Democratic Assemblywoman Cleared of Harassment is Still Not Out of the Woods

Cristina GarciaThe “Me Too” anti-sexual harassment campaign that quickly yielded several resignations by state lawmakers last fall appears to have hit a lull in Sacramento with Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, now seemingly on track for re-election this November despite scandalous allegations. But new twists may loom.

Garcia, 40, appeared doomed to a primary defeat two months ago. She took a voluntary leave of absence after she was accused of groping a then-legislative staffer four years ago; making inappropriate comments to a lobbyist; playing “spin the bottle” with staffers; and of using racist and homophobic language. The perception that she was a weakened candidate led the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California – which supported her in 2014 and 2016 – to oppose her primary bid.

But between a preliminary probe finding no evidence for the most serious allegation against Garcia – that she groped a staffer – and the strong support of Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, Garcia finished first in her June 5 primary. She got 29 percent of the votes to 27 percent for Republican activist Mike Simpfenderfer, a mortgage banker. The other five candidates in the race, all Democrats, split the remaining 44 percent of the vote.

Last week, however, saw two developments that suggested Garcia wasn’t out of the woods yet. The first came when the Assembly agreed to consider an appeal of its finding clearing Garcia of groping former legislative aide Daniel Fierro, who now works as a Los Angeles County political consultant. Fierro sought the appeal last month amid grumbling that the initial investigation of Garcia was released even though it was incomplete.

This concern may have been a factor in the second development: the call from two Democratic lawmakers for a much more transparent and responsive approach to allegations of misconduct involving state lawmakers and staffers.

Anti-gay, anti-Asian remarks could haunt Garcia

State Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, and Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, said existing efforts to respond to sexual harassment don’t go nearly far enough to take on a “toxic” culture in the Capitol. They proposeestablishing a new investigative unit that would focus only on discrimination and harassment complaints; would handle probes for both the Assembly and the Senate; and would rely on an independent committee of experts to recommend punishment for those found guilty of wrongdoing. Legislators, however, still would have the final say on what if any penalties were assessed.

But the Mitchell-Friedman proposal targets not just the behavior that Garcia has so far been cleared of but behavior of the sort the Assembly probe found she had engaged in: using homophobic slurs to describe fellow Los Angeles County Democrat John Perez, the Assembly’s first openly gay speaker, and of threatening violence against Asian-Americans after some Asian-American lawmakers balked at affirmative-action proposals that they thought would help some minority groups but not their own.

“The proposed policy … aims to spur a shift in how people in the Capitol community speak and act toward each other,” the Associated Press reported. “It encourages people to report minor incidents such as insensitive comments all the way through more aggressive acts of misconduct.”

Rendon’s decision to defend Garcia while still appearing strongly sympathetic to the Me Too movement has been complicated by comments that suggest he thinks Garcia’s larger record of legislative priorities and accomplishments should matter in judging her behavior. Similar suggestions made in defense of former President Bill Clinton and now-former Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, triggered a furious backlash.

Rendon entered this territory in April when he denounced the building trades unions for seeking to replace Garcia with other Democrats whom Rendon said would be more willing to challenge aggressive environmental policies touted by Gov. Jerry Brown and all the party’s legislative leaders. A spokesperson for the unions said their opposition to Garcia was prompted not by her strong environmentalism but by sympathy for her alleged victim and a belief another candidate would better reflect the values of the 58th Assembly District.

But Rendon rejected the claims in a blistering statement posted by the Sacramento Bee in which he called the unions’ maneuvering “a thinly veiled attempt by Big Oil and polluters to intimidate me and my members,” “ an affront to my speakership” and an “ill-advised political attack.”

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Five more sexual misconduct cases released by California Legislature

The California Legislature on Thursday released a limited set of sexual misconduct records for five investigations before 2006 in which a lawmaker or high-level employee was found to have harassed a legislative staff member.

The heavily redacted documents contained complaints, investigative results and monetary settlements. They included a $117,000 settlement, reported by The Bee in 2001, for an aide to former Sen. Richard Polanco who accused him of retaliation after she rejected his sexual advances.

In response to requests from The Bee and other media outlets, the Senate and Assembly in February divulged a decade of investigations that substantiated sexual harassment complaints against lawmakers and senior staffers. More records were released Thursday after a follow-up request for similar material before 2006.

