In this Sept. 5, 2017 photo, State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, answers questions at a news conference in Sacramento, Calif. Rich Pedroncelli AP
In this Sept. 5, 2017 photo, State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, answers questions at a news conference in Sacramento, Calif. Rich Pedroncelli AP

Capitol Alert

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Capitol Alert

Senate to begin interviewing law firms to probe sexual harassment

By Taryn Luna

tluna@sacbee.com

December 04, 2017 06:00 AM

UPDATED 1 MINUTE AGO

A California Senate panel charged with hiring a legal firm to investigate sexual harassment allegations will interview lawyers for the job in closed door meetings beginning Monday.

“The panel will have broad discretion, and we anticipate this process will produce a highly-qualified firm of statewide stature that is among the best in its profession, expert in the field of workplace harassment, and completely independent from this Senate,” said Senate President Kevin de León’s office in a statement on Friday.

De León’s staff said the panel will ultimately determine the criteria for the law firm and previously said it “should have no prior existing professional or political relationship with the State Senate or individual Senators.”

There is no specific timeline for the panel, but the pro tem’s office had said it hoped a firm would be selected by mid-December. De León is not on the panel.

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The pro tem’s office said the firm will be paid with “existing funds” likely through a one- or two-year contract. The pro tem’s office did not answer a question about the source of the existing funds.

De León announced changes to the Senate’s process for investigating sexual harassment three weeks ago in response to misconduct allegations against Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia.

Allegations from Senate employees were previously directed to staff members of the Senate Rules Committee. Workers for the committee were also tasked with leading subsequent investigations, although the upper house has declined to provide details about its policy for conducting probes.

De León and the Rules Committee said an outside firm would handle all allegations and investigations going forward. Until the firm is selected, which is expected by mid-December, the Senate has directed all initial complaints to Amy Oppenheimer, an employment law attorney previously hired to investigate allegations raised in the “We Said Enough” letter signed by women in the Capitol community.

Shortly after The Bee published a story about the Assembly establishing a confidential hotline for victims to report harassment last week, the pro tem’s office said it set up a hotline as well. The pro tem’s office provided a memo that Secretary of the Senate Daniel Alvarez sent Senate staff members that included Oppenheimer’s email and cellphone number.

De León’s office previously said the pro tem worked in coordination with the Women’s Caucus and Senate Rules Committee to select a six-member panel to interview firms. Democratic Sens. Toni Atkins, Connie Leyva and Bill Monning will serve on the panel alongside Republican Senate Leader Patricia Bates. Lobbyist Christy Bouma, Legislative Counsel of California Diane Boyer Vine and Secretary of the Senate Daniel Alvarez were also appointed to the panel.

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Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna