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.
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.
State Sen. John Moorlach put a woman in a headlock and gave her a “noogie” while they were posing for a photo at a reception—something he said he does frequently in good fun, according to investigative records released Friday by the state Senate.
“While your behavior… does not appear to be sexual in nature, it is still considered ‘unwanted behavior’ and as such is inappropriate and a violation of our policy,” Senate leaders wrote in a letter to Moorlach, a Republican from Costa Mesa.
The letter says Moorlach had previously been counseled for inappropriate touching because he poked an employee in the stomach. It instructs him to “stop giving ‘noogies’ or touching anyone in ‘fun,’ regardless of whether you believe the ‘noogies’ or touching are wanted or welcomed by the recipient.”
Moorlach responded with a statement saying he was “guilty of occasional playfulness” and vowing to stop “this innocent and gregarious behavior.”
Moorlach becomes the latest entry on our running tally of misconduct reports the Legislature has released in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Scroll to the right for a link to the redacted documents released by the Senate.
The most explosive allegation to come out of the #MeToo movement in the California Capitol—a lobbyist’s claim that then-Assemblyman Matt Dababneh pushed her into a bathroom and made her watch him masturbate—has been substantiated by an Assembly investigation. And legislative officials went even further by denying Dababneh’s request for an appeal of the findings, according to records released Monday.
Dababneh, a San Fernando Valley Democrat who resigned in December, has denied the allegation and sued lobbyist Pamela Lopez for defamation after she publicly accused him of trapping her in a bathroom, masturbating and asking her to touch him while they were both at a Las Vegas hotel in 2016 for a mutual friend’s wedding. The Assembly investigation was triggered by a formal complaint Lopez lodged after hundreds of women signed a letter last fall decrying a culture of sexual harassment in the California Capitol.
Since then, the Legislature has approved a new policy for preventing and responding to harassment, and leaders agreed to make public certain records when investigations determine that elected officials and high-level staff members engaged in misconduct.
“So far it seems like the process is working,” said Lopez on Monday. “I was sexually harassed by Dababneh, the legislature conducted an investigation and substantiated that claim, then denied his appeal.”
We are keeping track of the harassment records the Legislature is releasing with this spreadsheet; scroll to the right to see the documents.
A Republican from the Central Valley is the latest California lawmaker found to have violated the Capitol’s sexual harassment policy. An investigation found that Assemblyman Devon Mathis of Visalia made frequent sexual comments, but determined there is not enough evidence to prove more serious allegations of sexual assault.
A redacted letter released by the Assembly Rules Committee says its investigation substantiated the claim that Mathis “frequently engaged in sexual ‘locker room talk,’ including making sexual comments about fellow Assemblymembers.” Mathis released an un-redacted version of the letter, which says the investigation found another allegation was not substantiated. The letter does not describe the unsubstantiated allegation but his chief of staff, Justin Turner, said it was the same claim published in a blog post last year accusing Mathis of sexual assault.
“The locker-room conversation referenced in the letter, that took place almost four years ago, was wrong and something for which I have previously apologized and do so again,” Mathis said in a statement.
The letter says the Assembly took “appropriate remedial actions” against Mathis, which the Speaker’s Office described as sensitivity training and counseling on the Assembly’s harassment policy.
Mathis’ case is the latest harassment investigation to be made public by the California Legislature in the wake of the global #MeToo movement that began last year and exposed many cases of misconduct inside the state Capitol. It prompted lawmakers to create a new protocol for handling sexual harassment investigations—though it won’t go into effect until next year.
Pressure from the media and victims’ advocates also prompted legislative leaders to make public some records that document substantiated harassment cases—records that had long been shielded from public view. The spreadsheet below lists all cases the Legislature has made public. I created it when the Legislature began releasing records in February and am updating it as each new case is released. You can scroll to the right for links to source documents.