The documents are not a comprehensive account of sexual misconduct cases at the Capitol in previous decades. The Bee reported on at least three other six-figure settlements in the 1990s and early 2000s involving alleged harassment by members of the Assembly. …

Click here to read the full article from the Sacramento Bee

Senate fellow harassment shows how bad Sacramento culture was

One of the most dramatic moments in the far-reaching fallout from last fall’s revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s appalling history of sexual misconduct came on Oct. 16 with the release of a letter signed by more than 140 women who worked or had worked in Sacramento. The letter condemned a state Capitol in which men “leveraged their power and positions” to create a culture in which sexual harassment was taken for granted — all but a routine part of the job.

One claim that really illustrated the scope of the problem was the case of a 23-year-old aspiring legislative staffer who worked last year for then-state Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, as part of the California Senate Fellows program, which is run in partnership with Sacramento State University. The woman told David Pacheco, director of the fellows program since 2005, that Mendoza had invited her to his home on at least two occasions to “review résumés” and had invited her to come to his hotel room. But the Sacramento Bee reported in November that instead of Pacheco notifying officials at Sacramento State of this awful conduct — as required by university policy — he advised the fellow not to take immediate action to leave the office and noted that she may yet get a job with Mendoza.

This is stomach-turning. Instead of acting decisively to protect a young woman in his charge, Pacheco’s first instinct was not just to look away from gross behavior by Mendoza toward the woman but to see a situation where she went to work for the lawmaker as something positive. …

Click here to read the full article from the San Diego Union-Tribune

Democratic Assemblywoman leading #MeToo movement at California Capitol accused of sexual misconduct

An outspoken California lawmaker who has been at the forefront of the Capitol’s anti-sexual harassment movement is herself reportedly under investigation for groping a legislative staff member.

Politico reported Thursday that Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, cornered the employee at a legislative softball game in 2014, began stroking his back, squeezed his butt and attempted to grab his crotch before he extricated himself. The staffer, Daniel Fierro, who no longer works for the Assembly, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Fierro told Politico that Garcia appeared so drunk that night he would not be surprised if she did not remember groping him. He said he told two coworkers at the time, but he did not officially report the incident until last month, when he mentioned it to his former boss, Assemblyman Ian Calderon, who referred the matter for investigation. A representative for Calderon, D-Whittier, was not immediately available.

In a statement, Garcia confirmed that she attended the 2014 softball game, but said the details of the complaint had not previously been brought to her attention. …

Click here to read the full story from the Sacramento Bee

Blowing the whistle on sexual harassers may get easier for Capitol workers

Before sexual harassment allegations rattled the Capitol, legislation by Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, to extend whistleblower protections to workers in the statehouse died in the Senate four years in a row.

Now an amended version of the Legislative Employee Whistleblower Protection Act – with an urgency clause and more than half of the Legislature added on as co-authors – is back in the Senate and expected to come up for a floor vote Thursday.

Assembly Bill 403 makes it illegal to retaliate against a legislative worker who blows the whistle on a lawmaker or another employee with “a good faith allegation” for any action that may violate state law or a legislative code of conduct. The Senate currently operates with a code of conduct, while the Assembly does not.

Anyone who retaliates against a legislative employee faces up to a $10,000 fine and one year in jail, as well as civil liability, under the bill. …

Click here to read the full article from the Sacramento Bee

Sexual Misconduct ‘Secret Settlements’ Will Roil California, D.C. in 2018

CapitolNo doubt there are many on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, and in state capitals across the nation that are somehow hoping that the distraction of Christmas and New Year’s Day will somehow change the channel on the intense scrutiny of sexual harassment (or worse) committed by politicians of both political parties.

That’s not going to happen. In fact, I predict that the high profile that this issue has taken over the past few months is just a harbinger of things to come as the holidays come to a close.

We have seen members of the U.S. Senate and House resign, or announce retirements.  We have seen state legislators do the same. Here in California we have seen resignations from Assemblymembers Matt Debabneh (D-Los Angeles) and Raul Bocanegra (D-Arleta) already.  The resignation of the former has placed a lot of negative scrutiny on U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), for whom Debabneh served as district director.  A third Assemblymember, Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), just this week announced his sudden resignation, citing health reasons — after his name had been whispered as someone else who might end up in the spotlight on this issue.  California State Senator Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia) is considered by many to be politically a dead man walking as multiple credible accusers have made serious allegations about him – and he has been suspended from all of his committee assignments as a formal investigation takes place. Another Senator, former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Reseda), is also the subject of an investigation as well.

The reason the issue is a powder keg that has not really blown up yet is the secret-taxpayer funded settlements.  In the U.S. Senate and iHouse, it has been revealed that millions of dollars have been spent settling sexual harassment issues coming straight out of the offices of federal legislators.  In some cases, these secret settlements have taken place using money from individual office budgets; in other cases, payments have been made from funds controlled by the institutions (so presumably, ultimately, leadership).

