Open Reporting: Inside the Capitol
This post is part of our Open Reporting at CALmatters, in which we share progress on stories as we’re developing them, while also inviting you to share thoughts and comments to help inform our research. Our goal: more transparent and effective journalism. We welcome your feedback.
Four current lawmakers, two former lawmakers and a dozen legislative employees are named in a trove of records the California Legislature released today showing substantiated cases of sexual harassment over the last decade.
The records show that the Capitol’s human resources staff affirmed complaints against state Sens. Bob Hertzberg and Tony Mendoza, both Democrats from the Los Angeles area, as well as Assembly members Travis Allen, a Republican from Huntington Beach who is running for governor, and Autumn Burke, a Democrat from Marina Del Rey.
Substantiated complaints against former Sen. Rod Wright and former Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, both Democrats from Los Angeles, were also included in the records. So, too, were settlement payouts that followed sexual harassment allegations against a third former lawmaker, Democratic Assemblyman Steve Fox from Palmdale.
The elected officials engaged in a range of behavior, the documents say, including tight hugs, raunchy office banter and flirtatious text messages that made employees feel uncomfortable. The legislative staff members are described as harassing others by hugging and groping, showing porn on their government computers, talking about sex, calling them vulgar names and in one case, asking an employee to wear sheer pantyhose.
In several cases employees were fired after the complaints were investigated. In other cases they were temporarily suspended from work or issued a warning letter. The discipline of elected lawmakers, however, was different: typically a talking-to by legislative administrators.
Victims advocates were quick to point out that the records hardly paint a complete picture of the longstanding problem of sexual harassment in the state Capitol. Many people may never file an official complaint in the first place, and the records released were restricted to those concerning elected lawmakers and high-level staff. Complaints against employees who are not supervisors were not included, nor were complaints that were filed but not substantiated. The records do not include cases currently being investigated: six in the Senate and eight in the Assembly.
Still, the release of roughly 100 pages of internal records marked a highly unusual break from the Legislature’s long tradition of shielding such information. It came following intense pressure from the press amid a global movement by women who are fed up with sexual harassment and assault.
Just yesterday, members of the Democratic State Central Committee sent a letter to legislative leaders demanding the records be released. “Time is up,” the letter said. “Your hesitation has delayed justice for survivors, kept predators hidden, and forced us to engage in a process that may result in (the party’s) endorsement of compromised legislators.”
“With the release of these documents, the Senate and Assembly are united in declaring sexual harassment in the Capitol will not be tolerated and will be met with severe consequences,” Democratic Senate leader Kevin de León said in a statement.
Allen blasted the records release as a “political attack by a Democrat led committee,” but some of his opponents in the governor’s race called it differently. Delaine Eastin, the only major female gubernatorial candidate, tweeted “Travis Allen is now a known predator and should drop out.”
Women leading the charge against sexual harassment in the Capitol had mixed reactions. We Said Enough—a group of lobbyists and political professionals that formed after nearly 150 women signed a letter in the fall complaining of rampant sexual harassment in California politics—said the records release “falls dramatically short of a comprehensive or transparent release of information.”
“The selective release of data related only to certain individuals serves only to further erode the trust that so many victims and survivors hoped to rebuild,” the group said in a statement.
The lawmakers who lead the Legislature’s women’s caucus gave it a warmer reception.
“With this information comes the ability to act and uphold the zero tolerance policies of both the Senate and Assembly that have not always been followed,” said the statement from the caucus leaders, Democrats Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia of Bell Gardens and Senator Connie Leyva of Chino. “More importantly, transparency will foster an environment that enables the culture change we must have in our Capitol community where harassment of any kind is not tolerated or excused for any reason. This release is an important necessary next step so that we can create a workplace and society where everyone is valued and respected equally without fear of abuse or retaliation.”
The records show this about the conduct of elected officials:
Although he is now a state senator, the 2010 complaint stems from Mendoza’s time as an assemblyman. The records describe him hugging a subordinate, sending her flirtatious text messages and inviting her out for dinner and drinks. The Assembly administrator at the time told him not to be so cozy with his staff.
Mendoza is currently on a leave of absence while the Senate investigates other harassment accusations against him, including more recent allegations that he invited a young staffer to his house late at night. The senator has denied any wrongdoing. He released a statement Friday saying the staff member who complained about him when he was an assemblyman “remained on staff without any issues in my Capitol office until the end of my term in 2012. We have remained in touch since and, in fact, I provided her with a letter of recommendation as recently as summer 2017.”
The records say that while discussing paint colors in his office in 2015, Hertzberg pulled an employee close to him and “began to dance and sing a song to her.” Hertzberg—long known as “Hugsberg”—is currently under investigation by the Senate for other instances of unwelcome hugging. In response to the information released Friday, he said it was “a settled matter from several years ago, (involving) a single occurrence with a family member of someone I knew, and I’m sorry to her and anyone else who may have ever felt my hugs unwelcome.”
