California Lawmakers Have Enabled Culture Of Sexual Harassment

CapitolThe issue of sexual harassment has jumped to the forefront of public discourse in a relatively short period of time, with revelations about alleged sexual misconduct ranging from the inappropriate to the illegal.

The accusations have flown from the studios of Hollywood to the halls of Congress, from film executive Harvey Weinstein to longtime television news personality Charlie Rose; from National Public Radio news chief Michael Oreskes to Senator Al Franken (D-MN); from Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) to Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore.

With each passing day, more stories are coming out, and the California State Capitol, while a relative side-show compared to some of the more newsworthy persons dominating national politics, has been turned on its head.

In mid-October, a bipartisan group of more than 140 women – lawmakers, lobbyists and consultants – signed a letter calling attention to pervasive sexual harassment in California politics. Since that time, two California state legislators – Senator Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia) and Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima) — have been embroiled in scandal, with multiple women coming forward making scathing accusations about each.

In the case of the former, Mendoza has denied allegations. Senate President Kevin DeLeon (D-Los Angeles) recently suspended Mendoza’s chairmanship of the powerful State Senate Banking Committee, pending further investigation. With regards to Bocanegra, he has admitted wrongdoing. Facing increasing scrutiny, he has announced that he will be resigning from the legislature – albeit on an arbitrary date he picked in September of next year. Assembly Speaker Rendon (D-South Gate) has removed him from his leadership position, and his committee assignments.

I won’t take the time in this column to detail the specific allegations against both, but suffice it to say they paint an alarming picture of a culture in the State Capitol that has been permissive of such bad behavior, or worse. One can assume that this will only snowball in the coming weeks and months, as more revelations occur. (For example, DeLeon, it has been revealed, was roommates in Sacramento with Mendoza, moving out just days ago – which is significant in that accusations against Mendoza include inappropriate activities taking place in his residence).

The California legislature, however, has taken steps to make sure that the permissive culture of sexual harassment would thrive – embracing the idea that that legislators not only make the law, but are above the law.

For decades, the only way that someone who was harassed or abused could bring it to anyone’s attention would have been to go to legislative leadership – never mind the obvious conflict of interest there. What legislative remedies have been pursued by some have been bottled up in committees. A great example is legislation pursued for years in a row by Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez (R-Temecula) to protect whistleblowers who report unethical or inappropriate behavior. It has never made it to the Governor’s desk.  It should come as no surprise that laws were passed giving all other state government employees whistleblower protection, but the legislature was exempt.

Speaking of exemptions, the Los Angeles Times put in a request for details on any formal investigations of allegations of sexual abuse on the legislature. It received a brief summary indicating that in the last decade there have been 31 such investigations — 15 in the State Senate and 16 in the State Assembly – but the legislature has refused to provide any more detail, and is not obliged to provide any more detail.  That is because the California legislature exempted itself from the Public Records Act, which applies to the rest of state government.

There are some actions that the governor and legislature can take to try to regain some credibility here, and try to end Sacramento’s toxic culture. And while Democrats in the Capitol control all of the levers of state government – and are the only ones that can create laws in a partisan fashion – Republicans have the bully pulpit and can publicly call for Governor Jerry Brown to call a special legislative session to deal with this issue immediately.  In the special session, the legislature should send several bills to Brown for his signature, including:

  • A bill to establish that a law enforcement agency (perhaps the California Highway Patrol) has jurisdiction over investigations of allegations of sexual harassment in the Capitol. The idea is to put someone in charge of such investigations who is not beholden to legislators.
  • The Melendez whistleblower protection bill that has been shoved into a legislative drawer for years.
  • A bill to make sure that the legislature is subject to the California Public Records Act, like every other part of state government.

Finally, there should be a formal investigation into DeLeon’s friendship with his now-former roommate, Senator Mendoza. Perhaps DeLeon’s position should even be suspended pending the outcome.

The idea that DeLeon, as Chairman of the Rules Committee (made up of Democrats and Republicans who are his hand-picked choices), is going to clean up the Senate’s act lacks credulity.

Jon Fleischman is the Politics Editor for Breitbart California.  His columns appear on this page. You can follow him on Twitter here.

This article was originally published by Breitbart California

Outside legal firm tasked with investigating sexual harassment at state Capitol

CapitolSACRAMENTO – Will a newly announced set of Senate rules for handling sexual harassment claims help change a Capitol culture that some blame for fostering the current sexual harassment scandal?

Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, announced this week that all harassment investigations in his chamber will be handled by an outside legal firm. De Leon also announced that he was moving out of a house he shared with Sen. Tony Mendoza, the Artesia Democrat who is the latest legislator accused of inappropriate behavior.

California’s state government has been dealing with a sexual harassment scandal after 140 influential women who have worked in and around the Capitol published an open letter in mid-October stating that they have “endured, or witnessed or worked with women who have experienced some form of dehumanizing behavior by men with power in our workplaces.”

Signed by six sitting legislators, the letter decried such behavior “in a state that postures itself as a leader in justice and equality.” The California Legislative Women’s Caucus was even more pointed, as its statement alleged “a lack of accountability and remorse” and a “pervasive culture of sexual harassment within California politics.” The statement claimed that “the Legislature’s own zero-tolerance policies are not enforced.”

A couple of prominent legislators have been caught up in the scandal. First, longtime Capitol staffer Elise Flynn Gyore said that she was treated like “prey” and then groped by Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-Pacoima, in 2009, when he was a staffer. The Assembly Rules Committee investigated and disciplined Bocanegra, but didn’t release the details to a group of 11 women who sought such information when he was running for office with widespread party backing.

Bocanegra recently has apologized for the incident, but the details raise questions about an institution that some people say values secrecy over accountability. It’s also led to criticism of Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat known for her strong stance for women’s rights, who chaired the Assembly Rules Committee at the time of the incident. KPIX-TV in the Bay Area contacted one of the women who signed the letter asking for the file on the harassment complaint, but she said that “Nancy Skinner never responded to their request.”

Now Mendoza is in the spotlight. Southern California Public Radio reported that Mendoza “fired three employees after they reported his alleged inappropriate behavior toward a young female colleague, according to an attorney representing one of the staffers.”

Mendoza denies the allegations and apologized if he “ever communicated or miscommunicated anything that made an employee feel uncomfortable.” He also says the firings were based on work performance. The Sacramento Bee broke the news this week about allegations from a second intern. She claims that Mendoza took her to his hotel suite at the California Democratic Party convention and acted inappropriately toward her. Mendoza’s spokesperson told the Bee that that the woman’s recounting of what took place was “completely false.”

And the Senate president has received criticism, with some “wondering how de Leon – who chairs the Senate committee that investigates allegations of sexual harassment – could have been unaware of the reports and investigation into his roommate,” reported the San Jose Mercury News. De Leon denies knowing anything about the reports.

The scandal comes against the backdrop of Alabama’s Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who is facing sexual misconduct allegations – a nationally publicized story that’s being depicted by Moore and some of his supporters as a “witch hunt.” And, of course, sexual harassment allegations have been roiling the entertainment industry.

For California political observers, the big questions are whether the Capitol has fostered an insular environment that promotes, or at least tolerates, sexual misbehavior – and whether de Leon’s new rules have a chance of fixing that situation.

Specifically, the new approach will remove the Senate Rules Committee from dealing with harassment allegations. “Instead, an independent outside legal team will investigate any and all allegations and make findings and recommendations to resolve and, where appropriate, discipline,” according to the committee’s statement this week. “The Senate’s Rules Committee and Senate Democratic Women’s Caucus will work jointly and expeditiously to retain a highly qualified team of counsel and investigators to fulfill this obligation.”

The committee stated that the process “will be designed to protect the privacy of victims and whistleblowers, transparency for the public, and adequate due process for all parties involved.” The “general findings will be made public” even if some names and details will be withheld based on the discretion of “victims and whistleblowers.” This will apply to all current complaints. The committee has also asked the women’s caucus to make recommendations for reform and has retained a human-resources consulting firm to review its policies.

Yet some critics believe that by bringing in an outside legal firm that this could establish attorney-client privilege and shield key facts from the public. But others believe the rules will help Capitol staffers, who are at-will hires who can be fired for any reason, to feel more comfortable lodging a complaint. “The short-range plan is to pull this out of the current system where people really don’t feel their complaints will be handled appropriately,” Sen. Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, told Capital Public Radio. She is on the rules committee.

Even if the new process succeeds in dealing more forthrightly with particular harassment claims, it might just be the first step in dealing with broader problems within the Capitol.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com