One day after her colleague resigned amid sexual harassment allegations, a key state lawmaker on Tuesday proposed moving misconduct investigations out of the Assembly and into the hands of an independent authority.
Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, who led the first in an expected series of hearings on the Assembly’s harassment policies, said the process of handling complaints in-house—with occasional help from outside counsel—leads to mistrust and conflicts.
“I keep coming back to thinking that when you have a built-in incentive to protect your caucus … that it’s very easy to believe that person you know over someone you don’t know,” Friedman said.
“If you’re a first-year legislator and you think to yourself, well maybe this person is in a position of power and I’ll never get a bill through, or a powerful lobbyist will walk in the door and say if you ever want to get money in this town again or you want to get a bill through because I can control other votes—everyone has their pressure point,” Friedman said.
State legislators are reeling amid a storm of harassment accusations made by legislative staffers, lobbyists and private consultants who say a culture of misconduct pervades the Capitol. Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-Arleta, resigned Monday after multiple women accused him of groping and harassing them. Bocanegra said in a Facebook post that while he is “not guilty of any such crimes, I am admittedly not perfect.”
Also on Monday, the Senate Rules Committee stripped Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, of his banking committee chairmanship while sexual harassment allegations made against him by three women are investigated.
Cassandra Ferrannini, a partner in Downey Brand’s Sacramento office, issued a statement Tuesday night saying that Mendoza “is looking forward to the opportunity to vindicate himself through a fair, independent and expeditious process.”
Senate leader Kevin de Leon recently announced his house will retain a private law firm to handle “all current complaints, allegations and open investigations.” The Senate and Assembly have historically handled all sexual harassment complaints in-house with the work overseen by legislative members of each body’s rules committee.
The complaint process can be convoluted and statistics about abuses difficult to find. The Assembly’s chief administrative officer, Debra Gravert, testified Tuesday that her office does not track sexual harassment complaints, only investigations and that by policy the Assembly only retains records for six years.
Gravert also said that in her three-and-a-half years as chief administrator, no one had filed a complaint against an assemblymember. She later acknowledged “we have received complaints” against elected officials.
The Assembly has declined to release details about any financial settlements reached in sexual misconduct cases. Gravert said the Assembly does not require nondisclosure agreements in such settlements, although a lawmaker later pointed out that non-disparagement clauses have been used.
A group of professional women working in and around the Capitol said the complaint process has to change. The women, who have formed the nonprofit We Said Enough, want misconduct investigations moved outside the Legislature. They are also seeking whistleblower protections for staffers and a hotline to field complaints.
“You know who the hotline is [now]? It’s me,” said Christine Pelosi, a state Democratic party official and former prosecutor who is now working with the We Said Enough campaign. Pelosi, the daughter of congressional minority leader Nancy Pelosi, said she’s fielded dozens of calls from staffers and lobbyists with accounts of harassment.
‘We Make an Effort to Scare People’
The Assembly contracts with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe to provide mandated training to employees and lawmakers on sexual harassment laws and policies.
Orrick partner Lauri Damrell told the Assembly committee that the training focuses on educating workers and legislators about basics, such as what constitutes a hostile workplace environment and a quid-pro-quo scenario. The lawyers also warn attendees that they can be held liable for harassing behavior.
“We make an effort to scare people,” Damrell said.
Tosha Cherry, the Assembly’s human resources director, said her office also has Nossaman on retainer for counsel on harassment cases.
Friedman said she wants to hear from “the experts” in future hearings on what form a new independent investigatory body could take—private law firm, ombudsman or inspector general.
“How do we create a totally independent body to look at these [complaints] and to maybe report publicly so … people can be protected and people can’t hit those pressure points of their colleagues?” Friedman said.