California State Capitol

California’s state Senate, ending its role of overseeing sexual harassment complaints internally, is in the market for a law firm.

Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de Leon said the Rules Committee, which he chairs, and the Senate women’s caucus “will work jointly and expeditiously to retain a highly qualified team of counsel and investigators” to oversee “all current complaints, allegations and open investigations.”

That investigation will include recent accusations of inappropriate behavior made by two former staffers against Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia.

“This 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 members of the Senate Rules Committee said in a statement. “While—at the discretion of victims and whistleblowers—names and details might be redacted, the general findings will be made public.”

Adama Iwu, a lobbyist for Visa who helped start the campaign to change the Legislature’s response to harassment complaints, said on Twitter Sunday that the announcement is “a big first step.”

“Waiting to hear more about accountability measures for legislators and protections for those who come forward,” Iwu said, “as well as how leadership in both houses will work to create ONE process for the entire Capitol community.”

Allegations of sexual abuse and harassment have roiled the Capitol community since Oct. 17 when 147 lobbyists, lawmakers and staff—organized as a group called We Said Enough—signed a public letter saying men in power have “groped and touched us without our consent, made inappropriate comments about our bodies and our abilities.” Other statehouses around the country are grappling with complaints of pervasive harassment.

In the nearly four weeks since that letter was published, two assemblymen have been publicly accused of abusing legislative staffers. Last week the Sacramento Bee reported that Mendoza invited a job-seeking Senate fellow to his house to review her resume and to spend the night in his hotel room before a fundraiser. On Saturday, a former Mendoza intern told the Bee the then-assemblyman had invited her to his hotel room at a convention to share drinks when she was 19. Mendoza has denied any wrongdoing in both cases.

Women at the Capitol pressing for change said the process of filing harassment complaints with each legislative house creates an environment that protects lawmakers and leaves complainants open to retaliation. Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, has carried legislation four times to provide whistleblower protections to legislative staffers alleging illegal or unethical behavior. Each bill passed public policy committee hearings only to die without explanation.

After the “We Said Enough” letter was published, de Leon announced the Senate had retained Amy Oppenheimer of the Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer in Berkeley to review the allegations made by the women.

The Senate has declined to disclose its contract with Oppenheimer’s firm or to detail its cost and scope.

De Leon offered no time frame or parameters for retaining a new law firm to handle sexual harassment complaints. The Senate already contracts with San Francisco-based Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani on employment law issues. The Shaw Law Group has also conducted workplace-related investigations for the Legislature.

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