Similarly, in the California legislature we have learned that significant sums of taxpayer money have been spent on sexual harassment claims made against elected.

No one that I have spoken to regarding secret settlements – and I have spoken with many – thinks that this is okay. In fact, most get downright angry when they hear about it.  For two reasons, mainly.

The first: if money is being paid out to someone who filed a claim there is a presumption that the claim was meritorious, and that the public has a right to know when one of their elected officials has been found to be conducting themselves inappropriately, or worse.

The second: these are public dollars and the public has the right to know where their dollars are being spent.

Adding to the considerable cost of these secret settlements themselves is now the fallout from resignations – i.e. special elections, and their significant cost to taxpayers.

It seems that there are two main groups of politicians who are interested in slow-walking or ideally never revealing the truth behind secret settlements.

Of course there are the sleazy politicians who know that if and when the news breaks that they had sexual harassment allegations so credible against them that victims had to be paid off – well, as we have seen, these have been extinction moments for most.

But then there are the enablers: those that have not actually committed and untoward or sleazy actions themselves, but they are covering up for those who have done so.  That means those who are in a position to open the books – to provide transparency.  Presumably this is leadership in Washington and in Sacramento – both elected leaders, as well as those legislators heading up key administrative committees with oversight over such matters.

Frankly, every federal and state legislator should be putting out a statement calling for transparency and for making the secret settlements public – as well as stating on the record that they have not had any issues themselves. That would create significant peer pressure.

There are efforts both in the national and state capitols to shine the light on settlements.  In D.C. a legislative effort is being spearheaded by Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL). In Sacramento, the Senate Republican Leader, Pat Bates (R-Laguna Niguel), has called for more transparency.

Legislators that are not affirmatively trying to open up the books, and shine the light on secret settlements, are in fact part of the problem.

The war drums on this issue are only getting louder and louder – and the new year will bring a new national drive for transparency and accountability.

This entire episode has emerged as a painful stain on our political system (and as an ugly cultural black eye, as stories continue to emerge across the country outside of politics).

But this is not without a considerable upside.  Change needs to happen.  It’s not all right for people with power to engage in sexual misconduct – period. It’s not appropriate, nor humorous, in any context.

Jon Fleischman is the Politics Editor for Breitbart California. His columns appear on this page.  You can follow him on Twitter here.

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Fear and yelling in L.A. congressman’s office led to silence on harassment

Los Angeles-area Congressman Brad Sherman says none of his staff ever complained about longtime aide and California Assemblyman Matt Dababneh, who’s been accused of sexual harassment while working in the congressman’s district office.

Eight former aides said the environment in Sherman’s D.C. and California offices was so toxic, it was laughable to think junior staff would have felt comfortable raising concerns about harassment – or anything else.

“Congressman Sherman showed zero interest in the personal well-being of his staffers and there’s no reason to believe he would have cared or taken any action if a complaint was made,” said one former staffer.

Dababneh, who is resigning from the Assembly in the wake of several allegations against him, including sexual assault, was known to be one of Sherman’s closest and most trusted employees. While no one suggested the 11-term congressman was aware of Dababneh’s alleged conduct, three former staffers doubted he would have responded well to criticism of his onetime district director. …

Click here to read the full article from the Sacramento Bee

Democratic Assemblyman Matt Dababneh to resign following sexual misconduct allegations

Assemblyman Matt Dababneh said Friday he is resigning from office at the end of the month, a decision that comes four days after he was publicly accused of masturbating in front of a lobbyist and other inappropriate behavior.

In a resignation letter, Dababneh said the allegations against him are untrue and said he expected a legislative investigation would “bring to light and into focus the significant and persuasive evidence of my innocence.”

“As we battle for change, we must remember that due process exists for a reason,” he wrote. “We should never fight injustice with injustice.”

Dababneh, a Democrat from Woodland Hills, told The Times that his resignation should not be construed as a tacit admission of wrongdoing. …

Click here to read the full article from the L.A. Times

Two Women Accuse Democratic Assemblyman Matt Dababneh of Sexual Harassment

Two women went public Monday with sexual harassment allegations against Democratic Assemblyman Matt Dababneh, with one accusing him of forcing her into a bathroom during a party last year and masturbating in front of her.

Dababneh, 36, strongly denied the allegations.

“I affirmatively deny that this event ever happened — at any time,” he said. “I am saddened by this lobbyist’s effort to create this falsehood and make these inflammatory statements, apparently for her own self-promotion and without regard to the reputation of others. I look forward to clearing my name.”

Pamela Lopez, a lobbyist, filed a complaint with the Assembly Rules Committee detailing her accusation, which she said occurred during a January 2016 party in Las Vegas attended by a variety of “political professionals.”

