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