By Laurel Rosenhall | CALmatters
Four current lawmakers, two former lawmakers and a dozen legislative employees are named in a trove of records the California Legislature released late last week showing substantiated cases of sexual harassment over the last decade.
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The records show that the Capitol’s human resources staff affirmed complaints against state Sens. Bob Hertzberg and Tony Mendoza, both Democrats from the Los Angeles area, as well as Assembly members Travis Allen, a Republican from Huntington Beach who is running for governor, and Autumn Burke, a Democrat from Marina Del Rey.
The elected officials engaged in a range of behavior, the documents say, including tight hugs, raunchy office banter and flirtatious text messages that made employees feel uncomfortable. The legislative staff members are described as harassing others by hugging and groping, showing porn on their government computers, talking about sex, calling them vulgar names and in one case, asking an employee to wear sheer pantyhose.
In several cases employees were fired after the complaints were investigated. In other cases they were temporarily suspended from work or issued a warning letter. The discipline of elected lawmakers, however, was different: typically a talking-to by legislative administrators.
Victims advocates were quick to point out that the records hardly paint a complete picture of the longstanding problem of sexual harassment in the state Capitol. Many people may never file an official complaint in the first place, and the records released were restricted to those concerning elected lawmakers and high-level staff. Complaints against employees who are not supervisors were not included, nor were complaints that were filed but not substantiated. The records do not include cases currently being investigated: six in the Senate and eight in the Assembly.
Still, the release of roughly 100 pages of internal records marked a highly unusual break from the Legislature’s long tradition of shielding such information. It came following intense pressure from the press amid a global movement by women who are fed up with sexual harassment and assault.
“With the release of these documents, the Senate and Assembly are united in declaring sexual harassment in the Capitol will not be tolerated and will be met with severe consequences,” Democratic Senate leader Kevin de León said in a statement.
Women leading the charge against sexual harassment in the Capitol had mixed reactions. We Said Enough—a group of lobbyists and political professionals that formed after nearly 150 women signed a letter in the fall complaining of rampant sexual harassment in California politics—said the records release “falls dramatically short of a comprehensive or transparent release of information.”
“The selective release of data related only to certain individuals serves only to further erode the trust that so many victims and survivors hoped to rebuild,” the group said in a statement.
The lawmakers who lead the Legislature’s women’s caucus gave it a warmer reception.
“With this information comes the ability to act and uphold the zero tolerance policies of both the Senate and Assembly that have not always been followed,” said the statement from the caucus leaders, Democrats Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia of Bell Gardens and Senator Connie Leyva of Chino. “More importantly, transparency will foster an environment that enables the culture change we must have in our Capitol community where harassment of any kind is not tolerated or excused for any reason. This release is an important necessary next step so that we can create a workplace and society where everyone is valued and respected equally without fear of abuse or retaliation.”
The records show this about the conduct of elected officials:
Although he is now a state senator, the 2010 complaint stems from Mendoza’s time as an assemblyman. The records describe him hugging a subordinate, sending her flirtatious text messages and inviting her out for dinner and drinks. The Assembly administrator at the time told him not to be so cozy with his staff.
Mendoza is currently on a leave of absence while the Senate investigates other harassment accusations against him, including more recent allegations that he invited a young staffer to his house late at night.
The senator has denied any wrongdoing. He released a statement Friday saying the staff member who complained about him when he was an assemblyman “remained on staff without any issues in my Capitol office until the end of my term in 2012. We have remained in touch since and, in fact, I provided her with a letter of recommendation as recently as summer 2017.”
The records say that while discussing paint colors in his office in 2015, Hertzberg pulled an employee close to him and “began to dance and sing a song to her.” Hertzberg—long known as “Hugsberg”—is currently under investigation by the Senate for other instances of unwelcome hugging. In response to the information released on Friday, he said it was “a settled matter from several years ago, (involving) a single occurrence with a family member of someone I knew, and I’m sorry to her and anyone else who may have ever felt my hugs unwelcome.”
The records describe three incidents when a female staffer complained about the assemblyman, including for giving her shoulders a squeeze and sliding his foot close to hers under a table. Allen, a Republican candidate for governor, blasted the records release as a “political attack by a Democrat-led committee.”
“I’m sure I’ve shaken many people’s hands, tapped many people on the shoulder, and have even tapped people’s feet accidentally. But there has never been anything in any of my actions that has been inappropriate, and nor will there ever be,” Allen said in a statement.
The records say Assemblywoman Burke admitted participating in an inappropriate conversation with a staffer about sex. She responded Friday with a statement saying it was “an after-hours conversation in which my staff member shared a personal story about his experiences as a young gay man with me and a group of co-workers.”
She went on to say that the complaint about the conversation came from a “disgruntled former staff member who participated in the conversation” and was angry over being fired.
The complaints concerning two former lawmakers concern incidents that have been reported in the past:
The 2009 complaint stems from Bocanegra’s time as a chief of staff to an assemblyman, though he went on to be elected to the Legislature in 2012. The records describe an incident previously reported by the Los Angeles Times, in which investigators determined that Bocanegra groped a staffer while they were at a political function at a nightclub. He was suspended from work for three days, the records say, and told to no longer talk to that staff member.
Bocanegra resigned from office in November after more women came forward with allegations that he had groped and harassed them, accusations he denies.
The 2011 complaint against Wright says he used “coarse and vulgar” language when talking with employees, an allegation he did not deny, the records state. The records say his conduct did not meet the legal definition of harassment but that it “contradicts the important policies and practices of this House.” The Senate paid a $120,000 settlement to an employee who complained about Wright’s behavior.
Wright left office in 2014 facing criminal charges that he had lied about his address while running for office to represent the Inglewood area while he actually lived in the swankier area of Baldwin Hills.
The records about Fox, who served one term as an assemblyman from 2012 to 2014, are different from the rest. They are legal settlements in which the Assembly agreed to pay two staffers who sued him for harassment, but did not admit he did anything wrong. The Assembly paid out $100,000 in one case and $125,000 in the other.
Ben Christopher of CALmatters contributed to this report. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.
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