California Senate Pro Tem Kevin de León asked Sen. Tony Mendoza to step away from his position in the Legislature Thursday as law firms investigate three separate misconduct allegations against the Artesia Democrat.
“I have spoken with Sen. Mendoza and I have asked him to take a leave of absence pending the outcome of that investigation,” de León said early Thursday. “Given the severity of the allegations against Sen. Mendoza, I do not believe he can perform the duties in Sacramento right now.”
A lawyer for Mendoza said later in the day that the senator refused to comply with the request.
“I was not appointed to the position I hold but was elected by the voters in my district,” Mendoza said in a statement. “The Senate owes them an opportunity to hear the truth. I assure them that I will vigorously defend myself to clear my name.”
Mendoza said he was disappointed that senators want him to resign without “giving me an opportunity to defend myself.”
De León also said law firms will investigate complaints against Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, accused this week by three female colleagues of making them uncomfortable with hugs and, in some instances, not stopping when asked. He said he would not ask Hertzberg to step down now.
De León made the comments at his first Sacramento press conference since more than 140 women signed a letter published on Oct. 17 decrying a toxic culture at the Capitol. Women in politics said they do not feel comfortable sharing their experiences for fear of retaliation, which generated widespread criticism of the Legislature’s response to allegations against lawmakers and employees.
The pro tem held the press conference to announce that the Senate hired two California law firms to investigate all future allegations of sexual abuse, assault and harassment. De León said the Senate is also working with WEAVE, a Sacramento nonprofit, to provide confidential support services for survivors. The law firms and WEAVE worked together to set up a confidential hotline for victims to report sexual harassment.
“We want to make sure that this is a place where there is equity and justice for all women, for all employees, men and women,” de León said. “This is an opportunity to really change the culture for this legislative body in many ways.”
The Senate leader pledged to change how the house investigates sexual harassment, abuse and assault allegations in November after The Bee reported stories about Mendoza involving three women who worked in his offices.
One of the stories raised questions about how employees of the Senate Rules Committee, previously responsible for investigating sexual harassment claims, handled an allegation that Mendoza invited home a 23-year-old woman seeking a job in his office.
The Senate leader said he asked Mendoza to take a temporary leave during a phone call on Thursday morning, more than a month after The Bee reported the allegations involving the fellow. Secretary of the Senate Daniel Alvarez has said Senate employees began investigating the first allegation in late September, but Mendoza said he had not been contacted as of Nov. 6, when he learned of the complaint from a reporter.
De León said Thursday the independent law firms will now handle the investigation.
Mendoza was stripped of his committee posts late last month.
De León, who shared a home with Mendoza in Sacramento until last month, said Thursday that he never witnessed any inappropriate behavior.
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He did not answer a question about whether he would ask the Senate to vote to expel Mendoza if the senator declined to comply. He expects the investigation into Mendoza to conclude early next year.
Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, said he intended to introduce a resolution to permanently remove Mendoza when the Legislature returns early next month.
“Many of us have been waiting for Sen. Mendoza to do the right thing and resign, but that has not happened,” Vidak said in a statement. “The Senate Democrat leadership has failed in their responsibility to request that Mendoza resign.”
One of the firms the Senate hired is Sacramento-based Van Dermyden Maddux, which conducts workplace investigations on behalf of employers, according to its website. The other, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, is a global firm founded in Los Angeles that says it represents the majority of Fortune 100 and more than half of Fortune 500 companies.
A seven-member panel that included Democratic Sens. Toni Atkins, Connie Leyva, Holly Mitchell and Bill Monning, Republican Senate Leader Patricia Bates, Lobbyist Christy Bouma, Legislative Counsel of California Diane Boyer Vine and Alvarez interviewed and selected the law firms.
“We understand that sometimes in male dominated arenas, when men are in power, or when men perceive their power as unchecked, that harassment takes place,” Mitchell said. “Please know that we will continue to work in addition to what you’ve heard about today to prevent harassment and create a culture in which women are valued, women are perceived as equals and that employees have mutual respect of each other within the confines of the Senate family.”
Mitchell said the panel considered perceived internal or external bias, experience representing public entities, presence across the state, understanding of the culture of the Legislature and competence and expertise when weighing eight firms that were interviewed for the job.
The pro tem’s office previously said the firms “should have no prior existing professional or political relationship with the state Senate or individual Senators.”
Lawyers at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher have given nearly $95,000 in contributions to California candidates, ballots measures and other committees in the last five years, according to the Secretary of State’s website. The firm’s employees have given $16,945 to Senate candidates, including contributions to sitting Sens. John Moorlach, Scott Wiener, Henry Stern, Ben Allen, Bob Wieckowski and Hertzberg.
De León said he was not aware of the contributions, but has confidence that the firms will be “fair and judicious” to victims. Dan Reeves, de León’s chief of staff, later said the lawyers who contributed to senators will not participate in the investigations.
The Senate leader described the house’s actions as unprecedented, calling it the “most far reaching overhaul” of sexual harassment policies for any legislative body in the country. The Senate engaged with stakeholders, including the campaign of women that crafted the letter, and is working to implement their suggested changes.
The Senate will also conduct a series of hearings to examine the state’s legal standards surrounding sexual harassment across all industries.
“As the leader of the senate, I’ve been humbled by this experience,” de Leòn said. “I’ve done my own deep self-reflection and I have wondered if I also contributed or been complicit collectively as men to this type of dynamic.”
We Said Enough, the women’s anti-harassment campaign, fired back on Twitter, saying its leaders had not spoken with the pro tem or his team.
The group said the law firm’s contributions to sitting senators created “a continued perception of a conflict of interest.”