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CALmatters' Capitol columnist Laurel Rosenhall

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.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon

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.

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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.

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On a leave of absence from the Legislature since she was accused of sexual harassment in February—and facing intensifying attacks in her re-election campaign—Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia jumped back into the fray today, sending out a press release saying she’d been “exonerated.”

Not quite.

Though an investigation did not substantiate the most serious allegations against her, it found that Garcia, a Bell Gardens Democrat, violated the Assembly’s sexual harassment policy by “commonly and pervasively” using vulgar language in talking to her staff. It also found that she had employees perform personal tasks and disparaged elected officials. (Garcia admitted recently that she had called former Speaker John Perez, who is openly gay, a “homo.”)

Speaker Anthony Rendon quickly moved to diminish Garcia’s clout, removing her from all committee memberships. Rendon also is requiring Garcia to attend “sensitivity training” and sessions to learn more about the Assembly’s policy on harassment and violence prevention.

“Our members have the responsibility to treat constituents, staff, colleagues and the entire Capitol community with respect and dignity. Disappointingly, that has not always been the case with Assemblymember Garcia,” Rendon said in a statement.

Garcia’s press release included an apology “for instances where my use of language was less than professional.”

“I want to assure everyone that I have learned from this experience and will do everything in my power to make amends for my past. Nothing is more important to me than protecting the health and safety of the people I represent. I know that I can only effectively serve my constituents if staff and my colleagues feel comfortable and respected on the job. That is the climate I pledge to build and sustain,” Garcia’s statement said.

The investigation did not substantiate complaints that Garcia drank heavily on the job, played spin-the-bottle with employees and squeezed a staff member by the butt. But it’s unclear how thorough the investigation was. It was completed without interviewing four former employees who accused Garcia of misconduct, according to a letter from the Assembly’s chief administrative officer to Dan Gilleon, the accusers’ lawyer. The letter says Gilleon advised his clients not to participate, an assertion he challenged.

“My clients were, and are, willing to cooperate as long as the Assembly is willing to take the most basic and simple steps to ensure the investigation is fair and no retaliation is permitted,” Gilleon wrote in an email to the Assembly that he shared with CALmatters.

The Sacramento Bee reported that Daniel Fierro, who accused Garcia of groping him at a softball game, gave the Assembly names of witnesses who were never interviewed. He told the Bee that he is planning to appeal the Assembly’s findings.

All of which means this story probably isn’t over yet.

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The state Senate has released results of an investigation finding that Adam Keigwin, the former chief of staff to Sen. Leland Yee, likely engaged in sexually inappropriate conduct with a female employee when they both worked for the Senate, including unwanted touching and exposing himself. Keigwin, now a lobbyist, said in a statement that the allegations are “absolutely untrue.” Read further coverage in  the Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times.

This is the latest in a series of harassment investigations that have been made public by the Legislature in the wake of the #MeToo movement that has exposed sexual misconduct in many workplaces. I’m keeping track of the cases coming out of the California Capitol with this spreadsheet, which we created when the Legislature released a first batch of records on Feb. 2. You can scroll to the far-right column to seek a link to the source documents for each case.

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