested the Senate and Assembly take a unified approach to addressing sexual harassment in the Capitol and make sweeping bicameral policy changes. The Assembly has said all complaints against lawmakers are handled by a third party investigator.
The statement from de León said the Senate agrees with the caucus. He said the Senate and Assembly have already committed to conduct a survey of all its employees and members, with publicly reported results.
“While the Senate must act now to bring independence, protection of victims and due process to current complaints, we also endorse the comprehensive reform objectives of the Legislative Women’s Caucus,” the Senate president pro tem said in a statement. “I believe we must create a two-house process and that we should immediately pass reforms when the Legislature is next in session, including a bill to protect legislative employees from retaliation.”
The state Capitol has been swept up in the sexual harassment controversy taking place all over the country in the aftermath of allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. More than 300 women lobbyists, publicists, lawmakers and legislative employees have added their names to a “We Said Enough” open letter that drew widespread attention to problems in California politics last month.
Many women have shared their experiences with sexual harassment and assault publicly. Few name the men who mistreated them in fear of retaliation. At least two sitting lawmakers, Mendoza and Assembly member Raul Bocanegra, have been accused of misconduct against women working in the Capitol.
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Sources allege that Mendoza invited the Senate fellow, a 23-year-old woman, over to his house on at least two occasions to review résumés, including her own, for an open position in his office. He also suggested she stay in his hotel room before an early morning fundraiser on another occasion, sources said.
Sacramento State has said it is investigating allegations about Pacheco involving the fellow. According to sources and communications reviewed by The Bee, the fellow told Pacheco about her interactions with Mendoza and he advised her to wait and see what happens. He told her Mendoza may be looking for staff and she could be considered. Pacheco’s boss at Sacramento State’s Center for California Studies 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. Pacheco has declined to comment.
At least two workers in the Capitol reported Mendoza’s behavior to Rules Committee staff members, according to sources. Rules Committee employees have historically logged and investigated complaints against legislative employees and lawmakers.
Danny Alvarez, secretary of the Senate, said Mendoza has been under investigation by Rules Committee employees since Sept. 22 – the day three workers in his office were fired. At the same time, a spokesman for the pro tem said de León had no knowledge of the allegations against Mendoza. De León is the chair of the committee.
Mendoza himself has criticized the Senate Rules Committee process for addressing complaints as “opaque and unjust.”
He said he was unaware of “any hint of any concerns” about his behavior until The Bee reached him earlier this month. He said the committee directed him to refer all press inquiries to Rules, which has not provided him with any information about the allegations against him.
Mendoza won a seat in the 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.
Women who have experienced or seen sexual harassment in the Capitol are speaking out, but many fear the consequences of telling their stories. Emily ZentnerThe Sacramento Bee