California Senate plans outside investigation on harassment

Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- The California Senate announced Monday that it has hired a law firm to investigate sexual harassment allegations as pressure builds for lawmakers to deal more aggressively with what hundreds of women working in and around the Capitol describe as a culture of sexual intimidation. 

No male lawmakers have been accused by name of sexual harassment or assault. But female lobbyists, lawmakers and legislative staffers have offered accounts online and to reporters about men making inappropriate comments, touching them and asking them to perform sex acts.

The Senate has not publicly disclosed how many women officially reported harassment in recent years or how many people were disciplined. The Assembly, meanwhile, has investigated 11 complaints in five years but will not disclose any discipline that followed, said Debra Gravert, chief administrative officer.

In one case, the Assembly paid $100,000 to settle harassment, discrimination and retaliation claims made in 2014 against then-Assemblyman Steve Fox, who an aide said exposed himself and then fired her when she reported his behavior, according to documents from courts and the Legislature.

After sexual harassment and assault allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein roiled Hollywood, the issue came under the spotlight in Sacramento when an online letter that circulated last week outlined rampant sexual harassment at the Capitol. Roughly 300 women have signed it or shared stories.

The Legislature has an opaque system for investigating complaints that shields disclosure of when members are investigated or disciplined. Many women said they don't feel comfortable making complaints out of fear of retaliation, even though the policies in both chambers bar it.

"Even if they, on paper, seem to be saying there's a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment in the Capitol, that is not the feeling that especially women are getting in the Capitol," said Emily Austin, director of advocacy services for the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, a Los Angeles Democrat, said the Senate has hired the Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer to investigate. The firm specializes in conducting investigations of workplace harassment and discrimination, including in government.

The firm will interview all Senate staff members, as well as anyone who worked for the chamber within the past five years, de Leon spokesman Jonathan Underland said.

Underland could not say if the results of the investigation will be made public. The Senate also hired Sacramento-based CPS HRS Consulting to review its policies for investigating harassment, and those recommendations will be released, he said.

"Everyone deserves a workplace free of fear, harassment and sexual misbehavior," de Leon said in a statement that comes as he starts an uphill campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

The Legislature has a history of shielding information related to its own investigations. The Legislative Open Records Act, which lawmakers wrote, exempts them from disclosure, meaning harassment complaints don't become public unless they are made in court or someone involved discloses them.

Lawmakers have passed up repeated opportunities to strengthen protections for those who report harassment before fresh allegations came to light.

Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, a Republican from the city of Lake Elsinore, introduced a measure in 2014 to give legislative staff members the same whistleblower protections that other state government employees receive. It passed the Assembly but failed repeatedly in a Senate committee, including when de Leon was leading it.

"I told them I was going to bring it up every year until they pass it," Melendez said.

In response to questions about why the bill died, de Leon's office pointed to an analysis by the committee. It notes legislative staff are hired on an "at will" basis and not unionized like other government workers, which could make it harder to apply the protections.

Senate and Assembly policies on sexual harassment ban retaliation but several employees have taken claims to court alleging they were fired for reporting inappropriate behavior.

In the Assembly, a rules subcommittee that focuses on harassment, discrimination and retaliation prevention will review the chamber's policies when it reconvenes in January. Carrie Cornwell, the chief of staff for Speaker Anthony Rendon, met with lawmakers' chiefs of staff on Friday to highlight their responsibility to report violations of the chamber's policies.


   This story has been corrected to properly identify who led the meeting with Assembly chiefs of staff. It was Carrie Cornwell, not Speaker Anthony Rendon.