Gibson Dunn partner Benjamin Wagner, a former U.S. attorney

The California Senate has retained a Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher team led by former federal prosecutor Benjamin Wagner to investigate sexual harassment complaints against senators, the state Senate president said Thursday.

Gibson Dunn will work with Sacramento-based Van Dermyden Maddux Law Corp. and that firm’s senior partner, Deborah Maddux, on the two-year contract. The firms will field complaints from a newly established telephone hotline and an online portal, investigate allegations and report their findings to the Senate Rules Committee.

The hiring of the law firms follow weeks of public sexual harassment allegations made by lobbyists and staffers against sitting legislators. Two Democratic Assembly members, Raul Bocanegra and Matt Dababneh, announced their resignations amid accusations of misconduct. Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, has denied similar harassment allegations.

Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, said Thursday that he’s asked Mendoza to take a leave of absence pending the outcome of an investigation that the Gibson Dunn team will conduct. Mendoza, he said, has not decided if he will, de Leon said.

“This is an opportunity to change the culture of the institution in many ways,” said de Leon, flanked at a press conference by Wagner, Maddux and the leader of a regional victims-of-violence support organization that has also been retained by the Senate to offer services.

A Senate-appointed committee chose the Gibson Dunn team from a field of eight firms that applied for the job.

Details of the contract are still being worked out, and de Leon declined to say whether he will release additional information about the agreement, including what the firms will be paid. He also would not commit to making public any of their findings.

Gibson Dunn partners have been occasional donors to California politicians in recent years. State records show firm partners have contributed to at least seven sitting legislators, including de Leon, since January 2014. Rachel Brass, a partner in the San Francisco office who will be working with Wagner on the Senate investigation, has given $500 to the campaign of Sen. Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco, since 2015.

The group We Said Enough, a coalition of staffers, lawmakers and lobbyists who started the effort to change Capitol harassment policies and enforcement in October, said in a statement that hiring “a firm that is a large contributor to sitting senators,” creates the perception of a conflict of interest.

“Additionally, taxpayer dollars will be used to pay for this firm, creating further conflicts,” the group said.

When the Senate Rules Committee announced in November that it would hire independent counsel to investigate harassment allegations, it said that the winning firm would have no connections to the Senate. Asked about Gibson Dunn’s contributions on Thursday, de Leon said it was “the first time I’ve heard of this.” De Leon said he has “the utmost confidence” that the firm will be “fair and judicious” in its work.

Wagner, who served as the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California during the Obama administration, said that given Gibson Dunn’s large size it’s not surprising some partners have contributed to California legislators.

“Nobody on this team is going to be giving contributions to anyone,” he said.

Wagner became partner-in-charge at Gibson Dunn’s Palo Alto office in August 2016. Maddux formerly worked as counsel to the University of California and an attorney for the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission.

The Senate earlier retained The Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer in Berkeley to review sexual harassment claims against its members after some lobbyists and staffers complained that the Legislature’s process for handling such complaints in-house was inherently unfair. Oppenheimer’s work will be forwarded to the Gibson Dunn team, de Leon said.

Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, who served on the committee that selected Gibson Dunn, said Oppenheimer’s work mainly focused on advising the Rules Committee on harassment policy issues.

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, who chairs the Judiciary Committee said Thursday she will convene a series of hearings on sexual harassment. The first, in January, will consider whether California’s “severe or pervasive” standard for proving harassment “sets an unrealistic bar” for victims, she said.

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