After filing her complaint, Lopez held a news conference Monday in Sacramento alongside another woman, Jessica Yas Barker, who worked under Dababneh when he was a district chief of staff for Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, in 2009-10. Barker said Dababneh was known for his sexually charged comments in the office and inappropriate conduct. …

Click here to read the full article by NBC Los Angeles

California Lawmakers Have Enabled Culture Of Sexual Harassment

CapitolThe issue of sexual harassment has jumped to the forefront of public discourse in a relatively short period of time, with revelations about alleged sexual misconduct ranging from the inappropriate to the illegal.

The accusations have flown from the studios of Hollywood to the halls of Congress, from film executive Harvey Weinstein to longtime television news personality Charlie Rose; from National Public Radio news chief Michael Oreskes to Senator Al Franken (D-MN); from Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) to Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore.

With each passing day, more stories are coming out, and the California State Capitol, while a relative side-show compared to some of the more newsworthy persons dominating national politics, has been turned on its head.

In mid-October, a bipartisan group of more than 140 women – lawmakers, lobbyists and consultants – signed a letter calling attention to pervasive sexual harassment in California politics. Since that time, two California state legislators – Senator Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia) and Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima) — have been embroiled in scandal, with multiple women coming forward making scathing accusations about each.

In the case of the former, Mendoza has denied allegations. Senate President Kevin DeLeon (D-Los Angeles) recently suspended Mendoza’s chairmanship of the powerful State Senate Banking Committee, pending further investigation. With regards to Bocanegra, he has admitted wrongdoing. Facing increasing scrutiny, he has announced that he will be resigning from the legislature – albeit on an arbitrary date he picked in September of next year. Assembly Speaker Rendon (D-South Gate) has removed him from his leadership position, and his committee assignments.

I won’t take the time in this column to detail the specific allegations against both, but suffice it to say they paint an alarming picture of a culture in the State Capitol that has been permissive of such bad behavior, or worse. One can assume that this will only snowball in the coming weeks and months, as more revelations occur. (For example, DeLeon, it has been revealed, was roommates in Sacramento with Mendoza, moving out just days ago – which is significant in that accusations against Mendoza include inappropriate activities taking place in his residence).

The California legislature, however, has taken steps to make sure that the permissive culture of sexual harassment would thrive – embracing the idea that that legislators not only make the law, but are above the law.

For decades, the only way that someone who was harassed or abused could bring it to anyone’s attention would have been to go to legislative leadership – never mind the obvious conflict of interest there. What legislative remedies have been pursued by some have been bottled up in committees. A great example is legislation pursued for years in a row by Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez (R-Temecula) to protect whistleblowers who report unethical or inappropriate behavior. It has never made it to the Governor’s desk.  It should come as no surprise that laws were passed giving all other state government employees whistleblower protection, but the legislature was exempt.

Speaking of exemptions, the Los Angeles Times put in a request for details on any formal investigations of allegations of sexual abuse on the legislature. It received a brief summary indicating that in the last decade there have been 31 such investigations — 15 in the State Senate and 16 in the State Assembly – but the legislature has refused to provide any more detail, and is not obliged to provide any more detail.  That is because the California legislature exempted itself from the Public Records Act, which applies to the rest of state government.

There are some actions that the governor and legislature can take to try to regain some credibility here, and try to end Sacramento’s toxic culture. And while Democrats in the Capitol control all of the levers of state government – and are the only ones that can create laws in a partisan fashion – Republicans have the bully pulpit and can publicly call for Governor Jerry Brown to call a special legislative session to deal with this issue immediately.  In the special session, the legislature should send several bills to Brown for his signature, including:

  • A bill to establish that a law enforcement agency (perhaps the California Highway Patrol) has jurisdiction over investigations of allegations of sexual harassment in the Capitol. The idea is to put someone in charge of such investigations who is not beholden to legislators.
  • The Melendez whistleblower protection bill that has been shoved into a legislative drawer for years.
  • A bill to make sure that the legislature is subject to the California Public Records Act, like every other part of state government.

Finally, there should be a formal investigation into DeLeon’s friendship with his now-former roommate, Senator Mendoza. Perhaps DeLeon’s position should even be suspended pending the outcome.

The idea that DeLeon, as Chairman of the Rules Committee (made up of Democrats and Republicans who are his hand-picked choices), is going to clean up the Senate’s act lacks credulity.

Jon Fleischman is the Politics Editor for Breitbart California.  His columns appear on this page. You can follow him on Twitter here.

This article was originally published by Breitbart California

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