The records describe three incidents when a female staffer complained about the assemblyman, including for giving her shoulders a squeeze and sliding his foot close to hers under a table. “I’m sure I’ve shaken many people’s hands, tapped many people on the shoulder, and have even tapped people’s feet accidentally. But there has never been anything in any of my actions that has been inappropriate, and nor will there ever be,” Allen said in a statement.
The records say Assemblywoman Burke admitted participating in an inappropriate conversation with a staffer about sex. She responded Friday with a statement saying it was “an after-hours conversation in which my staff member shared a personal story about his experiences as a young gay man with me and a group of co-workers.” She went on to say that the complaint about the conversation came from a “disgruntled former staff member who participated in the conversation” and was angry over being fired.
The complaints about two former lawmakers concern incidents that have been reported in the past:
The 2009 complaint stems from Bocanegra’s time as a chief of staff to an assemblyman, though he went on to be elected to the Legislature in 2012. The records describe an incident previously reported by the Los Angeles Times, in which investigators determined that Bocanegra groped a staffer while they were at a political function at a nightclub. He was suspended from work for three days, the records say, and told to no longer talk to that staff member.
Bocanegra resigned from office in November after more women came forward with allegations that he had groped and harassed them, accusations he denies.
The 2011 complaint against Wright says he used “coarse and vulgar” language when talking with employees, an allegation he did not deny, the records state. The records say his conduct did not meet the legal definition of harassment but that it “contradicts the important policies and practices of this House.” The Senate paid a $120,000 settlement to an employee who complained about Wright’s behavior.
Wright left office in 2014 facing criminal charges that he had lied about his address while running for office to represent the Inglewood area while he actually lived in the swankier area of Baldwin Hills.
The records about Fox, who served one term as an assemblyman from 2012 to 2014, are different from the rest. They are legal settlements in which the Assembly agreed to pay two staffers who sued him for harassment, but did not admit he did anything wrong. The Assembly paid out $100,000 in one case and $125,000 in the other.
You can see the records here:
- Redacted complaints released by the Assembly
- Settlement records released by the Assembly
- Redacted complaints and settlements released by the Senate
Ben Christopher of CALmatters contributed to this report.
A huge twist emerged this week in the Capitol’s months-long reckoning over sexual harassment: A female lawmaker who helped spark the movement to end misconduct is taking a leave of absence while she herself is being investigated for sexual harassment.
An explosive report in Politico quoted a former legislative aide who accused Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia of groping him during a softball game in 2014. It also included an anecdote from an unnamed lobbyist who described an inebriated Garcia making a sexual pass at him. Then came a follow-up story by Capital Public Radio reporting that Daniel Fierro, the former staffer who accused Garcia of groping, has ties to two male legislators Garcia has publicly lambasted for their alleged treatment of women.
Garcia, a Democrat from Bell Gardens, is the chair of the Legislature’s women’s caucus and has participated in the #MeToo movement by speaking out against a culture of sexual harassment in the male-dominated state Capitol. She denies the allegations against her but said she’s taking a voluntary unpaid leave “so as not to serve as a distraction or in any way influence the process of this investigation.”
Things are getting messy. And all that happened after I wrote this story about lawmakers struggling to figure out how to respond to the harassment allegations that are now sweeping the Capitol.
Meanwhile, I’ve been reviewing the documents the Legislature released last week about substantiated cases of sexual harassment from 2006 to 2017 by lawmakers and high-level staff. A few questions the records raised:
Disparate discipline (and record-keeping):
There is a confusing disparity in how employees were disciplined for sexual harassment. The records indicate that in 2009, one Assembly staffer was fired for talking about sex, while another lost three days of pay for groping a fellow employee—behavior the victim later described as aggressively reaching inside her blouse.
(The staffer the records indicate groped, Raul Bocanegra, went on to become an Assemblyman. He resigned last year after the incident, and other harassment allegations, became public.)
“There needs to be some transparency about what the degrees of harassment are and what the potential punishments are, recognizing that cases are different,” said Julie Snyder, a Sacramento lobbyist who was struck by the disparity when she reviewed the records.
A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said that the portions of the records that were publicly released don’t tell the full story of why certain people were fired. (Many of the pages were heavily redacted.)
“In some cases there were other things they did that factored into the broader reason for why they were terminated,” said Kevin Liao. “To just say the discipline varied because of sexual harassment is an incomplete telling of the picture.”
The logged complaints themselves lack uniformity. Though most were typed up on letterhead or disciplinary forms, one was written by hand on notebook paper. The notes were so difficult to make sense of that the Senate released them with a summary typed up the day the records went public.
“The integrity and timeliness of HR records is critical, and the fact that some records were written today and others were handwritten proves the point that the Legislature’s HR practices are problematic,” said a statement from Sen. Bob Hertzberg, the subject of the handwritten complaint that said he made an employee uncomfortable by pulling her close to him and dancing.
Who investigates complaints?
A consistent demand from victims and their advocates has been that investigations should be conducted by a neutral party—not by the Legislature’s administrators, who answer to politicians. The Senate responded late last year by hiring an outside law firm to investigate complaints.
But that makes the Senate the law firm’s client, so any information the investigation yields will be turned over to the Senate’s political leaders. It will be up to them whether to release the information.
This has frustrated Hertzberg, a Los Angeles Democrat who is cooperating with the law firm’s investigation. Former Assemblywoman Linda Halderman, a Fresno Republican, has accused him of repeatedly hugging her in an aggressive and unprofessional way. Hertzberg—who long-ago earned the nickname Hugsberg—has publicly apologized, and told the Sacramento Bee that his intentions “have only been to foster a warm, human connection.”
Halderman said she was disappointed to learn that the Senate lawyers’ investigation of her complaint will not automatically be shared with her.
“No access will be given to me, whether it’s the part of the report that involves me or the report at large,” Halderman said. “If (Senate leaders) choose for whatever reason to push this aside, I’ve done all this for nothing.”
That concern leads to another unresolved issue:
How much will the public learn about confirmed perpetrators?
Back in 1975 the Legislature passed the ironically named Legislative Open Records Act , a law that says it doesn’t have to release any records about its investigations. And when reporters asked this fall for documents about harassment investigations, the Legislature refused to provide them. But after mounting pressure from the press, legislative leaders eventually changed course and released a limited set of records.
The Legislature’s administrators made clear, however, that in releasing the documents, they were not giving up their legal right to keep such information secret in the future.
“Please note we are not generally waiving applicable privileges and statutory exemptions with regard to Legislative Open Records Act requests,” top administrators wrote in letters attached to the documents.
Some of the records being provided don’t have to be disclosed under the law, their letters went on, “but are being provided nonetheless to facilitate open discourse concerning sexual harassment in the workplace.”
Two key lawmakers—Sen. Toni Atkins, the incoming Senate leader, and Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, a Glendale Democrat who is leading a panel charged with crafting a new sexual harassment policy—both told me they want the Legislature to continue releasing investigations that name the people whose harassing behavior has been confirmed.
“We need objective criteria that everyone understands, and that would include perhaps the process of releasing these things to the press,” Friedman said, adding that it’s an issue her committee will tackle.
This post was updated at 4:01 p.m. to include a comment from Kevin Liao, spokesman for the Assembly Speaker’s Office.
Both leaders of California’s Legislature have agreed to release records about certain investigations of sexual harassment in the state Capitol.
“The Senate and the Assembly will release documents related to sexual harassment claims that have been substantiated against a high-level legislative employee or legislator for which discipline has been imposed or allegations have been determined to be well-founded,” Senate leader Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said in a joint statement released Friday.
“The documents to be released will be the claim filed and the letter provided to the accuser or the accused wrapping up the investigation and providing information about the final outcome of the investigation. All documents will redact the personally-identifying information of the accuser and any witnesses for privacy reasons.”
De León has instructed his staff to release the records within the next two weeks, his chief of staff said. Rendon’s office gave a less precise timeline, saying they are working to compile the information and will release it in the coming weeks.
The announcement comes as a wave of sexual misconduct allegations roils the statehouse, leading two assemblymen to resign and a state senator to take a leave of absence. Since October, when nearly 150 women signed an open letter complaining that California politics is rife with a pervasive culture of harassment, reporters have been requesting documents held by the Legislature about its investigations into workplace complaints.
The Legislature initially refused to release such information, arguing that the law does not require disclosing it. But the law does not forbid the Legislature from releasing the records, a case I made in letters to legislative leaders in November. Transparency about substantiated cases of abuse, I wrote, is in the public interest.
Taking a different tone from his counterpart in the state Senate, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon on Wednesday would not yet commit to releasing information reporters requested about sexual harassment investigations held by his house.
“We are formulating a response to your letter,” Rendon said when I asked him during a meeting with reporters if he would release records I and other reporters had requested about harassment investigations.
“Our attorneys are trying to figure out how we make sure there is proper transparency. And also that we are abiding by our HR protections,” Rendon said, adding that the issue will be examined by a newly formed committee of senators and assembly members looking at the Capitol’s response to sexual harassment complaints.
On Nov. 27, I sent letters to Rendon and Senate leader Kevin de León, both Democrats from Los Angeles, requesting records on a narrow set of harassment complaints: those that had been investigated and determined to be substantiated.
The public has access to similar information from other government agencies such as city councils under the California Public Records Act. But the Legislature exempted itself from that law, instead writing its own open records act that does not require it to release investigations.
The discrepancy is under new scrutiny as allegations of sexual harassment rock the California Capitol. Two legislators—Assemblymen Raul Bocanegra and Matt Dababneh—resigned at the end of 2017 following accusations that they had harassed or assaulted women. A third legislator, Sen. Tony Mendoza, announced Wednesday he is taking a leave of absence while harassment allegations against him are investigated. The legislators have disputed the allegations.
All of that comes after nearly 150 women signed onto a letter in October complaining of what they called the Capitol’s pervasive culture of sexual harassment.
On Dec. 14, Senate leader de León said he would “break away with the tradition in this institution” and release information reporters had requested on the Legislature’s investigations of sexual harassment complaints. He pledged to release the records within 30 days.